My own book, Before Nature: A Christian Spirituality, is about – nature. But not just nature. It’s also a narrative of my own struggle to believe. In Before Nature, I regularly refer to “the fragile faith” that I’m recommending. For me, nothing’s certain in the world of faith. I point to Martin Luther’s image of the believer as one who, while blindfolded, takes the hand of a guide, in order to cross a high and narrow bridge.
In this respect, I have lately found a soul-mate in Christian Wiman, as he gives an account of his own fragile faith in his scintillating and sometimes painfully narrated testament, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (New York: Farar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).
The struggle to believe that I narrate in Before Nature, however, is the struggle of a “once born soul” (William James). Hard pressed by what I understand to be “the eclipse of God” in our times, in my narrative I attempt to make some sense of the faith that has been handed down to me, particularly in the Church’s liturgy, which has always been a given in my life.
Wiman, in contrast, struggles to make some sense of the faith that he’s seeking to claim for the first time. In this sense, he’s a “twice born soul” (again, William James). True, raised a Baptist in rural Texas, he did have a “born again” experience as a boy. But then he left that experience behind as he became a kind of spiritual secularist (my term) for much of his adult life, one who also, along the way, developed a deep passion for poetry and who somehow discovered that he had a calling to be a poet.
My Bright Abyss tells the story about how in the midst of his spiritual secularism – and his successful career as a poet and contributor to publications like The New Yorker – Wiman was led to an overwhelming encounter with the crucified and risen Christ, yet without leaving his spiritual secularism behind. I recommend this elegantly written book. It tells a spiritual story that resonates deeply in my once-born soul.
Here are some quotes from Wiman’s moving narrative, made all the more poignant by his account, along the way, of his struggle with a life-threatening illness.
“To admit that there may be some psychological need informing your return to faith does not preclude or diminish the spiritual imperative, any more than acknowledging the chemical aspects of sexual attraction lessens the mystery of enduring human love. Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason, except insofar as it preserves and protects that wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.” (7)
“I can see how deeply God’s absence affected my unconscious life, how under me always there was this long fall that pride and fear and self-love at once protected me from and subjected me to. Was the fall into belief or into unbelief? Both. For if grace woke me to God’s presence in the world and in my heart, it also woke me to his absence. I never truly felt the pain of unbelief until I began to believe.” (12)
“Christ speaks in stories as a way of preparing his followers to stake their lives on a story, because existence is not a puzzle to be solved, but a narrative to be inherited and undergone and transformed person by person. He uses metaphors because something essential about the nature of reality – its mercurial solidity, its mathematical mystery and sacred plainness – is disclosed within them.” (90)
“The distance between culture and Christ seems like a modern phenomenon, but I think it’s probably always been the case. Even when Christianity is the default mode of a society, Christ is not. There is always some leap into what looks like absurdity, and there is always, for the one who makes that leap, some cost.” (91)
“Modern spiritual consciousness is predicated upon the fact that God is gone, and spiritual experience, for many of us, amounts mostly to an essential, deeply felt and necessary, but ultimately inchoate and transitory feeling of oneness or unity with existence. It is mystical and valuable, but distant. Christ, though, is a shard of glass in your gut. Christ is God crying I am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God. To walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ is difficult because of how unlovely, how ‘ungodly’ that clarity often turns out to be.” (121)
“It is the absoluteness of meaninglessness that Christianity, as I understand it, inhabits and inflects, the shock and stark violence of the cross that discloses the living Christ. Revelation, like creation, arises not merely out of nothingness but by means of it.” (136)
“I believe in grace and chance, at the same time. I believe in absolute truth and absolute contingency, at the same time. And I believe that Christ is the seam soldering together these wholes that our half vision – and our entire clock-bound, logic-locked way of life – shapes as polarities.” (164)
“Sometimes it seems that I can happily hold all Christian tenets in an active abeyance, a fusion of faith and skepticism that includes and transcends literal and figurative truths, if I can hold fast to one indestructible fact (fact!?): Christ’s resurrection. This event answers every impulse, fear, and need of my imagination, quiets and clarifies the raucous onslaught of time, suffers me – the mute, destitute, unselfed seed of being that is most me – to understand what suffering is, and what it means. But no. The reality wavers, the image fades like a reflection in the water, for under every assertion about God, including the one I am making at this very minute, the ground gives way, and once again I am left with the vital and futile truth that to live in faith is to live like the Jesus lizard, quick and nimble on the water into which a moment’s pause would make it sink.” (164)
“The problem with so much thinking about Christ’s resurrection and the promise that lies therein is the self-concern that is attendant upon, and often driving, this thought: resurrection matters because we matter, our individual selves; it matters because it is for us. But Christ’s death and resurrection ought to be a means of freeing us from precisely this kind of thinking, this notion of, and regard for, the self, which is the source of so much of our suffering and unhappiness.” (167)
During my brief visit to Australia in 2015, I had occasion to walk through the Chinese Garden of Friendship in Sydney, a gift in 1988 to that city from the citizens of Guangzhou in southern China. I know very little about Chinese or Japanese gardens, but they have always fascinated me. Is it true that for the former Lush is More, while for the latter Less is More? Am I right in thinking that this distinction, if it is apt, further reveals the influence of Taoism and Zen Buddhism respectively?
