Archive for February, 2008

Two Songs of Solomon

Sunday, February 17th, 2008

Song of Solomon 2, 8, in passim

John 3: 1-17

Frontispiece

There are two Songs of Solomon. One of the heart and one of the soul.

There are two Songs of Solomon. One of the flesh and one of the spirit.

There are two Songs of Solomon. One of earth and one of heaven.

There are two Songs of Solomon. One of human love and one of love divine.

There are two Songs of Solomon. Hear the Gospel: Both are blessed!

Three things are too wonderful for me. Four I cannot understand. The way of a ship on the high sea. The way of the eagle in the sky. The way of the serpent on the rock. The way of a man and a woman.

Faneuil Hall

In December our granddaughter, our daughter, Jan and I rode the T to Haymarket Square. Our beloved’s beloved baby gurgled past Boylston and Park. The Christmas lights glistened out from a soft Nevada. You could see your breath. Jan had seen advertised a free reading of love letters, from Abigail Adams to John Adams, and from John Adams to Abigail Adams, and offered in historic Faneuil Hall, and read by three couples named Patrick, Dukakis, and Kennedy.

There are kairos moments. Whether or not your earnest study of Oscar Cullman and Luke and Galatians convinces you, life will teach you. When Mrs. Duval read Abigail’s letter following Bunker Hill, to a distant John in Washington, full of terror and wonder at whether she would live the week, the air went out of the room. When Governor Dukakis read later John’s angry criticism of the laziness of the congress, and paused midsentence to look meaningfully at Senator Kennedy, no words were needed to bring the house to robust laughter. When Kitty Dukakis read slowly the long, love sentences, ripe and revealing, from wife to husband, from dearest friend to dearest friend, you wondered truly whether you could breathe again. When we heard the horrific sorrow of Abigail’s mother’s death, read out by Mrs. Kennedy, only a stone would not have cried. And I wonder about the stone. Every seat was full. As every heart. See how they loved each other!

Listen, for just a moment, Abigail to John:

That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing on of Friend (MDF, 110).

Listen for just a moment, John to Abigail:

It is a fortnight to day Since I had Letter from you but it Seems to me a month. I cannot blame you for one of yours is worth four of mine. (MDF, 370)

I say to our theology students: live in Boston. When your three years have passed, may you have spent 2 days in Boston for every 1 at Boston University, 2 hours in the Copley Square library for every 1 at the School of Theology, 2 mornings in the Public Garden for every 1 at the GSU, 2 nights with the Celtics and Red Sox for every 1 watching TV in the apartment, 2 meals in the North End for every 1 in the Back Bay, 2 winter afternoons walking on Commonwealth for every 1in the FitRec, 2 desserts on Newbury street for every 1 at home.

If I never have another such kairotic moment in Boston, this one evening will have been enough. To whomever arranged such a rhetorical explosion, I offer belated thanksgiving. There is such power, such a searing power, in public reading, in public reading of hallowed words, of public reading of hallowed words fitly spoken. You pick up and read, and read aloud, My Dearest Friend, and judge for yourself. It brings to mind a little remembered verse from a maverick book in the Bible, which itself is a testament of freedom.

Love is as strong as death.

That sentence appears in the Song of Solomon. But there are really two songs of Solomon, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Both are blessed.

Heart

One Solomon song sings of human love. And how it sings! So loud it sings and so dearly and strong that the sages in Jamnia nearly excluded it from the canon!

You will have your choicest choices. Here are two:

Arise my love, my fair one,

And come away;

For lo the winter is past,

The rain is over and gone.

The flowers appear on the earth,

The time of singing has come,

And the voice of the turtledove

Is heard in our land.

(Song of Songs 2: 10-12)

Behold you are beautiful, my love

Behold you are beautiful!

Your eyes are doves

Behind your veil

Your hair is like a flock of goats,

Moving down the slopes of Gilead.

Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes.

Your lips are like a scarlet thread

Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate…

(YOU CAN READ THE REST YOURSELF!!)..

