Further Thoughts on the Wandering God

I have always liked the idea of the Christian as wanderer, as expressed in the sonnet for the fourth Sunday of Advent (the previous post). I believe I was in Junior High school when the romance of a totally unencumbered life was first planted in my mind. We would occasionally sing “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through …” in the Sunday evening service. Those words came to me as an image of a nomadic life in which I was free to go here or there with little to slow me down. This would have been the early 70s, and I suppose it was a leftover bit of the hippie movement which had unknowingly captured me.

My adolescent idealism was also attracted, not only to the freedom from things, but freedom from self. In Sunday school I was taught about the European Moravian missionaries who were willing to sell themselves into slavery so they could preach the gospel among the Caribs and African slaves who populated some of the Caribbean islands. During that time the islands were, for all practical purposes, privately owned by often brutal sugar producers and thus completely closed off to the outside world (including missionaries and the gospel). These Moravian missionaries’ vision of God as the Unencumbered Wanderer allowed them to see beyond what appeared to be insurmountable odds and find a way to reach these people by giving up all encumbrances of things and place.

But I have become aware more recently that my initial attraction to the unencumbered life was mostly rather different than what scripture was talking about. Even though Abraham was a Bedouin, he was not a wanderer in the sense that he just wandered from place to place. Rather he was on a journey with a starting point (the city of Ur in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley) and a destination (“the land that I will give you,” in the words of God).

Even though that wandering seemed … well … like mere wandering much of the time: Joseph’s family wandering into Egypt; the Children of Israel wandering in the wilderness for forty years on the way back to the Promised Land, etc, there was always purpose in their journeys.

In contrast, I am attracted to wandering for the sake of wandering. The first time drove through the state of Washington I was enthralled and thought, “I would love to live here for a while just to explore this place.” And then I drove through Utah and was similarly enthralled. I drove through western Pennsylvania and thought, “I’d love to explore this place for a year or two.” Not surprisingly I’ve had the same response to nearly everywhere I’ve visited.

I’m also aware that I’m a product of culture and I therefore must admit that my attraction to wandering is almost certainly a product (at least partially) of my American aversion to relationship and community. This remarkably widespread and fundamental character of the American psyche has created a bit of cottage industry for pop sociologists. In seminary I studied Habits of the Heart written by the graduate students of Robert Bellah. Some years later Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone, exploring the same phenomenon. In a word, we Americans are unattached from other people and as a result we tend toward loner lifestyles. As a result, our (my) attraction to wandering is the fruit of our (my) lack of attachment to other people, not vice versa.

And with this in mind let’s reconsider the Wandering God. The biblical prophets (Nathan being the first but certainly not the last to make this point) said that God wasn’t necessarily attached to a building or a specific plot of ground not because they believed that God would be happy dwelling in any old place. No, the point is that rather than a building, God is attached to a people. So God is the Wandering God only to the extent that the people he has called are a wandering people.

But given our cultural proclivity to wander precisely because we are unattached, we need to clarify. We probably need to avoid that word “wander” altogether. Whether it’s Abraham, or Joseph’s family, or Moses, or Jeremiah, or the disciples, or the church scattered about the earth, God’s people aren’t just wandering about; they are on a journey. Each step along the way (if we are following God) is purposeful. To the extent that we are living as God’s people, we don’t travel to western Pennsylvania (or wherever we wander) just because it’s pretty and interesting and it would be a good place to stop and explore for a year or two. Rather, we travel to our next destination because it brings us one step closer to the Kingdom. Rather than wanderers, we are pilgrims.

And as pilgrims we do indeed have a place and our place is alongside the other pilgrims in this pilgrim church. And why is this people our place? Because this people is precisely the place that God has chosen to make his home. As John the Evangelist says in the Prologue of the Gospel: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth …” (v. 14).

The Wandering God …

It sounds rather lonely, and given how we Americans are likely to hear it, it also misses the point. God didn’t come to earth to be out and about, he came in order to be in and among the ones he loves.

Sonnet 27: The 4th Week of Advent, Year B

This is the fourth sonnet in a cycle of four Advent sonnets. See the preface to the first sonnet for an explanation.

