April 21st, 2016
Halt. You may not pass.
At least not until you RSVP (especially if you’re coming) to our picnic this Sunday. We’d like to get a head count to know how much meat to purchase, as well as an idea of what sides, desserts, and drinks everyone is planning to bring.
The food will be plentiful. Kids will have the opportunity to burn off all that excess energy in dual bounce houses. And though the forecast at this hour is looking like we’re in store for storms sometime Sunday, we’ve got a sound contingency plan for inclement weather; we’ll picnic no matter what!. Kevin Gladding may even dust off his magic act. (Does anyone have a rabbit?)
Now, off you go.
The way of blessedness, which accords with happiness and more so, begins with, or is premised upon, a sense of sobriety about oneself. That’s what we argued from the first of Jesus’ promises of blessing–His “Beatitudes”–last Sunday. But as I conceded during Q&A, there are two distinct lines of thought among interpreters about what Jesus means by being “poor in spirit.”
Some find Jesus extolling something akin to a virtue, a self-understanding shorn of aggrandizement. Humility cast in a more vivid style.
Others see in the phrase less a virtue than a condition in which one finds themselves, and for which they have elected not to chafe at God, but rather to trust Him implicitly. To be an Israelite in an occupied territory, to be a disciple of One with whom the religious establishment grew increasingly angry, was to be subject to layers of disrespect and disenfranchisement that would inevitably drain one of mirth. Poverty of spirit therefore was a condition over which you had no choice, except in terms of how you’d respond.
Whether Jesus had more in mind a virtue or a circumstance, I think it’s possible to synthesize, or at least unite, those two strands of interpretation by seeing how the practical implications of either view have so much in common as to diminish in significance any disparity between them. Whether one is humble or one is denied something (or has renounced something), the way one sees God and themselves has common application in a myriad of real-life situations.
David Brooks spoke at a Q Ideas conference in Washington, D.C. not too long ago. And while he wasn’t speaking about this beatitude, his topic, vividly and poignantly illustrated among a variety of historical examples, teases out a host of applications of being poor in spirit (some of which align with the implications we explored). Have a listen:
It is the implicit “argument” of the Gospel of Jesus that who He is and what He did offer the strongest motive for setting ourselves aside, for making money a tool rather than an idol, for both believing in and wanting to align ourselves with a broad moral vision for all of life.
Jesus convinces us of our poverty of spirit by His setting aside so much to come here, and giving up so much to rescue us from the guilt of our sin, and the distorted nature of our hearts. That He had to, and was glad to, give all for us proves just how desperate our situation was.
But it’s His magnanimity in contrast to our dependence that also makes us willing to act as He would, in sacrifice and in service. For though we find our inner emptiness sobering, we find in His love a reason to believe the we might be filled enough in order to act.
Whether being affirmed for our virtue or assured in our condition, the outcome intended is essentially the same: humbled by love we are humbled and heartened to love. And in that we find our happiness.
Tears will bathe and baptize and hydrate you and the ground on which you walk. The first thing God says to Moses is, “Take off your shoes.” We are on holy ground. Hard to believe, but the truest thing I know. Anne Lamott
We turn to the second beatitude this Sunday:
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
We’ve referenced him before, but the English pastor, John Flavel, was all too accustomed with sorrow. He buried a number of wives, the first in childbirth with their child also perishing. It’s Flavel’s thoughts on grief that have persisted for nearly four centuries in a book entitled Facing Grief. And his distinction between “moderate” and “immoderate” grief is perhaps his most salutary contribution to Christians’ understanding of what we will all inevitably face.
How can one know if their grieving has begun to obscure deeper realities the attention to which might offer hope in the grieving? What marks of sorrow are a prelude to despair? Though some find Flavel’s confidence of conviction still lacking somewhat in compassion, and while there’s nothing formulaic about the process of mourning, it’s worth thinking about what it means to mourn as one who believes in a day when mourning shall be no more.
It may seem an odd juxtaposition to picnic on a day we muse on mourning. But I’ll tell you why there may not be a more apt alignment.
The brevity of life–the lamp of life is almost burnt down, the glass of time is almost run out; only a very few days and nights more, and then time, nights and days shall all be no more. John Flavel
Mia Chung discusses creativity and the Christian narrative across cultural boundaries and socioeconomic divisions. This excerpt is taken from a full-length session titled: “(Re)Sounding Truth: An evening of music, poetry, and conversation on suffering and transcendance” hosted by The Veritas Forum at UPenn, 2014.