You are all fair my love;

There is no flaw in you.

(Song of Songs 4: 1-8)

Collected in the Canticles are love poems, erotic poems, poems of praise for human love. One of our members asked a year ago whether any sermons are ever preached on the Song. The implication was there that the verses are simply too hot to handle! Last week another member related that in childhood, advised to read the Bible, she had stumbled into these verses. I believe she said, Wow!

Saddled with other challenges for a few decades, the historic church may have lost of some of our voice about love, human love, sexuality, human sexuality, and the ardent themes of the Song of Songs, the meta-song of the Hebrew Scripture. While our own straitened conditions in the church, and our inwardly turned attention to the details of liturgy may constrain us, all about us the culture calls out for the good news of these chapters. It is still the same old story.

The stories of Alistair Macleod, Canadian celebrant of life, are ever reaching for the misty and mystic heights of the Song of Solomon. Macleod, with the exception of one passing humorous reference to an inept clergyman, in none of his published material makes any reference to God, Christ, Spirit, Religion, Church, Faith, Belief or Bible. Like the Song of Solomon, he never mentions God. Yet his work to my ear proffers some of the strongest theological reflection of our time. Island, his stories, and No Great Mischief, his novel, teem with love. He compares one Cape Breton couple to eagles, who mate for life, and soar to the heights.

The verses of this book may have arisen as wedding songs. They celebrate love leading toward marriage and love established in marriage, without a great deal of distinction between the two. They acknowledge the power of love. They drape their music in the imagery of the natural world. They shout for joy for the joyful shout of love, human love. As a pastor, father, friend, now minister to a University community, I might have wished a little more didactic material had found its way into the Canticle. A little admonition about commitment. A little recognition of selfishness. A little sober admission of imperfection. A little paternal warning about regret and regrets. Well, we shall have to find these in other pages of the Scripture, for these songs are flying to other places. They reflect the human experience of the ages. They delight in delight. They delight in delight!

Yes, I could interpret and amend these passages to make sure that we include partnership and friendship as well as covenant and marriage. Yes, we could dwell for a moment on the difference between the literature here and that in the rest of the Bible: ’there is no overt religious content corresponding to the other books of the Bible’ (IBD op cit). Yes, I could remember the sectarian Jewish warning that the book should only be opened and read after age thirty. Yes, I could reflect on what emptiness of the soul does, on this weekend following the further campus tragedy at Northern Illinois. Yes, I could present to the contrary, T Wolfe’s sad narrative, I Am Charlotte Simmons. For those teaching and learning in a large historically Methodist University it bears reading. We use when we should love and vice versa. Thus, though, I would miss the point. The Song of Solomon sings of blessing!

Human love is blessed.

Soul

But there are two Songs of Solomon, one of heart and one of soul, one of flesh and one of spirit, one of earth and one of heaven, one of human love and one of love divine.

Another Solomon song sings of love divine.

The allegorical, cultic, dramatic and other non-literal readings of the Song of Solomon have less influence today. In any case, they fall fairly quickly in the face of the ardent, strong sensuality of
the collection. The rabbis early allegorized the Song to refer to Yahweh and Israel. The church early followed suit, and allegorized the Song to refer to Christ and the Church, or to God and the soul. Hosea had already used the allegory, in his beautiful chapters, the 11th being perhaps the loveliest in Scripture. But he done so forthrightly, intending and intoning the allegory directly. ‘When Israel was a child I loved him.’ As a reading of the text, it must be said today, that the allegory superimposes something not apparent or present.

What is dethroned from Scripture, however, experience re-crowns. It is not without wisdom that this bit of wisdom literature has been taken to refer, in a Lenten fashion, to the love of the soul for God, to the love of God for the soul, to the love the church for Christ, to the love of Christ for the church. After all, how are we ever going to picture, to propose the relationship of the human being to God?

Here is today’s gospel message:

What can prepare us for intimacy with the divine, if not human intimacy?