The house referred to in this sonnet is to our home in Lincoln, NE. It was the first home we ever owned.

Links to the full cycle of sonnets are as follows:

Scripture Text:

The king said to the prophet Nathan: “See now, I am living in a house of cedar,

but the ark of God stays in a tent. … But the word of the Lord came to Nathan …

Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not

lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this

day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” [from 2 Samuel 7]

Sonnet:

Beveled glass with hardwood sills and floors

are why I chose my house, O Lord. The yard

is adequate with trees for shade. Of course,

it has a fireplace and two car garage.

It’s not ornate, nor am I interested

in anything too elegant. It’s you

I seek to serve; I only ask for bread,

a place to settle, and to be renewed.

How is it that you’re satisfied to be

a Wanderer? I need a place to make

my own, you only need a servant free

enough to be transformed for your Son’s sake.

O God, with only Name, without a place,

teach me to wander till I see your face.

Tuesday, Bloody Tuesday

Chris and I were standing in the living room watching the birds at the bird feeder. In an instant they scattered. Two juncos headed south toward the road, a flicker and a sparrow headed north – right into the window. The flicker got turned around immediately and winged his way fast and hard to the southwest, but the sparrow continued to flutter against the window, finally turning away.

And suddenly a falcon (or a hawk, but he looked too skinny and aerodynamic for a hawk) swooped in from the east, right between the window and the bird feeder, picking off the sparrow in his talons, and then disappearing to the east.

Chris and I just starred for a moment, then we looked at each other. Did we see what we think we just saw? We decided that we did. The bird of prey dined on Nebraska corn-fed sparrow on this snowy, winter day.

The Weather? It’s Nothing.

Yep, that’s right: a big, fat zero. The high today was zero with a brisk wind out of north. At least the snow was easy to scoop – light, dry, and fluffy. We don’t expect days that are this cold here in South Sioux City. You’d think we were in South Dakota or something.

Sonnet 26: The 3rd Week of Advent, Year B

This is the third sonnet in a cycle of four Advent sonnets. See the preface to the first sonnet for an explanation.

Scripture Text:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

because the Lord has anointed me;

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the broken hearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners.

Isaiah 64:1-3

Sonnet:

I’ve never met a captive in my life.

At least I’ve never met a prisoner-

of-war, or terrorists, but we are rife

with broken-hearted people. It was near-

ly two millennia ago that you

fulfilled these words, so why is everyone

around me broken-hearted, cast into

the night? Where’s the Advent of the Son?

Come, Lord Jesus! Come, make known your joy!

Come, Lord Jesus! Come and spread your love!

Expectantly we wait for you. Destroy

the power of death with life from high above.

The need is far beyond my meager touch.

Work through this trifling life and make it much.

Inconceivable

I consider the bailout of banks, financial institutions, and now the auto industry to be one of the greatest thefts of all time. It demonstrates conclusively the utter moral corruption of our rulers. Don’t let their religious talk fool you; this is greed and graft at an unimaginable scale. But I haven’t written a lot about it because others who are far more knowledgeable than I have done a very eloquent job. But the following graph is worth reprinting. I saw it in Agora Financial’s Dec 2 edition of the “Five Minute Forecast.” (As you can see from the attributions in the graph itself, it is not original with them.)

It's Inconceivable

Indeed, it's inconceivable.

Sonnet 25: The 2nd Week of Advent, Year B

This is the second sonnet in a cycle of four Advent sonnets. See the preface to the first sonnet for an explanation.

Scripture Text:

A voice cries out:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,

make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Isaiah 40:3

Sonnet:

The voice intruding in my wilderness

said I should level out the rocky peaks

and valleys so the builders could produce

a highway for our God, the Prince of Peace.

My wilderness could be inhabited;

the energies of holy God could fill

this place; the wilderness could produce bread

and wine for holy feast where God would dwell.

The desert is my home and I’m not sure

I want a highway cutting through this space,

a highway filling up the empty blur

of sand and wind, the things that fill this place.

The voice: “Here is your God; he comes with might.”

I’ll contemplate the mystery of this sight.

