Hearing voices

Sharon Risher was resting on her couch in Charlotte, N.C., when reports about the Florida shooting came across her television. Her heart leapt at the sight of children fleeing a school and she switched the channel. You see, Sharon’s mother, Ethel Lance, was one of the nine black congregants shot dead by a white supremacist during a Bible class at Mother Emanuel in Charleston on June 17, 2015. Sharon said she already knows what will follow. “People will rally, and they will voice their opinions on social media about how sad it is, and how they’re praying,” she said. “But in the next month or so, it will be gone. And those families, like me, will have to deal with the devastation of our lives while everyone else moves on.”

“Governors order flags to fly at half-staff. Funeral services for children are staggered, so as to accommodate a broken community. Schools everywhere announce that counselors stand at the ready. And a nation sends thoughts and prayers,” wrote Dan Barry on Thursday.[1]

When a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead, a priest was going down that road, and he sent thoughts and prayers. So likewise a Levite.[2]

There’s nothing wrong with thoughts and prayers. Only the man by the Jericho road needed somebody to bandage his wounds and take care of him. Thoughts and prayers are wonderful, except when they are nothing but mumbled excuses for passing by on the other side of the road and not just once, but again and again and again. "Deadly shootings in schools — that is, the killing of children in sanctuaries of learning — have become a distinctly American ritual" (Dan Barry) that will repeat itself as long as the people who make the nation’s laws are paid by the people who make the nation’s guns.

On Wednesday, it was Broward County Sheriff, Scott Israel who stepped before the cameras to announce the toll of a massacre inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School: 17 children and adults dead, another 16 wounded. “It’s catastrophic,” he said. “There really are no words.” No, there aren’t, because there’s so much sadness and so much anger and frustration, and half of the words that do come to mind you don’t want to use in the presence of children lest you frighten them even more with your rage.

What does it mean to be church in this moment? How do we proclaim the good news of God in this moment? How do we live the baptized life in this moment, and how do we remember that this is what we are called to be and do? We follow Jesus.

On Wednesday, we entered the season of Lent with ashes smudged on our foreheads and somber words urging us, “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The ashes are all that’s left of the palm branches we waived and spread on the road  when Jesus came riding into town on a donkey and we were so excited about God’s reign on earth. The branches went up in flames like straw. Ashes is all that’s left, and we use them to trace the symbol of our hope on our foreheads, the cross of Jesus.

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 the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

One moment there’s a heavenly voice calling Jesus my Son and the Beloved, and before he can draw another breath, the Spirit drives him out, still wet, into the wilderness. Mark tells the story with urgency. Wilderness. Forty days. Satan. Wild beasts. Angels. Forty days in five quick strokes. It’s like Mark is flashing an image, and a movie starts playing in your mind. He plays just two or three chords, and I can hear the whole song. Can you?

I hear wilderness and I see the Hebrew slaves on the long journey to the promised land and I hear Isaiah sing of the end of exile. One word, and the scenes start rolling, and songs of redemption and hope are playing.

I hear forty days and I see Moses on Mount Sinai and Elijah on the way to Mount Horeb; the words are like hashtags that connect Jesus’ wilderness time with the memories and hopes of God’s people.

Wild beasts – that sounds dangerous and threatening, and perhaps you imagine hyenas laughing in anticipation of a good meal or lions prowling around the solitary man in ever closer circles. But can’t you also hear echoes of Isaiah’s beautiful prophecies of peace, of the days when the wolf lives with the lamb and the leopard lies down with the kid? The hashtag #wildbeasts touches our deep longing for creation at peace, as well as our hope for one who is with us in danger and fear.

Mark tells the story with urgency, but let’s linger a little at the flash of a scene where the angels wait on Jesus. The story that comes to mind is the story of Elijah. He was in the wilderness, not because the Spirit of God had driven him there, but because he wanted to get away from the fury of Queen Jezebel who wanted him dead. Elijah had fled into the wilderness for his life, but he was also exhausted. Physically, emotionally, spiritually exhausted. So exhausted, he wanted to die, just not at the hand of Jezebel. He was tired of fighting. He was tired of calling his people to repentance. He was tired of feeling like he was the lone voice of resistance in a culture insisting on continuing its idolatrous ways. “It is enough,” he said, exhausted in body and soul, before he fell asleep under a broom tree. He woke up when an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” There was a bread and a jar of water. Elijah ate and drank and went back to sleep. The angel of the Lord came a second time and waited on him, saying, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”[3]

Mark flashes the words “and the angels waited on him,” and we know that Jesus is being nourished for a long, demanding journey. In the wilderness, you have only what you bring and what the angels give you. In the wilderness, it’s only you and the great silence; you and your thoughts and all that gets stirred up by the great silence. Kentucky farmer, writer, and teacher, Wendell Berry wrote in 1977,[4]

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.[5]

The forty days of Lent are about our “inner voices” and our “most intimate sources.” The forty days are about remembering how to live the baptized life; how to let the voice from heaven that calls us beloved, name us and claim us; how to let the Spirit that descended into Jesus be our most intimate source of life and hope and courage.

In Scripture, Satan is the name given to voices that whisper, scream and argue, with cold reason, seductive tone, or blunt intimidation – voices that only speak in order to drown out the voice from heaven that calls us beloved. In the wilderness, says Berry, “One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources. In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.”[6] We enter the forty days in the company of Jesus who has faced all that we face in our loneliest, hungriest, and most exhausted moments, who responded to other lives with blessed clarity, and who goes ahead of us into the glorious communion of all creatures that life is meant to be.

Mark doesn’t tell us how Jesus stopped Satan’s chatter or how he silenced the voices that did nothing but add question marks to God’s affirmation of who he was. But in the very next of Mark’s fast-paced scenes we see Jesus back in Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

What does it mean to be church in this moment? The contours may not be as sharp and clear as we would like them to be, but they are clear enough. We may not know yet which of the comfortable certainties of being and doing church we will get to keep and which we will have to let go of but we do know that God wants us to live the baptized life, lives deeply grounded in the knowledge that we are God’s beloved and in the call to proclaim this good news to every human being. And we do know that God uses this and other communities of witness to help us turn from our idolatrous ways and follow Christ on the way to the glorious communion of all creatures that he called the kingdom of God. And so we move forward with faith. We take each step trusting the One who, in the words of Psalm 25, leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/15/us/florida-school-shooting-thoughts-prayers.html

[2] Luke 10:25-37

[3] 1 Kings 19:1-8

[4] Wendell Berry, “Healing” (1977) in What are people for?: Essays (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010), 9-14.

[5] Ibid., 11.

[6] Ibid.

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