Be that as it may, the Chinese garden in Sydney left me with the impression of overflowing fecundity. But it was not the kind of wild profusion that Americans might anticipate. Nature did not take over here, as, for example, it tends to do in Frank Lloyd Wright’s captivating rural Pennsylvania home, Fallingwater, nestled deeply in a forest, precariously built on a slope over a waterfalls. There Lush is Everything. On the other hand, nature in the Sydney garden was not reduced to sparseness either, as it tended to be, as I recall, in the elegant Japanese garden I once visited in Portland, Oregon. There one encountered painstakenly pruned trees and well-shaped small flowering bushes, thoughtfully dispersed here and there amidst carefully-honed lawns of gravel, defined by a few larger boulders, small ponds, and winding, assiduously raked sand paths. For that Japanese garden, truly, Less is More.
As I explored the Chinese Garden, I encountered a world of natural fecundity. Apart from the ponds and the waterfalls and the sometimes steep paths covered with large flat stones, there was nary a square inch that was not covered with plantings of various kinds and heights and colors, from tall, overarching trees to bright, miniature azaleas. Even numbers of the plentiful large granite boulders were covered with creeping, small-leaved vines, thus bringing green to the grey. Still, I also experienced a harmonious human indwelling in that world of green. I sauntered into several variegated small ceremonial buildings, where one could pause, contemplate all the natural richness from a humanly constructed perspective, seeing through windowless frames, yet also speak softly but comfortably with a companion. Human society and human perspective were thus dramatically affirmed in the midst of all that natural fecundity. I was taken by both those elements, the lushness of nature and the organic place for humans to interact with one another as they contemplated that lushness. I concluded then and there that for me Lush is More. There, Lush is neither overwhelming, nor suppressed. For me, the balance between the two was stunning. For that moment, I could be myself.
On the other hand, I also reserve the right to lose my self in a wilderness experience, as I was once beckoned to do by Fallingwater or to gain my self in an experience of natural sparseness, as I was once invited to do by the Japanese Garden in Portland. If Lush is More, as I believe it is, it is also true, for me, that Lush is Everything and that Less is More.
The text that follows comes from a sermon preached at Resurrection Lutheran Church, Roxbury, MA, January 11, 2015, The Baptism of Our Lord
This is my Bible text today, from the Gospel, Mark 1:9-11: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And this is my theme: Floods, Ferguson, and Fellowship.
When I was a teenager, growing up in Buffalo, New York, during the hottest days of summer, my friends and I would sometimes jump in someone’s car and drive over to the Niagara River to go for a swim. We’d go swimming far above the famous Niagara Falls, of course, lest we be swept along and over those falls. But even as it was lots of fun, it was also scary. Kept thinking about those Falls.
I guess that the Jordan River, in which Jesus was baptized, wasn’t nearly as scary. It was rather placid in those days. But Jesus, of course, was baptized into his death. Likewise you and me, when we go down to the river, are baptized into the death of Jesus. It’s a scary thought. But I’ll get to that in a bit.
Here I want to talk about the floods of this world. Water isn’t always your friend, is it? Ask anyone who was inside this building a several weeks ago. How many buckets of water had to be carried away, since the storms were pouring rain into this porous building, as if it were the time of Noah?
I was over at Harvard Yard last year, joining a protest to demand that the University divest itself of fossil fuel stocks, in order to address the threats of climate change. One of the speakers, an environmental scientist, pointed out that if things don’t change right away, then in the next twenty years the waters of Massachusetts Bay are going to rise so much that you’ll be able to row, row, row your boat from Boston Harbor right to the edge of Harvard Yard.
