The Long Journey Home

One of the highlights of my college experience was Spring Break 2002, when I got to spend 10 days in Romania on a student mission trip. While there, we led evangelistic services in churches and cultural halls, visited orphanages and psychiatric hospitals, played and prayed with the people who lived there, and handed out packages of gifts prepared by volunteers through an organization called Samaritan’s Purse.

The trip was sponsored by the church I attended at the time: a non-denominational charismatic church in western North Carolina. Our pastors told us they had seen some pretty amazing things happen on these trips in the past, especially as they were praying for sick people. The Bible calls them ‘signs and wonders’ while most modern people refer to them as ‘miracles’. They told us the kinds of stories we had only read about in the Bible: blind people suddenly being able to see for the first time, injured people throwing their crutches up into the air and then dancing home.

I thought to myself, “Hey, that’s something I want to see!” I wanted to have direct, personal experience with the kinds of phenomena I had only read about in the Bible. But then it didn’t happen. I watched, I waited, I prayed, but it still didn’t happen.

When I go back and read my personal journal from that week, I’m kind of embarrassed at how obsessed I was with the idea of witnessing a miracle. It’s pretty much all I wrote about, even though I was on the other side of the world, leaving my home country and seeing real poverty for the first time, hearing another language, meeting people whose lives were very different from my own. I got to drive around the back corners of post-Communist, Eastern Europe, far off the beaten-path carved out for tourists. I woke up to the sound of Orthodox monks chanting in a church across the lake from the hotel where we stayed in Bucharest. I got to spend St. Patrick’s Day in Vienna, visiting a Gothic cathedral and drinking really good, dark beer with a bunch of singing old men in a hole-in-the-wall pub that had first opened its doors in 1435… decades before Native Americans discovered Christopher Columbus lost at sea.

I met a Baptist family in the city of Galati, who had transformed their home into a refuge for young men who had been turned out of the orphanage on their 18th birthday with no educational or occupational prospects for the future. This family welcomed these guys into their home, helped them learn enough to get a job, and incorporated them into the life of their church. This same family welcomed us as well and put out a delicious spread of hors d’oeuvres for our group of loud, whiny, and tired American college students who had driven in from several hours away and hadn’t had much to eat that day. We sang Amazing Grace together around that table, in English and Romanian… I think that moment the closest to heaven I’ll ever get in this life.

I even flew over the Alps, for crying out loud, the ALPS: one of the most majestic mountain ranges in the world. If it was miracles that I wanted to see, I was surrounded by them; I just didn’t have the eyes to recognize it the time. I was too obsessed with a particular idea of a miracle as a supernatural event that violates the normal laws of physics or biology. What I think I was looking for during that week was some kind of absolute assurance for my faith. I wanted to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is real and God loves me.

I think a lot of people are looking for that kind of absolute assurance these days. I think it’s one of the main reasons why people get caught up in cults or other kinds of religious fundamentalism. There is so much to be uncertain about in this life; they just want something to hold onto, so they look for it in paranormal phenomena, mystical experiences, sacred texts like the Bible or the Qur’an, theological systems like Calvinism, religious institutions like the church, or authoritative leaders like the Pope or David Koresh.

Faith is hard. It’s a long journey home. Just like Moses and the Israelites leaving Egypt and traveling to the Promised Land through the barren wilderness, it’s a winding journey that takes a lifetime.

People naturally look for something to hold onto in that journey. We’re looking for something to help us keep going when the going gets tough, which is why we so often stumble into problems like cults, fanaticism, and fundamentalism. We’re looking for something concrete that we can put our faith in, some kind of absolute assurance that God is with us and will be faithful to love us all the way home.

That was the inner need that drove the Israelites in the book of Exodus to build a Golden Calf. They had already experienced God’s presence and power in their lives: God had already led them, by the hand of Moses, out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, and into the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.

But now they were at a crossroads, camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses had disappeared over a month ago in a thunderstorm at the top of the mountain and, by Moses’ own orders, they weren’t even allowed to send a rescue mission to go look for them. After 40 days with no contact, they didn’t know if he was alive or dead.