My Music in the Ether

Bob Parent has a podcast called “The Write Stuff.” Last week he did a podcast on Sara Teasdale and was kind enough to include four songs from my Sara Teasdale collection. Thanks Bob! If you’re interested, the podcast can be found here. (You have to click on the above title to get the link.)

Another Thought on the Kingdom of God

As much as I like the sonnet posted Sunday for the First Sunday of Advent, I do need to add a disclaimer: I’ve come to realize it’s a product of bad theology. It treats the Kingdom of God as something “out there” that will come in some observable fashion. This reading of the text is certainly possible. The problem is, it doesn’t square with Jesus’ teaching. When asked about the subject (Luke 17:20-25), Jesus clearly taught that the Kingdom is an interior reality and its entrance into the world is not observable in terms of it being “over here” or “over there.” To be clear on the matter, I will quote the passage in full. This text is one of the very few places where I actually like the New King James Version, which is generally a horrid combination of unintelligible Jacobean English with the worst of contemporary usage. But it is one of the few contemporary translations that translates v. 20 literally, rather than softening or redirecting what the text clearly says.

Luke 17:20-25 (NKJV)

20 Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation [meta paratereseos]; 21 nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” 22 Then He said to the disciples, “The days will come when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. 23 And they will say to you, ‘Look here!’ or ‘Look there!’ Do not go after them or follow them. 24 For as the lightning that flashes out of one part under heaven shines to the other part under heaven, so also the Son of Man will be in His day. 25 But first He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.”

I was reminded of this text on Nov. 24, when it was the Gospel lesson in the daily scripture readings. In Fr. Tom Soroka’s daily reflections on the readings called The Path, he quotes both St Cyril of Alexandria and St John Cassian, who comment on this text. I found their comments to be better than my own explanations of what I’ve come to understand over the last several years, so I will quote both at length:

St Cyril of Alexandria:

These miserable men asked in mockery, when will the Kingdom of God come? This is like saying, “Before this kingdom of which you speak comes, cross and death will seize you.” What does Christ reply? He again displays his longsuffering and incomparable love to humanity. Reviled, he does not revile again. Suffering, he does not threaten. He does not harshly scold them, but because of their wickedness, he does not stoop to give them an answer to their question. He says only what is for the benefit of all people, that the Kingdom of God does not come by watching. “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you,” he says, “Do not ask about the times in which the season of the kingdom of heaven will again arise and come, rather, be eager that you may be found worthy of it. It is within you.” That is, it depends on your own wills and is in your own power whether or not you receive it. Everyone who has attained to justification by means of faith in Christ and decorated by every virtue is counted worthy of the kingdom of heaven.

St John Cassian:

If the devil has been driven out, sin no longer reigns. Then the Kingdom of God is established in us. As it is written in the Gospel, “the kingdom of God does not come with observation, nor will they say, ‘Lo here!’ or, ‘Lo there!’ Truly I say to you that the kingdom of God is within you.” The only thing that can be within us is knowledge or ignorance of the truth and the affection for righteousness or sin by which we prepare our hearts to be a kingdom of Christ or the devil.

St Paul described the nature of this kingdom in this way: “For the Kingdom of God is not food nor drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” If the Kingdom of God is within us, and its righteousness, peace, and joy, then someone that remains in these is surely within the Kingdom of God. Someone that remains in unrighteousness, conflict, and the melancholy that kills the life of the spirit is already a citizen of the devil’s kingdom of hell and of death. These are the signs, whether it is of God’s kingdom or the devil’s.

If it were left to me to explain the presence of God’s Kingdom, I would go off on some philosophical and theological description of what isn’t, what is, and where it can’t and can be found. While providing that basic information, these two ancient saints also express wonderfully the urgency of the matter. Don’t be looking about hither and yon for some divine Kingdom to mysteriously appear! By means of faith seek justification with God (Cyril) and drive the devil from your life (John). Paul the Apostle says the Kingdom is not an exterior reality imposed upon us but rather an interior transformation that leads to righteousness, peace, and joy.

Rather than raging at God to come quickly in order to change everything all about me, I would be far better off (and would indeed discover the Kingdom of God) if I quietly submitted myself to him and reigned in my raging desires that keep me separated from his life-transforming energies.