I was recently asked to speak at a prayer service in support of the survivors of clerical sexual abuse that took place in Bowie, Maryland. I was driving from my home in New York, and was about halfway there, about 153 miles from my destination, when one of he little screws in my eyeglass frames came undone and the right lens of my eyeglasses popped out. As you might imagine, this made driving significantly more challenging!
All was not lost. It was around 9:30 on a Saturday morning and I knew that optometrist offices must be open all over New Jersey, how hard could it be to find one? I pulled off the Turnpike at an exit where there seemed to be a lot of stores – I figured I’d only have to drive a few miles before I found a place to get those glasses fixed, then I’d be on my way!
Finding that optometrist wasn’t as easy as I thought. But I spotted a Walgreen’s drugstore, and pulled into it to see if they carried those little eyeglass fix-it kits. They did, I bought it and immediately dumped out the contents of the case and began to try to repair the damage.
Of course when your glasses are broken it’s difficult to use those kits, with their tiny screws and the little screwdriver made for smaller hands than mine. After 15 minutes of trying to get the lens and the frame back together, even with the kind help of a good Samaritan clerk, I gave up. Then the clerk said “who don’t you try the optometrist’s office right across the street” Hmmm. If my glasses weren’t broken maybe I would have seen that office first, but still, my deliverance was at hand!
Or so I thought
I carefully put my loose lenses back into the frame and squeezed tight to keep it temporarily in place while I drove across the street – I had been using that same tactic during my last 10 or so miles on the Turnpike. But that strategy was a mistake! When I turned to pull my car of its parking space, the lens again fell out the frame, and this time it dropped between the seats of my car and landed in a place where I couldn’t reach it. Flying blind again, I drove to the optometrist’s parking lot, got out of my car , and went to work finding the lenses under my seat. It was nowhere to be found! I looked and looked and looked – no lens. To this day I have no idea where darned thing went. I finally resigned myself to driving the rest of the way to Maryland with no glasses.
My predicament created numerous problems. First, it’s tough to drive when the world looks like an impressionist painting . Second I had an outline of my talk and all sorts of quotes bookmarked that I wanted to read from the Bible, but reading was now out of the question. I was flying blind in more ways than one. What a mess!
I rely on my glasses to see clearly, and I need them to drive safely. But now I just didn’t have any other option, I had to drive without them and make the best of the situation, relying on the vision I still had, though it was flawed. I had to rely on myself: I knew that I could still see well enough to navigate; I knew that I had to be someplace in a few hours, and I’d better be on my way or I’d be late; and at the end of the journey I would find and be with people who I loved.
Then I got to thinking about the meaning of my predicament: as we journey through life, we all like to have clarity – we like to know where we’re going and what the road ahead of us is like. The Church, for many of us, has been a lens that helped us see the road of life more clearly. Sexual abuse by the clergy, and the institutional response of the Corporate church to that abuse, have been a lens-shattering experience. But when we lose focus we have fall back on the basics: we have to rely on our own selves, however flawed we may be, to find our way.
The first question, then, is “who are we?”
All Scripture should be read in the context of Genesis 1:26 – 27. Their, in the space of two short versus, the sacred author reminds us three times that we are made in the image and likeness of God. “Then God said, let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness. … So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God He created; male and female He created them.”
We are made in God’s image. Deeper, and more profoundly important than any of our sin, failure or brokenness is this reality – we are of the stuff God.
The theme is picked up in the beautiful prologue of St. John’s Gospel. John speaks of the Word as being, from the very beginning, the creative energy of God. The Word is life and that life is our light. It is a light that dispels darkness. It is the light of the very life of God. And John writes in verse nine that the light is “the true light enlightens every person coming into the world.”
We are the light.
That light can be covered over, it can be dimmed, it can be disregarded, but it cannot be extinguished.
The great Irish teacher and mystic, Pelagius of Wales, taught that in every newborn child’s face we see the face of God. Each of us once radiated that magnificent innocents. Each of us is still in the depths of our being, light.
There is sin and there is evil. It has touched each of our lives. Some individuals are the victims of evil, and some do evil, they are its slaves. Even as great an institution as the church can forget its vocation. It can put its reputation, or its wealth, or its power, ahead of its mission. And when that happens, the lens cracks and falls from our eyes. The church is then unable to help us see clearly, and we must rely, faithfully, on the reality of our own nature, as God reveals us to be. We must rely on God’s presence within us, his image within us, his light within us, to help us find our way.
Who are we? We are the very image of God – we are beloved of God; we are children of the Light!
The next question, then, is “who is God?”
In 1944, a young man named Jurgen, was impressed into military service by his native Germany. He was only 18, and he was put to work in the antiaircraft batteries defending his home town of Hamburg, which was under heavy bombardment by the Allies. The bombing was relentless, bombs hit the battery where are Jurgen was stationed, killing the young man, only 16 years old, who stood next to him but leaving Jurgen himself unscratched.
As soon as he could, Jurgen went AWOL and was promptly arrested by allied troops. He spent the next two years of his life as a prisoner of war.
Jurgen’s world had been destroyed. His hometown was in ashes, many of his friends were dead, and he was overcome with tremendous sadness. By chance, a chaplain gave him a copy of the Bible. Jurgen was not a particularly religious person, nor did he come from a particularly religious family. But this was all he had to read, so he read it. In the Psalms of laments he began to take strange comfort. The psalmist seemed to resonate with his own pain. And then he read the account of the passion in St. Mark’s Gospel. At last, he thought, he had found a God who understood his suffering, a God who suffered with him. This is the God who could give Jurgen hope. The God who would change his life.