So they said to Aaron, Moses’ brother, “Hey, we’ve been patient but enough is enough. We need to face the fact that Moses is probably never coming back. So, we want you to take command and the first thing we need you to do for us is give us some kind of absolute assurance, something we can believe in, something we can hold onto while we make this long, hard journey to the Promised Land.

So Aaron did what he could, given the circumstances. Someone in my profession might say that he was just trying to be a good pastor and meet his people’s spiritual needs. He took up an offering of gold, the very best they had to offer, and melted it down. Then he constructed the image of the Golden Calf from it and presented it to the people saying, “Here! This is your absolute assurance that we will make it to where we’re going… These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”

And the people were delighted. They were unified, inspired, and motivated. Even Moses, with all his signs and wonders, hadn’t been able to give them something so clear and concrete. This was a God they could understand; this was something they could look to in the hard times, not some mysterious presence that could never be seen or touched. This was their “blessed assurance.”

The problem is that it was all a lie. In the eyes of God, their assurance, their absolute certainty, was nothing more than an idol: a graven image, made by human hands, to which they were bowing down in place of God.

God gives us many things, but certainty isn’t one of them. Absolute certainty, especially when it comes to the divine mystery, is idolatry. As it says in the Ten Commandments:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.

God had no desire to fit inside any box that can be made by human hands, be it a literal box, a statue, a building, an institution, a book, a theological system, or any other Golden Calf we can imagine with our minds and construct with our hands. The basic motivation behind religious fundamentalism, whether it leads people to fly airplanes into buildings or picket funerals with offensive signs, is idolatry. These people, who often have the loudest voices calling others back to “worship the one, true God,” are the very same people who have bowed their knee to a graven image: a god who fits inside of a box, a god we can wrap our heads around, a god we can see and touch, and ultimately a false god who is not worthy of our worship.

Whether the format is Pagan, Muslim, or even Christian, any God we can fully understand is unworthy of our worship.

But this divine mystery doesn’t leave us much to hold onto. Once again, we find ourselves with the Israelites: camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai, facing a long and difficult journey that we don’t expect to complete in this lifetime. We need something to hold onto. We need some kind of assurance, even if it isn’t absolute assurance. And Moses (who is not dead) knows this about us. And so he pleads with God on our behalf.

In today’s reading, God gives Moses two things: a mission and a promise. The mission is simple: “Bring up this people.” God wants Moses to guide his people home, to the Promised Land (which is always referred to as ‘up’ in Israelite geography). And God’s promise to Moses is this: “I know you by name, and you have found favor in my sight.”

These are good words, powerful words, and they reflect the truth of God’s reality and God’s disposition toward Moses and the people. But Moses follows with a very reasonable concern: what might be an appropriate alternative to the Golden Calf? What kind of assurance can we, as God’s people, hold onto in this journey? Moses says, “Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight.”

He’s saying, in essence, “God, I believe that what you’re telling me is true, but how will I know?”

God replies, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

And again Moses puts the question to God, “But how will I know?” He says, “For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us?”

And God repeats again the very first thing he said to Moses, “You have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”

And Moses says, “Okay, God. Show me… Show me your glory, I pray.”

And God says, “I will do the very thing that you have asked… I will make all my goodness pass before you.”

“But,” God says, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” God gives Moses what he asks for, but also doesn’t give it. God’s face, the fullness of divine mystery, is too big for anyone to handle. We can’t wrap our minds around it… our heads would explode. Moses has asked the impossible: he simply can’t see God’s face. But that doesn’t mean he gets nothing.

Moses has a direct experience of God, just not the one he asked for. God says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you… See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Moses doesn’t get to see God’s face, but he does get to see God’s back. He has an experience, just not the one he asked for. It’s something less than the full experience of divine glory (which he couldn’t handle anyway).