What can prepare us for covenant with the divine, if not human covenant?

What can prepare us for fellowship with the divine, if not human fellowship?

What can prepare us for love of the divine, if not human love?

Where else are we going to learn the rhythms of relationship that prepare a community and its individuals, an individual and his communities, for ultimate relationship?

No wonder Plato wrote so tenderly and toughly about friendship. No wonder John the Evangelist epitomized discipleship in the portrait of one ‘beloved’. No wonder Bernard of Clairvaux wrote 86 sermons on the Song of Songs and never got past the second chapter! No wonder that John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila took Italian love poetry and formed their religious poetry on their models. No wonder that even today there is a returning interest in ‘nuptial mysticism’, a recognition that love, friendship, partnership, marriage shape a soulful habit of living. It is in the relationship of lover and beloved that we plumb the depths of experience.

In relationship, we are addressed, truly, from beyond ourselves. We are forced, in real relationship, daily, to face our limitations. We are, in relationship, known, personally, underneath the public masks. We are tested, interpersonally, regarding our patience, stamina, endurance, perseverance, longsuffering and grace under pressure. We are surprised by joy. Joy in love. Joy in creation. Joy in communion. Joy in devotion. Morning and evening, we are surprised by joy. Even C. S. Lewis, no non-traditionalist he, could find the epitome of his orthodoxy in an astounding marriage and friendship and love with Joy.

My friend and student Joshua Duncan, relying on our colleague Phil Wogaman, helped me research this sermon:

Bernard preached dozens of sermons and wrote volumes on the song.

There is an entire sermon just on “He kissed me with the kisses of his mouth”, so it is hard to synthesize. I hope this will suffice.

Bernard used the Song to form an ethic based on love. Love, he felt, allowed people to transform from our natural, fallen and selfish state, to more holy state. This happens in stages. First, love is for self, and love of God in the first stage is for the sake of one’s self. But, this is not an improper love, because it allows for movement to stage two. This happens when we realize our own limitations, and desire to transcend them. Stage two is love of God for what he gives us (namely, grace). Once we move beyond our limitations (Bernard is a mystic), we are able to enter stage three, love of God for God’s own sake, even to the extent of forgetting ourselves. In stage four, we love ourselves once again, but it is an emptied out version of ourselves (did someone say mysticism?). The love of ourselves in stage four is entirely unselfish, because it is a love of ourselves purely for the sake of God.

In the mountains northwest of Madrid, you will find nestled the little old Castilian village of Segovia. I spent only a year there. I walked its cobbled streets during the evening paseo. I was befriended by its teenagers. Adios Roberto. Adios Marie Carmen. Adios Celia. Adios Eduardo. I gazed out at the mountain range that had inspired Hemingway. I ate the baked lamb and drank the red wine of that region. I admired its aqueduct. I photographed its castle. I learned the language, the humor, the humors, the history, the heart, the soul of a noble people. I walked in the dark late night rain and greeted the town crier and constable: ‘Adios’. Someday I hope to return. I find that Segovia appears with more regularity in my dreams now than it has for thirty years past.

I visited there the resting place of St. John of the Cross. I read and remembered his poetry: en una noche oscura, con ansias en amores inflamadas, o dichosa ventura!, sali sin ser notada, estando ya mi casa sosegada.

Lent may not seem like the right time to read the Song of Songs. Yet it is the perfect time! Our hearts are restless, restless, until they find their rest in the divine, the second song of Solomon. Such a word of longing! Is there anything, any theme more Lenten than that of longing!?!

Set me as a seal upon your heart

As a seal upon your arm;

For love is strong as death,

Jealousy is cruel as the grave.

Its flashes are flashes of fire,

A most vehement flame.

Many waters cannot quench love,

Neither can floods drown it.

If a man offered for love

All the wealth of his house

It would be utterly scorned.

Human love is blessed—by God.