A few years ago, on a church trip to Alaska, I heard about members of a little Lutheran Church from the northerly island of Shismarif. Those Lutherans were native people. Their forebears had lived on that small island for more than a thousand years.
But that long story’s now coming to an end. Due to climate change, the ocean around Shismarif is rising to the point where it’s already beginning to flood the island. Before too long, the Lutheran Church of Shismarif will be under water. As a result, those Lutherans are going to have to move from their ancestral home in the next few years, to God-knows-where.
Now the Bible tells us something more about the floods of this world. This is suggested by our first Scripture reading today, from the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, verses 1 and 2: “…the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters….”
The word used for wind here could also be translated Spirit. Not the wind of God, in other words, but the Spirit of God swept over the waters. Christians preferred that translation right from the start.
The best meaning I can derive from all this, for us, is this: the Spirit of God’s now at work, trying to hold back at least some of the chaos on this earth, so that we humans might have some time, here and now, to do what we can do to protect the earth and all its creatures, before it’s too late.
That’s good news of a kind, if I’m right in this interpretation. The floods of this world are frightful indeed, but the Spirit of God is there working to keep the chaos in check, to give us humans some time to repent and to rededicate our lives to caring for this earth and all its creatures.
Such are the floods of this world.
Now – Ferguson. Which is still in the news, as you know.
By way of introduction, let me first tell you about the Town of Wellesley thirteen miles west of here. In another lifetime, I used to live in Wellesley. So did a member of the Boston Celtics in those days, one Dee Brown. Some of you may remember him. One night after a game at the Boston Garden, Dee Brown was driving home with his wife. Not too far from his house in Wellesley, he and his wife were pulled over by the police. After the officer, who’d pulled Dee Brown over, discovered whom he’d stopped, the officer apologized and sent Dee Brown on his way.
What was that all about? Yes, the police said they were looking for a single bank robber. But Dee Brown was driving with his wife. Did it have anything to do with the fact that Dee Brown is black?
I’ve been agonizing about Ferguson, ever since that story first broke. Not that the story is new news, but that a lot of people in the press and around the country seem to think that it’s new news. Without going into any confidential details, I can tell you that I’ve heard stories in this congregation about people who’ve been pulled over for no particular reason, except for the color of their skin.
Tell me, too, about people who’ve been shot, in inordinate numbers, here in Roxbury. Tell me about parents who’ve had to have “the talk” with their beautiful young children. Tell me about the massive incarceration of young black men even in liberal Massachusetts. Why do we keep adding names of young black men in prison to our prayer list?
Now Jesus, the one who’s been through the waters already, the one upon whom the Spirit descended, will have none of this Ferguson kind of stuff. True.
This is the Gospel picture of Jesus’ mission, after the Spirit had descended upon him, according to the Gospel of Luke, chapter four: “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee…. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read…. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’” (Luke 4:14-19)
I don’t want to sound chauvinistic here, but let me tell you this. Jesus was a good Lutheran! Or, better, Jesus was a very good Protestant, long before the times of Martin Luther. Jesus protested! Jesus protested against what was being done to the poor. Jesus protested against what was being done to those imprisoned. Jesus protested against all the oppressors of this world.
Which means, I’m perfectly sure, that Jesus, anointed by the Spirit of God, stands with the Mike Browns of this world and over against the powerful, who oppress the downtrodden and persecute those of low degree.
But I have a question. What’s an old white guy like me to do in the world of Wellesley or Ferguson or Boston? Shape up, I guess. I think about this and pray about it all the time.
So far, I’ve only been able to come up with one idea. Actually, a very small idea.
I’ve discovered that I’ve been doing at least one thing right in my almost 50 years in the ministry. It dawned on me the other day, right here in church. My God, I’ve been saying the benediction every Sunday, for almost fifty years with these two hands. Like this. Holding up these two hands to bless you. Look familiar?
So I’ve decided that every time I say the Benediction, every time I hold up these two hands, for as often as I have breath left to say it, I’m going to think these thoughts and take these thoughts to heart: black lives matter in Ferguson; black lives matter in Wellesley; black lives matter in Boston. The lives of those kidnapped Nigerian girls matter. The lives of the thousands of people in West Africa who’ve been stricken with ebola matter.