Moses seeing God’s back reminds me of a parable that originated somewhere on the Indian subcontinent and is told and retold in many different religious traditions:

Six blind men decide to find out what an ‘elephant’ is, so they set out to examine one by feel. One touches the trunk and says, “An elephant is like a great snake.” Another touches an ear and says, “An elephant is like a great flap of leather.” Another touches the side and says, “An elephant is like a great wall.” Another touches a leg and says, “An elephant is like a great pillar.” Another touches the skull and says, “An elephant is like a great boulder.” And the last one grabs the tail and says, “An elephant is like a great rope.”

Now, which one has it right? All of them. And which one has it wrong? All of them. Each blind man is having some kind of true experience of an elephant, but none of them is experiencing the full reality of ‘elephant-ness’.

Just as it was for these six blind men and the elephant, and as it was for Moses seeing God’s back and not God’s face, so it is with us and our experience with God.

Just like Moses on the mountain, God’s back is all we get to see in this life. The only thing that spiritual experiences, the Sacraments, the Bible, theology, and church can do is, when they are at their best, express God’s reflected glory in an indirect and incomplete way. These things are all good as means to an end, but they are not ends in themselves. They point us to God, but they cannot replace God.

There is no such thing as absolute assurance or certainty in this life. We cannot see the face of God, but only the back. Faith does not come with a money-back guarantee, there is always a risk. We will always have to take that ‘leap of faith’ in order to believe.

When we do (take that leap), it changes the way we see the world. The brilliant physicist Albert Einstein once said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Through the eyes of a faith that dares to risk believing, everything becomes a miracle. The whole universe is able to reflect the glory of God’s back. Everything can be a metaphor for God.

In church, we tend to use the most well-known biblical image for God, “Our Father,” but did you know that the Bible also refers to God as a Mother? Also in the Bible:

  • God is honored as a king, yet humble as a shepherd;
  • God is powerful as a warrior and weak as a baby;
  • God is bright as light, yet ‘cloaked in darkness’;
  • God is one and God is three;
  • God is a rock, God is the wind, God is a river, God is a fire, and God is a star.

All of these are valid, biblical images for God, but none of them captures the fullness of the divine mystery. To paraphrase Rev. Forrest Church, “God is present in each of these things, but is also greater than all of these things.”

Anything and everything communicates something of God to us. Not the fullness, but a part; not the face, but the back.

Can we see it? Do we choose to see it with the eyes of faith?

If we let them, all things can point us back to God, their Source. In order to see it, we must trust (have faith) in the promise, God’s word to Moses: “I know you by name, and you have found favor in my sight.” In other words, “I’m here, I’m with you, and I love you.”

This is all the assurance we have in this life. Indeed, it’s all we need for the long journey home.

“God” is not God’s name

God language can tie people into knots, of course.  In part, that is because “God” is not God’s name.  Referring to the highest power we can imagine, “God” is our name for that which is greater than all yet present in each…

Proposing that “God” is not God’s name is anything but blasphemous.  When Moses asks whom he is talking to up there on Mount Sinai, the answer is not “God,” but “I am who I am,” or “I do what I do.”  That’s what the word “Yahweh” means.  When the Hebrews later insisted that it not be written out in full, they were guarding against idolatry: the worshiping of a part (in this case the word-symbol for God) in place of the whole (that toward which the word-symbol points).

So it was for the biblical Jacob, who wrestled for life and meaning with a mysterious heavenly messenger.  When dawn finally broke after a nightlong struggle, Jacob demanded to know his adversary’s name.  “Don’t worry about my name,” God replied.  “It is completely unimportant.  All that matters is that you held your own during a night of intense struggle.  You will walk with a limp for the remainder of your days.  Yet that is simply proof that in wrestling for meaning you did not retreat, but gave your all.  Therefore, though my name is unimportant, I shall give you a new name, Israel, ‘one who wrestled with both divinity and humanity, and prevailed.'”

-Forrest Church in The Cathedral of the World: A Universalist Theology (Beacon Press: 2009), p.3

Beholding & Becoming

800px-Ice_crystals-03_01-24-2009
Image by Wilder Kaiser. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Believe it or not (and I know many of you won’t), I sometimes like to show up to work early.  With two kids at home, those few minutes in the car are sometimes the only quiet moments I get to myself in a day.