Invitation

There are two Songs of Solomon…

In earshot of the two Songs of Solomon, love divine and human both, let me invite you to a better life.

Let me invite you to cherish friendship, and to bathe friendship, like a lover, in the warm baths of time and attention. Let me invite you to honor partnership, and to bathe partnership, like a lover, in the warm baths of time and attention. Let me invite you to enjoy affection, and to bathe affection, like a lover, in warm baths of time and attention. Let me invite you to revere marriage, and to bathe marriage, like a lover, in the warm baths of time and attention.

For such friendship may frame your soul in communion with the divine. Such partnership may prepare your soul for commerce with the divine. Such affection may prepare your psyche for intimacy with the divine. Such marriage may open you…to God.

“Love is strong as death and hard as hell.” (SOS 8:6)

Josiah Royce and the Transfiguration

Sunday, February 10th, 2008


Matthew 17: 1-9

Whence Saving Insight?

When and how does a moment of insight come? What are the steps up along the mountain trail of life which give a moment of clarity that can save us?

Peter has just heard our Lord’s ageless command: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow.” (Mt 16:24). Then Peter is led, step by step, up a high mountain, where something…unearthly…occurs. He sees what cannot be seen. And, from this mountain view, for a moment, there is insight and there is clarity.

When and how does such a moment arrive, a moment of clarity that can save us from an anger that leads to murder, or a heartache that leads to suicide, or a despair over a gun-totting nation drenched in violence, or a chagrin about a country that ever more closely approximates Fosdick’s verse, “rich in things and poor in soul”?

Today’s Gospel offers us a mountain view, clarity and insight, found step by step along the rocky trail of life, that can lift us up above sin and death and the threat of meaninglessness. Its five step program was inspired by Josiah Royce’s little book of 1912, The Sources of Religious Insight.

In earshot of insight on the mountain of transfiguration…Walk along with me, if you will, for just a few minutes…up the mountain path we go…and take, Come Sunday, a divergent road.

  1. Insight Through the Thicket of Personal Need

One step toward insight lies through the thicket of personal need. Careful, step carefully here. Here you recognize your mortality. “It is a great life, but few of us get out alive.” We truly do not know the hurts and needs others face. Every heart has secret sorrows. Here you admit that the acts of desperation in news reports come from conditions you also know. Fear, anger, jealousy, hatred, dread. Here—step lightly—you see the shadow, and your shadow in the greater shadow. One called this “the feeling of absolute dependence”. Here we are confessional. We say, “Hello. My name is John Smith and I am an alcoholic.” We say, “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.” We say, “There but for the grace of God, go I.

I remember the first time I was left alone with our first child, to give her mother a night out. She had been the most pleasant of children, happy and bright, sleeping through the night. She hardly cried. But that hot August night, at the very moment the door closed and the car drove off, she began to wail. Not to whimper or weep, but to wail and shriek and scream. Five, twenty five, fifty minutes. I was really shaken, terrified, angry and frustrated, at my wit’s end, and probably at the edge of some irrational behavior. Over the din of the howling daughter, I heard the doorbell. In came our church’s lay leader, Bernice Danks, a veteran nurse and teacher of nurses at Cornell who wordlessly took the child and somehow the howling ceased. “Oh, I like to make a few house visits a week. It’s a little routine of mine…You know I tell my nursing students that we call the things that are most important, ‘routine’…and I came by the parsonage and for some reason I decided to stop. I hope you don’t mind the intrusion…What a pleasant baby she is!”

When we are helpless, insight can come.

Wesley is still with us to ask, “Will you visit from house to house?” Insight sees inside the closed door of personal need, and measures the distance between public appearance and private reality. We recognize personal need with every Sunday, at Marsh Chapel with gusto, in confession and kyrie, cry for forgiveness.