This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who was anointed by the Spirit, who came to liberate all the oppressed of this world.
Okay. Floods. Ferguson. Now, in conclusion, fellowship. This may sound like an anticlimax. I mean, the floods of this world are dramatic. The Fergusons of this world are dramatic. But fellowship?
On the contrary, I say to those of you who’re thinking that fellowship’s about as dramatic as chewing gum.
Here in this fellowship is where you and I tune into the power of the Spirit of God who hovers over the floods of this world. Here in this fellowship is where you and I tune into the Spirit of God who descended upon the Lord Jesus, in the midst of the waters. Here in this fellowship is where you and I tune into the Spirit of God, who descended upon you and me in our Baptisms. Here in this fellowship is where you and I receive the power of the Spirit anew to go out into the world: to love and to serve and to protest, as Jesus did.
When I was a college chaplain many years ago, inquiring students sometimes would ask me: do you have to believe in Jesus Christ to be saved? I’d answer: as far as I know, that’s all in God’s loving hands. So, not to worry.
But I’ll tell you this. You do have to believe in Jesus Christ to be called by the Spirit to love and to serve and to protest in his Name. You do have to believe in Jesus Christ to take up his Cross in this particular place or in any place.
What am I saying? You’ve got to be empowered. I’ve got to be empowered. Who in their right mind would choose the way of the Cross? I mean, let me curl up on my couch with some chips and watch the Celtics any day. Please Lord, not another protest! It could get me in trouble! Look what happened to Jesus! Look what happened to Dr. King!
Here’s the point. The Holy Spirit has got to empower me before any of that loving and serving and protesting stuff can happen. Likewise for you. Because here, in this fellowship, baptized friend, is where you tune into the power of the Holy Spirit, week after week.
Let me put it this way. To follow Jesus, who protested against all the powers of this world in the power of the Spirit, you’ve got to have a support group. I’ve got to have a support group.
And a support group doesn’t have to be huge. You don’t have to be part of a megachurch to be claimed every Sunday by the Spirit. In our lesson from Acts, we hear that Paul was in Ephesus. There, when he baptized some people who wanted to follow Jesus, “the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied – altogether there were about twelve of them.” (Acts 19:6-7). Twelve! Not a megachurch!
So you come here to this modest fellowship, week after week, year after year, so that you can reclaim your call to be a follower of Jesus – so you can let the Spirit go to work in your life all over again
That way, the Holy Spirit, who descended on you in your Baptism, as the Spirit descended on Jesus in his, will keep empowering you to love and to serve and to protest, so that you won’t be blown off course by all the floods of this world – so that you won’t get so discouraged that you give up.
You need the power. I need the power. And here’s where we get it.
I watched a public TV nature-program not too long ago. It was about a certain kind of tropical bird, of all things, a bird which typically nests inside a hole, high in a tree.
So I know what you’re thinking now. You think that fellowship’s not all that dramatic, compared to floods and Ferguson. Now I’m telling you a bird story? Please.
But didn’t the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus – like a dove? Gotcha. Be that as it may, this is my bird story.
As I watched that TV program, we saw how, at a certain point, one of the parents pushes the baby birds out of the nest, to fly out on their own. It was quite comical, as a matter of fact, to see those little birds flapping their tiny wings, trying to fly. A couple of them went crashing to the ground. But then they flapped their wings and flew away.
That’s my point. You and I both need this support group, every Sunday. You and I both need this fellowship, this nest, where we can grow into maturity as disciples of Jesus. And then, as time goes by, the Spirit’s going to push you out of this nest, to test your own wings.
As a matter of fact, the Spirit – the dove – is going to keep doing that all the days of your church-going life. I don’t know whether doves do that in the wild, but that’s what those birds I saw on TV did. Push you out of the nest.
That’s why you got sprinkled this morning, when we re-enacted our Baptisms. I mean, it wasn’t the Niagara River or even the Jordan. But I got you as wet as I could, as we all remembered our Baptisms.
I sprinkled you to remind you that the Lord Jesus Christ has called you in your Baptism, when you received the Spirit, so that you can love and serve and protest, all the days of your life. I sprinkled you to remind you that God’s given you his Spirit, not only to feed you with the bread of life here, but also to push you out of this fellowship, to use your own wings out there.
So fly away, you disciples of Jesus. Never mind the floods. Never mind the Fergusons. Fly away. Love. Serve. Protest. You can do it, because you’re strong in the Spirit. Amen? Amen.