It just so happens that last Wednesday was one of those days and, before I went into my office, I took a minute to sit in my car and watch the snow falling on my windshield.  I thought about what was actually happening as each individual flake fell and melted into a droplet of water: The hardened, crystal structure of the ice was absorbing the heat radiation coming from inside my car.  It was literally a transfer of energy that was making those water molecules more flexible as a liquid.  Obviously, a liquid is more flexible than a solid crystal.  A crystal can only break, but a liquid can bend into any shape necessary.  If that energy transfer process continued, the liquid would eventually get hot enough to turn into a gas and the water vapor would simply become part of the air itself.

What struck me is that this process is an almost perfect metaphor for what happens to human beings as we grow spiritually.  We begin as small, hardened, selfish crystals.  We exist as solid individuals, obsessed with the uniqueness of our own crystalline structure.  This is what we could call “the ego-centric life”.  This is the state of being that says things like: “You’ve got to look out for number one; it’s a dog-eat-dog world; and it’s my way or the highway.”

But something happens to us as we grow older and begin to ask the “bigger questions” in life.  We start to think outside the box.  We meet good, decent people with political and religious worldviews different from our own.  Spiritual disciplines like prayer and meditation lead us toward compassion and understanding.  We humans, like snowflakes melting on a windshield, become more fluid and flexible.

I would not hesitate to say that our souls gradually absorb the divine energy of the Holy Spirit and we begin to look and act more like Jesus.

If this process were to continue, I would venture a guess that our individual egos would eventually evaporate into the atmosphere of love itself, which is God.  Whether this final transformation can happen in this life or only in the next, I’m not sure, but the image is compelling.

It actually reminded me of the Transfiguration, which is the event in the life of Jesus that we traditionally recall on this last Sunday before the beginning of Lent.  In this story, Jesus and his closest disciples walk up a mountain to pray and, while they are up there, Jesus begins to glow with a kind of inner, divine light.

This is not the only time something like that happens in the Bible.  In the book of Exodus, Moses goes up a mountain to commune with God and comes back down with his face glowing so brightly that his fellow Israelites can’t even stand to look at it.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul refers to this Moses story and extends the idea of “spiritual radiation” to all people who seek a deeper closeness with the Divine.  Using the term “glory” to describe this “spiritual radiation”, Paul writes: “all of us, …seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another”.

Along with Christians throughout history, Paul believed that Christ revealed the fullness of divine glory to the world.  As people remembered Jesus’ life, studied his teachings, and celebrated his death and resurrection, Paul believed that their lives would begin to resemble Christ’s more and more.  The divine glory (i.e. “spiritual radiation”) that shone in him would gradually become visible in us.

To put it another way: we become what we behold.  The more we look at Jesus, the more we look like Jesus.

Now, Paul had no way of knowing this, but he was actually picking up on insights that would one day be confirmed by scientists in the 21st century.

Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, has described a phenomenon called neuroplasticity.  What this means is: “The more you focus on something — whether that’s math or auto racing or football or God — the more that becomes your reality, the more it becomes written into the neural connections of your brain,” according to Dr. Newberg.

Dr. Newberg has spent much of his career studying the effects of prayer and meditation through the lens of neuroplasticity.  He has discovered that these practices actually have a concrete, measurable effect on the way your brain functions.  The more you focus on God, the more real God becomes to you.

Most of Newberg’s research has used subjects who pray or meditate for several hours a day, such as monks and nuns.  But there is nothing in his research to suggest that we “ordinary folks” can’t also derive some benefit from a regular spiritual practice, even though we might only have a few minutes each day to engage in such exercises.

Like Paul, Moses, and Jesus, we too can become what we behold.  As the apostle Paul said, we can “[see] the glory of the Lord” and “[be] transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”  The divine light that shone through Jesus and Moses can shine through us too, in a metaphorical sense.

When I see photos of the people I most admire in recent history: Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, Gene Robinson, and Oscar Romero, I see faces radiant with the glory of God.  I see people who have spent so much time looking at Jesus that they have started to look like Jesus.