  1. Insight Over the River of Others’ Hurts

A second step toward insight lies over the river of another’s hurt. Here, we’ll jump the river at the portage path, where we bear each other’s burdens like canoes carried in tandem. A moment of clarity can come when you truly see another’s plight, and feel it in your heart. Some insight comes from serving others, some from sensing others’ hurt. It is really a matter of understanding power, this insight about others. Think of the Prince and the Pauper, or of Lazarus and Dives. Insight happens in the chorus of the common life, when we sing out, “so that’s what it is like to be you…”

The social gospel tradition, theological and political, (Rauschenbusch, Douglass, Anthony, Gladden, and others) may be criticized as a “Johnny one note” presentation. But if you have to choose just one note to play, this is one to pick. Jesus means freedom. To learn about the nature of power, and the effects of power, we listen to the powerless.

Men, listen to the women about whom you care, as they describe being pulled over on the thruway in a winter night. With red lights flashing…sirens wailing…car door thudding…a tall male figure in uniform and wide brimmed hat…a revolver in the belt… “May I see your license please?”…Men, listen to women.

Majority, listen to the minority describe the feeling of being stopped on the front porch step, at night, after a long day of menial work. Do you remember this New York tragedy of some years ago? With the lights flashing and the uniforms and hats and, when you reach for your wallet some one yells.”Gun!” 41 bullets later a tragedy—unintended to be sure—has occurred. Not a gun but a wallet. Such a tragedy for all. But maybe it can help us to gain insight, to feel what others feel. Majority, listen to the minority.

Insight comes through the common song that recognizes another’s hurt.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday as we sing hymns together, to recognize that we are all in this together.

  1. Insight Scaling the Cliffs of Reason

A third step toward insight lies over the cliff of reason. “Come let us reason together” says the Psalmist. God has entrusted us with freedom, and with minds to think through our use of freedom. While reason has its limits, it is reason, finally, that will help us learn the arts of disagreement—at home, at work, in church, in the community. We say, “Try to be reasonable”. And reason often prevails. If you ever doubt the power of reason to bring insight, remember the words of the Psalmist, and the voices of great minds through the ages. Josiah Royce’s Sources of Religious Insight, is itself a gem of such reasoned discourse. Come let us reason together…

Now I submit to you that this meaning of the word reason is perfectly familiar to all of you. Reason, from this point of view, is the power to see widely and steadily and connectedly. Its true opponent is not intuition, but whatever makes us narrow in outlook, and consequently prey to our own caprices. The unreasonable person is the person who can see but one thing at a time, when he ought to see two or many things together; who can grasp but one idea, when a synthesis of ideas is required. The reasonable man is capable of synopsis, of viewing both or many sides of a question, of comparing various motives, of taking interest in a totality rather than in a scattered multiplicity. (87).

You know, we recognize this chance for insight, this moment of clarity, every Sunday through a sermon, a word (we hope) fitly spoken.

  1. Insight Across the Gorge of the Will

A fourth step toward insight lies across the great gorge of the will. Look before you leap. We are here ever closer to the mountaintop. Real insight comes in a moment of decision. Some say we learn to choose. But our experience is that we learn by choosing. Viktor Frankl spent his whole life developing the “logotherapy” around this one conviction: we grow by deciding. Choose. You cannot lose, in the fullest sense, and in the long run. Choose. Either way, you have learned, you will grow, you have changed, you will improve, you have developed. Choose.

Faith is not a matter of emotion or feeling or soul or heart or intellect only. First, faith is a decision. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow.”

As Kierkegaard put it, “eitheror”… Either God or not. Decide. Either you see God in Christ or not. Decide. Either Jesus Christ has a claim on your life or not. Decide. Either every day is a chance for love or not. Decide. Either the way of love means particular consequent acts regarding your time, your money, your body, your community…or not. Decide.

Faith is not as much thrill as it is will.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday, in a moment of invitation—to devotion, to discipline, to dedication.