The cross of Jesus stands at the center of Christianity. It embarrassed the early Christians because it was a reminder of the painful, terrible, humiliating death of Jesus. Nonetheless, only 20 or so years after Jesus’ crucifixion, St. Paul could write: “God for bid that I should glory save in the cross of my Lord Jesus Christ.” What is the cross? What does it mean for us today?
I don’t believe for one instant that the cross was necessary to expiate for our sins – that it was required by a bloodthirsty god demanding that someone, someone as innocent as Jesus, die before the sins of the guilty, your sins and mine, could be forgiven. Quite the contrary, the cross is a theophany: a revelation of the very nature of God.
On the cross, God, in Jesus, is one with everyone who ever suffered and everyone who ever will suffer. Jesus entered deeply into the painful reality of the human situation so that he could show us how much he loves us, how much God loves us. The cross reveals the essence of God’s being: God is love, self gift. The God revealed by Christ, the father/mother God, is the God who holds nothing back from us, and who is with us in our darkest, saddest, and most painful moments.
Jesus last words, “O God, O God, why have you forsaken me?” show that Jesus even suffered the feeling of being God forsaken, and in doing so brings God’s presence to the God forsaken.
Jesus crucifixion, though, is inseparable from his resurrection. His resurrection is not merely a personal event, it is a communal event . Jesus rises as the firstborn of many brothers and sisters. He rises with God’s verdict that pain and suffering and death will not have the last word.
So where is God in the pain of betrayal? God is right there, suffering with us, healing us, restoring us, and making all things new.
And our final question is “what does all this mean for us?”
In his cross, Jesus shows us the way. Often, though, it’s hard for us to hear his call to follow him. We would rather follow other paths that seem more certain or more clear.
The third chapter of the Gospel of John gives an interesting illustration. We meet Nicodemus, and Nicodemus is an important guy. He’s a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin: a leader of the people, a man who is well respected. He has heard of Jesus and the wonders he has worked. He believes that Jesus is from God, but he doesn’t yet understand who Jesus is or what his ministry means. Nicodemus is interested in seeing if Jesus shows the authentic way to God.
So he goes to Jesus by night. This would seen to be because this important community leader is worried about what would happen to his reputation if it became known that he sought out Jesus. But more importantly, in John’s Gospel, physical darkness is a symbol of an inner darkness; so John is saying that Nicodemus comes to Jesus spiritually in the dark.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that the solution to his quest for God is simple, he must be born again To Nicodemus this makes no sense whatsoever. He doesn’t get it. He asks the Lord how anyone be born again?
And Jesus answers him with an enigmatic statement about to wind – the wind is free to wind blows where it will, you don’t know where it’s coming from and you don’t know where it’s going. Jesus is saying “Nicodemus what I want for you is absolute freedom, I want you to be as free as the wind.”
Nicodemus is still in the dark.
Finally Jesus says “ just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert so must the son of man be lifted up that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” The serpent lifted up in the desert is a symbol and prefigurement of Jesus himself, lifted up on the Cross.
Jesus is saying that the path to eternal life, and the path to true freedom, lies in our own willingness to undertake a lifestyle of self gift. The cross is not only Jesus way, it’s our way too. We are invited into a lifestyle of agapic love, that love alone is life-giving.
Not long ago a young woman told me a terribly sad story – a story of hurt and betrayal. It was her life story, or at least part of it.
When she was five, she came home from the park and found her father packing to leave home. She never saw him again. Fast-forward 17 years. This same young woman is in a very serious relationship. Then she developed a physical problem. Her body begins to produce uterine cysts, big fibrous uterine cysts. Her physician told her that she may never be able to have children. She went home to her boyfriend, explained the situation to him, and he left her. He just left her. She was heartbroken.
Around the time she met somebody else. Their relationship started simply as a friendship, but in a few years it began to turn into more than that. The couple started dating – and in time they were getting very seriously involved. Then the old problem with the uterine cysts returned. One of her physician told her she would need yet another operation. She was already scarred from the first operation, when we were talking she called herself “damaged goods.” She wasn’t damaged, she was perfect.. But she didn’t know that. She went to her new friend to tell him about the problem and she was sure he would leave her just like her last boyfriend did. Just like her father had left her.
But he didn’t – he stayed with her and stood by her. He was there with her in the hospital for the operation, and every day after her operation. When she told him that there was a strong possibility that she couldn’t have children, his response was, “how you get the children isn’t all that important, what’s important is the love that you pour into their lies for 30-50 years after they’re there. We can always adopt.”
Simply by loving this woman and by being faithful to her the man who is now her husband went a long way towards healing the hurt of a lifetime.
What was that young man doing? He was walking in the light. He was being the light. And he was honoring, in this wonderful young woman whom he loved, the image of God.
It is our choice. We can choose to live in darkness. We can revert to the patterns of evil that fill our lives with darkness. We can choose bitterness over forgiveness; we can choose greed over generosity; We can choose selfishness over self gift.
The Lord invites us on a different way. The way of freedom, the way of new life, the way of new birth. It is the way of the Cross!
It is in the love, the understanding, the kindness, and the honesty, of both the those who suffer and those who love them, that we find the presence of God, and with it healing and resurrection hope.
“In the end,” St. Paul says, “three things abide: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of them is love.”