So then, how is this process of transformation “from one degree of glory to another” available to us?  The simple answer is that this process just happens within us naturally as we spend more and more time and energy cultivating our conscious awareness of God’s presence.  Now, that’s a pretty abstract idea, so let me bring it down to earth: in practical terms, I think there is a lot of wisdom to be gained from those good old fashioned spiritual disciplines of Bible study and prayer.

Bible study should be a no-brainer.  We can learn how to follow Jesus by reading about his life and studying his teachings.  If you’ve never read the Bible on your own before, I recommend starting with one of the four gospels, like Mark or Luke.  Read just a little bit every day and think about what you’re reading.  Try to imagine yourself as a character in the story.  Watch for any words or ideas that seem to “stand out” to you.  Use your imagination.  Ask yourself, “Why did this word stand out to me, in this way, at this time?”

Daily prayer is another good practice to have as well.  If you’ve never prayed before, here’s a simple method for getting started: start by naming things you’re thankful for.  Even if you can’t think of anything in particular, be thankful that you woke up today, thankful that the sun is shining, thankful for the air in your lungs or the food on your plate.  As you go along, you might start to think of other, more specific things in your life.  Next, name those people or situations you’re concerned about.  You can be as general or specific as you like.  Some people like to keep a list of the names of people they’re praying for.  You can even pray for yourself.  It’s not selfish.  God knows you have needs.  Disclaimer: Praying for a situation doesn’t guarantee that things will always go your way, but it does mean that you are beginning to look at yourself, your needs, your life, and your world through a different set of eyes: spiritual eyes.  I once heard someone say: “Prayer changes you before it changes your circumstances.”

After you have given thanks and prayed for yourself and others, just sit for a while in silence.  Be still.  Close your eyes.  Focus your attention on the rhythm of your breathing.  This kind of wordless prayer is often called meditation or contemplative prayer.  Stay with it for as long as you can, several minutes even.  Personally, I like to do about twenty minutes of silent meditation per day.  If that sounds overwhelming to you, try starting with just five minutes.  This kind of prayer is often the most powerful of all.

Finally, I like to close my prayer time with something familiar, like the Lord’s Prayer.  We say it once a week here in church, but saying it daily can help the words to sink deep down into your bones.  The rhythm of the words by themselves can sometimes put you in a prayerful or spiritually attentive state of mind.

These exercises of prayer and Bible study are the two best resources I have found for helping us, as Christians, to re-center our lives on the presence of God.  The more we lean on these practices, the more our lives will reflect the glory of God.  As I said before: the more we look at Jesus, the more we look like Jesus.  We become what we behold.

We will be like those snowflakes, falling onto the windshield of a warm car.  The heat from inside the car will radiate into us, making us less cold & rigid and more warm & fluid.  We’ll be able to bend, flex, and go with the flow.  We’ll run together, like water droplets do.  The divisions between us will become less visible.  Given time near this heat source, we might even begin to evaporate and become part of the air itself: the atmosphere of God in which we live, move, and have our being.

Your Focus Determines Your Reality

This morning’s sermon from Boonville Pres!

The text is Numbers 21:4-9.

Click here to listen at fpcboonville.org

Qui-Gon Jinn, Jedi Knight

As most of you already know, I’m a major science fiction geek.  And for us sci-fi geeks, 1999 was a big year.  Not because it was the end of the millennium, but because that was the year that the new Star Wars movie came out.  We had waited sixteen long years since Return of the Jedi.  Beginning with The Phantom Menace, we would finally get the full back story on Darth Vader.  I remember the week it came out in theaters.  I was at a conference that week in Windy Gap, NC.  As it turns out, that was the very same conference where I met my wife for the first time.  I didn’t get to see the movie until I got home.

When I did finally see it, I made up for lost time.  I went to see The Phantom Menace in the theater no less than six times during that summer.  The acting stunk, but the fight-scene choreography was amazing.  Along with most Star Wars fans, I thought that Jar-Jar Binks was the worst thing to ever happen in cinema history.