  1. Insight Upon the Summit of Loyalty

A fifth step toward insight brings us to the summit. There. Take a breath. Up here, the air is rarified. Up here, you may have a moment of clarity. For the fifth step toward insight brings us to the altar of loyalty. We are in the thin air that requires a use of archaic words—loyalty, duty, chivalry. Beware though the sense that loyalty is a matter of sullen obedience. On the contrary! Loyalty is the red flame lit in the heart’s chancel, lit with the admixture of personal need and social concern, illumined by the reason and ignited by the will. Loyalty combines the conservative concern for morality with the liberal hunger for justice. Loyalty is life, but life with a purpose. Insight, real clarity, can come with a brush up with loyalty. Tell me what you give to, and I will tell you who you are. Tell me what you sacrifice for, and I will tell you who you are. Tell me what altar you face, and I will tell you who you are. Dime con quien andas, y te dire quien eres

And real loyalty is magnanimous. Real loyalty is bighearted enough to honor an opponent’s loyalty. At the summit, there can be a reverent respect for another’s loyalty, truly lived, even when it clashes with our own. Maybe especially then. US Grant felt this at Appomatox as he took the sword from RE Lee. It is chivalry, this honoring of loyal opposition. We were once known for this kind of chivalry, a reverent respect for divergent loyalties, as long as they did not eclipse the one great loyalty. I overheard this kind of chivalry from a local football player this week, a burly formerly bearded lineman, who said, “They played better than we did.”

Such a memory could help our political conversations, reminding us that at depth loyalties converge out of difference. Surface difference can occlude deeper agreements. Loyalty has a magnanimous depth that honors others’ divergent loyalties.

One of the strangest turns in the New Testament is found in 1 Corinthians 15. After Paul has reached the very summit of our faith, and sings of the resurrection in such heavenly tones, then, immediately, he turns to—do you remember?—the collection! A matter of loyalty.

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

You know, we recognize this chance for insight every Sunday, through the presentation of gifts, an expression of loyalty, at the altar of grace and freedom and love.

Royce on the Mountain

Several years ago, we worshipped in the tiniest church in our area. A little Adirondack chapel, at the end of the trail, high up in the northern mountains. Beyond Owl’s Head, and Chasm Falls and Wolf Pond, there is the
summit of Mountainview, with its chapel and pump organ and wooden pews and simple pulpit, and humble service, still though a service like this one or any — a chance for saving insight as we recognize personal need, others’ hurts, the power of reason, the importance of will, the force of loyalty—in the prayer of confession, the music of community, the preaching of the Word, the invitation to decision, and the loyal offering of gifts.

Let insight abound on the curvaceous slopes of personal need! Let insight abound on the majestic mountains of social holiness! Let insight abound on the prodigious cliffs of reason and will! Let insight abound on the purple mountain summit of loyalty—from every mountainview, let insight abound! So that, to paraphrase the spiritual, we might sing, insight at last, insight at last, thank God Almighty, we have saving insight at last!

Somehow we were deluded to think that worship is optional. Many things are optional. For those, however, who desire to see life as human and keep life human, worship is essential, essential, essential to insight, essential to the insight that keeps life human. How can we be human without seeing our own frailty, without knowing another’s pain, without learning to reason together, without the courage to decide, without the love of loyalty? So let us improve in Lent.

Let us worship God together. As you are doing, do so more and more.

Let us make it our earnest desire to worship God each Lord’s Day.

Let us make preparation for our ordered worship in daily prayer and reading.

Let us sing lustily, as Wesley taught, and pray with energy, and listen with care.

Let us do as OW Holmes regularly did with every sermon, ill or well though the sermon was: “I applied it to myself”.

Let us shake off our timidity and seize every opportunity to include others, friend and neighbor and relative in worship.

Let us savor the memory of Sunday all week long—humming familiar verses, reciting familiar phrases, chewing on various themes.

Let us expect and experience of love, of presence, of God.

Let us enter silence with grace and song with freedom.

Let us prepare to worship…

To Quicken the Conscience by the Holiness of God

To Illumine the Imagination by the Beauty of God

To Open the Heart to the Love of God

To Devote the Will to the Purposes of God