It must have been Garrison Keillor who observed that at the gates of heaven the Jews will carry a shofar, the Catholics a crucifix, and the Lutherans a bowl of Jello. I saw signs of that Lutheran sensibility on the streets of Manhattan on Sunday, September 21, 2014, during the Peoples Climate March. But I celebrate that sensibility.
Just about every group that I saw carried its own sign or banner or flag, announcing its identity and its presence and promoting its own commitment to this good cause: the Hare Krishnas, the Unitarians, the Service Employees International Union, 350.org, the Sierra Club, the Hindus, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, St. John’s Sunday School, Harlem, and many more.
We Lutherans carried three by two foot green signs, with “Climate Justice: For All of God’s Creation” in large letters. In tiny print, I mean really tiny print, down in the corner of our signs, if you held the sign close to your eyes, as if you were reading a newspaper, you could identify these words, “Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.” Onlookers might well have wondered: who are those creation justice people with those bright green signs?
I gently chided one of the Lutheran staff workers about this, a young woman from the church’s advocacy office in the nation’s capital. It turned out that she had had a hand in designing our signs. “It never crossed my mind,” she said, “to put ‘Lutherans’ in big letters. We were looking for the distinct message we wanted to convey, and we thought that ‘Climate Justice for All God’s Creation’ was it.” I agreed. Bless her. Good Lutherans always strive to announce the Truth, never to announce themselves!
On the face of it, that approach makes sense. After all, as far as I could tell, there were fewer than a hundred self-identifying Lutherans participating in that march of some 310,000 souls. And we were to make a big deal about our identity? Be that as it may, I was proud (a non-Lutheran sentiment, I know) to be carrying my own modest sign. Why? Because we had got it right. We had left Lake Wobegon and headed for the streets of Manhattan.
Consider the Truth of the Gospel Procession. The Mass for Creation I attended at 8:45 a.m. that Sunday morning at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Manhattan, was replete with processions, even though it was a low Mass: from the baptismal pool to the Table, from the Table, with the bread and wine, down into the midst of the people, from the pews moving to meet the ministers of the Eucharist, from that whole place of assembly – all together now, passing near the baptismal pool, making the sign of the Cross with the water along the way – to a meeting room, for instructions and coffee. Then we continued processing out into the streets of Manhattan.
St. Peter’s does it all the more dramatically during the great Mass of the Easter Vigil. For a segment of the Scripture readings during that high liturgy, the whole congregation processes out of the sanctuary right on to the busy sidewalks of midtown Manhattan on a Saturday night. There, led by a processional Cross, vested clergy, and trumpets, the congregation sings Easter hymns as it marches to each corner of the block, from 54th Street and Lexington Avenue and back again. At each corner the Word of God is announced, with the help of a good electric megaphone.
Let’s hear it for the Gospel Procession! Call it a bowl of jello, if you wish. But this is the liberating Truth – unheard amidst the noise of our society as it often is — for the crowds that walk such streets at any time and for those undocumented families that pick the apples in Washington State and for those nameless workers who wash the floors and change the linens in the high-rise hotels of Hong Kong and for those Inuit Lutheran parishioners whose families have lived on the island of Shismaref in Alaska for hundreds of generations, for the first time now being flooded by rising ocean currents.
Never mind what you see. It’s all going somewhere! There’s hope for the whole creation! There’s justice, finally, for every creature! It may not look like much. What’s a modest hundred, mostly waspish Lutheran marchers compared to a huge, incredibly diverse 310,000? What’s a mere 310,000 marchers compared to the upwards of 13 million citizens who live in greater New York City? What’s a New York City committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 compared to the whole nation of India now planning to add 455 coal-fired plants for electricity in the next few years?
The point, for Lutherans at least, is this. Open the sanctuary doors and get that Gospel procession out on to the streets. Never mind if others think that you’re carrying jello. In fact, by faith alone we’re carrying the Gospel Truth. There’s hope for every creature! That’s what we’ve been called to announce, in the midst of all the other countless and likewise called groups and communities and organizations who also care about the good Earth and all its inhabitants.
I saw one sign: “Atheists for Climate Justice.” I have no doubt that they were called by God to be there. For us Lutherans, I say: whatever else others might be saying or doing, bring your Jello to the march. Call it our bowls of compassion.