In addition to all those big things that happened in The Phantom Menace, there was one little thing that stuck with me.  It was a single line that Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn (played by Liam Neeson) said to little Anakin Skywalker: “Always remember, your focus determines your reality.”

I’ve always liked that line.  It sounds like good advice.  It reminds me of the Israelite people in this morning’s reading from the book of Numbers.  Now, the book of Numbers is part of the Jewish Torah, which is part of what Christians call the Old Testament.  The book of Numbers chronicles the journey of the Israelites as they live a nomadic life in the desert before settling in the Promised Land.

Life in the desert was never easy.  They lived life on the edge, never knowing for sure that their next meal would be there.  The text of the Bible says that God provided regular bread, meat, and water for the people through all kinds of unusual (some might say miraculous) circumstances.  But none of it ever lasted more than a day.  There was no such thing as long-term security for these desert nomads.  The only thing keeping them alive on a daily basis was an interdependent web of the grace of God, the abundance of the earth, and the kindness of strangers.

As the Israelite people made their way through this desert, they did not have the best of attitudes.  In fact, they were whining all the time.  They said to Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can hear myself in those words.  I get an especially big kick out of that last part: “For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”  There is no food and I can’t stand this food!  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve paced around my kitchen, with its fully stocked fridge and cupboard, and said to myself, “There’s nothing to eat in this house!”  Has anybody else here ever done that?  What is the matter with us?  Are we blind?

We modern-day people think we’re so advanced and evolved.  We think we’re better than our ancestors with their immaturity and superstitions.  But then you look at this passage and see that we’re just like them.  “There is no food… and we detest this miserable food.”  “There’s nothing to eat in this house!”  We’re just like them.  They were just like us.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

This, by the way, is how I understand the Bible to function for us as God’s Word.  We see ourselves in it.  Some Christians take that to mean that the Bible is some kind of magic book that can never be wrong.  Personally, I take it to mean that our sacred text is like a mirror through which we can get some perspective on who we are and, by extension, who God is.  Another author, Brian McLaren, says that the Bible is a like a mathematics textbook in school.  It’s not useful because all the answers are written in the back.  It’s useful because, by working through the problems, we become wiser people.  God’s Word to us in the Bible is a living word, not a dead list of dogmas and morals to be accepted without question.

This point becomes important as we look at what happens next in this story from the book of Numbers.  It says, “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”  Now, if we take this story at face value, we very quickly run into some serious problems.  It would lead us to believe that our God is the kind of person who would kill someone just for complaining.  It would also lead us to believe that natural events, like snake bites, happen because God wills it as a form of punishment.  If we really believed all that, we wouldn’t support organizations like Church World Service and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance because we would think the victims of earthquakes and hurricanes were just wicked sinners being punished by God.  But we don’t believe that.  We believe that God is love.  We believe that God stands with those who suffer and with those who work to alleviate suffering in this world.  And our belief in that kind of God leads us to go back and read this passage in a different way.

This story may or may not have been based on actual events, but that’s beside the point.  When the text says that “the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people,” I take it to be a reflection of the Israelites’ state of mind.  The snakes are a symbolic representation of their collective attitude and its effect on their communal life.

Have you ever been around people at work or school who just love to complain about every little thing?  I’m talking about the people who always look for the worst in other people and situations.  How does it feel to be around them?  It’s kind of a drag, isn’t it?  Being around them drains your energy.  It’s like a poison that saps the life right out of you.  Hanging around them kind of feels like walking through a snake pit: you’re just waiting for one to jump out and bite you.  So, when I read this story about people and their attitudes, the snake analogy makes a whole lot of sense to me.

When times are hard, it’s easy to focus on what’s wrong with the world.  It’s easy to get caught up in talking about the good old days or the way you wish things were.  It feels cathartic to let your frustration out (which is a good thing) but when the catharsis becomes a way of life, it can be toxic.  Just as much as honest venting, we also need people who can help us to see what’s right in the world.  They empower us to make things better.  They help us to change our focus.

That’s exactly what the Israelite people needed in today’s story and that’s just what they got.  The text says that, “Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”  Isn’t this interesting: the people of Israel had a poisonous attitude of complaining that was sucking the life out of their community.  So, what’s the cure?  Look up, focus on this, and you will live.  Change your focus in order to change your reality.  It’s like they said in Star Wars: your focus determines your reality.

Let’s fast forward to the New Testament.  We also read a story about Jesus today.  In this story, Jesus is compared to Moses’ bronze serpent on a pole.  It’s the same dynamic as before, except that this time, the thing we’re supposed to focus on is not a symbolic statue but a living, breathing person.  Jesus is, for Christians, the primary revelation of God in the world.  When we want to know what God is like, we look at Jesus.  When we want to become the kind of people we’re meant to be, we look at Jesus.  When we need to remember everything that’s good, right, beautiful, and holy in this world, we focus on Jesus.  When we’re ready to be cured of the poisonous attitudes that infect our minds, our community, and our church, we look at Jesus.

We remember the principles he taught us.  We reflect on his deeds of healing and forgiveness.  We reflect on the love that poured through him to every corner of creation.  We do our best to reorient our lives around Jesus’ vision.  When we feel the snakebite and the poison’s burn, we look up to this man who died with forgiveness on his lips for his murderers and we ask ourselves that famous question: “What would Jesus do?”

Your focus determines your reality.  Change your focus and you change your reality.

There is a story I heard several years ago, but I can’t trace it back to its source.  It takes place in a Nazi concentration camp at the end of World War II.  The camp had already been liberated by the allies, but the survivors were still too weak to be moved.  They stayed in the camp for a little while longer to regain their strength.  They were finally being fed real food and treated with medicine.  For the first time, the gates were open and prisoners could come and go as they pleased.  During this time, two former-prisoners were walking together in the woods around the camp.  They came across a small patch of ground with little baby plant sprouts and young flowers poking up out of the earth.  The first man kept walking right over them, oblivious to their presence.  The second man stopped, looked, and stepped around them.  His friend said, “You mean to tell me that, in spite of everything we’ve been through, you still believe in the meaning and value of life?”  The second man replied, “No, I mean to tell you that, because of everything we’ve been through, I still believe in the meaning and value of life.”  Two men lived through the same horror came out with very different interpretations of their experience.

Two years ago, I had the difficult honor of being both friend and pastor to a young couple who suddenly lost their newborn daughter.  I can’t think of anything else in this world that does more to upset our perception of the goodness and natural order of the universe.  Through that time, I watched this family struggle, question, doubt, cry, and mourn their loss.  As a pastor, I had no answers for them.  In spite of all the Bible and theology I had learned in seminary, nothing could prepare me for that horrible moment.  I could only be there with them in that deafening silence.  There’s just nothing you can say in a moment like that.

What amazed me, as time went on, is how they clung together as a family.  They focused on their love for each other and, through that, found their way back to faith.  In time, this turned into compassion as they reached out to support others in pain. They have been part of support groups for grieving families, they have volunteered to assist the homeless in Utica, and they’ve walked in the March of Dimes in their daughter’s name.  Their compassion has become a point of focus for them.  Through it, their pain has not been erased, but it is being redeemed.

Your focus determines your reality.  When people think about what it means to “have faith,” they usually think about the various beliefs associated with a particular religion.  Faith, they think, is about believing that Jesus walked on water or was born of a virgin.  But those dogmas mainly have to do with what you think.  Faith, as we’re talking about it today, is about how you think.  Do you see the universe as hostile or friendly?  Will you approach life as meaningless or meaningful?

May we, as Christians and people of faith, in seasons of conflict and tragedy, learn to shift our focus to the one who came to show us a vision of what life can be.  May you become an agent of healing from the poisonous attitudes you encounter at home, school, work, or church.  In this soul-sucking culture of toxic vision that only sees what’s wrong with the world, may you be inspired to become a life-giving beacon of faith, hope, and love to all the people around you who so desperately need to hear what you have to say.