Why is this the most frequently recorded of all Bach’s cantatas? Its beauty, no doubt. My wife, Laurel, and I surely were overwhelmed by this gentle but powerful song of faith – this is one of the few Bach cantatas that does not have a chorus — played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, on a dark and rainy October afternoon.
We joked about the words of the cantata afterwards, on our way to a nearby Ethiopian restaurant. Ich habe genug! That doesn’t mean, “I’ve had enough,” I reminded her. No, Bach speaks in the present tense. “I have enough.”
Contrast my own response to many of the trends of our society these days. More than once, in recent years, I have had the impulse to say “I’ve had enough.”
I read the papers each day not because I want to, but as a habit or a discipline. There’s Ebola in West Africa. There’s the climate crisis and the Middle East. There’s the atrocious fact that the poor keep getting poorer all over the world. Not to speak of continued police violence directed at African-Americans in our own country.
Then there’s the sometimes vicious 24-hour TV news cycle. Referring to the Ebola epidemic, the Drudge Report called Obama – “President Obola.” I watched most of a TV debate by the candidates for the Senate in New Hampshire, during which the Republican, Scott Brown, announced that if his candidate, Mitt Romney, had been President, not Obama, we wouldn’t have had an Ebola crisis today! Somehow Obama is responsible for Ebola!
Stop the world, I want to get off! I’ve had enough.
On the subway to the concert, Laurel had her own intense moment of agitation. At the Park Street station, the MBTA had changed the track it had used for years to the Symphony stop, without putting up any signs. As we sat there then, waiting for the right train to arrive on the wrong track, we almost missed the beginning of the concert! The Bach! “I’ve had it!” Laurel said, no doubt thinking of the countless bureaucratic idiocies of our technologized world today.
I’ve had it? I’ve had enough?
Bach, in contrast, sings in the present tense. I have enough. Clearly this is a voice from a bygone age of faith. On the other hand, many citizens of our age of unfaith cannot help but want to listen to Bach’s moving personal testimony, as often as possible: “I have enough,/ I have taken the Savior,/ the hope of the righteous,/ into my arms….”
Bach was by no means some naïve, childish prophet who believed that things are better than they look or that things will get better and better. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) affected four generations of the Bach family, and was a vivid memory. Bach himself lost a number of children — and wives — to various accidents of history during his relatively long life.(1685-1750) Nevertheless he announces to his world and to his God in this, the most intimate confession of his faith, “I have enough.” I don’t need anything else!
Bach is working with the church’s lectionary here which features the story of the old man Simeon in the temple, who cradles the infant Jesus in his arms, and sings these words (as I remember them, from my own childhood): “Lord, now lettest thou, thy servant, depart in peace. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”
This is how the first aria of Ich Habe Genug begins: “I have enough,/ I have taken the Savior,/ the hope of the righteous,/ into my arms;/ I have enough!/ I have beheld Him,/ my faith has pressed Jesus/ to my heart;/ now I wish, even today/ with joy/ to depart from here.”
This amazingly gifted church musician, greatest perhaps among all the great composers, utters so powerfully and so movingly this simple statement of trust. Like Simeon, he is now ready, even eager to die. And, turning the image around, he envisions this astounding journey “into the cool soil of earth,” where he can rest in “the lap of Jesus.”
So Bach sings, with the words of some unidentified poet (himself?): “My God! When will the/ lovely ‘now!’ come,/ when I will journey into peace/ and into the cool soil of earth,/ and there, near You, rest in Your lap?”
Of course, as I leaned forward to listen, I recalled that in a few weeks I would mark my 79th birthday. My remaining days on this good earth are relatively few. Where am I going? What am I to do with the rest of my life? How am I to pray? Am I ready to depart and be with Jesus in the cool soil of the earth?
Laurel and I have decided that our ashes are to be interred in the Hidden Garden (so we call it) behind our old farm house in southwestern Maine. I have written at some length about this story. Our ashes will be dug into the cool soil of the earth at the foot of a grand, albeit still young, purple beech, which we planted there, marked by a small Celtic Cross which we also placed there. That to me, inspired by the testimony of witnesses like Bach, is where Laurel and I can rest in the lap of Jesus. Not in some far off heaven, far removed from this earth.
This means that I can begin my day tomorrow with joy and resolve, as I hopefully will be inspired to do: to engage a world which often drives me to say, “I’ve had enough.” with abandon, because, deep within, I know that I have enough.