Saturday, September 02, 2006

What gets you through the hard night?

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Matthew 26:36-44

The UU Blog Carnival question this month is, What gets me through the hard night? I’ve had a few of them, and in looking back I can say that I knew for myself what we are told the Universalists always preached: Nothing can separate me from the everlasting love of God. God is with me steadfastly, even when all things seem to be arrayed against me, even in my deepest suffering, even in those times when, as Jesus discovered, my will is contrary to His. I know this in my bones, and it gets me through. Though I do not claim to know and cannot describe what God is, the essence of God is the Love that conquers all despair, and it will never abandon me. I am not alone, but am a part of the Whole.

But the apprehension of that truth is not original with me, nor even with our Universalist denominational antecedents. It was also known to King David, who wrote in Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.”

The Psalms, in fact, are chock full of this understanding. So also, part of what gets me through the hard night is realizing that what seems true to me today has also been true for thousands of years before I came to understand it. And the fact that it has been known for thousands of years, in turn, shows that the God’s love is indeed universal, and the knowledge of it is universally available, as the Universalists argued.

O Lord, You have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord,
You know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Whither can I go from Your spirit?
Or whither can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
and Your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to You;
The night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to You.
For it was You who formed my inward parts;
You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are Your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from You,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In Your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are Your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with You
. Psalm 139: 1-18

Of course, many UUs today shun the Psalms along with the rest of the Bible; they reject the validity of turning to it for truth in time of trouble. They may disagree with the view that it is of divine origin, or they may view it as unreliable because it contains supposedly factual material that is demonstrably wrong, or they may view it as only one of a worldwide anthology of religious texts we may browse like a dim sum menu for only those morsels that appeal to us, or they may associate it with the abusiveness of another religious tradition that exalts it, or they may associate it with a specific image of a specific deity the existence of which they deny.

My view is different, as is the historic witness of the Universalist and Unitarian denominations whose legacy we have inherited. I view the Bible as the work of human hands rather than the record of a divine voice, but also as the human witness to things that countless generations before us have found in their own experience to be true. Thus, when I read something in the Bible that conflicts with my understanding, I allow the Bible a presumption of truth and look for ways to reconcile the two.

The words of the Bible may be human, not divine, but we UUs have never denied the authority of human witness. The Bible may contain its authors’ factual errors and other limitations of understanding peculiar to their own times and places, but those instances are easily recognizable and do not taint other, more timeless and/or metaphorical, truths. The Bible may reflect the religious orientation of only one culture among all the world’s, but it is the witness of our own culture, and the truth of its witness is confirmed in the parallel apprehensions of others. The Bible may be revered, even to the point of idolatry, by abusive religious groups, but when that occurs it is as much the victim of their abuse as any human victim, rather than the source of the abuse. And, most of all, the clear witness of the Bible is that God is ultimately inapprehensible and indescribable and not just a Big Guy in the Sky, yet also that the essence of God is love and not punishment:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above. Exodus 20:4

Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And [YHWH] said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘YHWH’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And YHWH continued, “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.” Exodus 33: 18-23

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. I John 4: 16

And so it remains a valid exercise, and even sometimes a necessary one, even for us skeptical UUs, even those of us who find supernaturalism incredible, even those of us who find ancient pre-scientific myths to be fraught with foolish superstition, to turn to the Bible in times of despair for comforting truth, just as our own denominational predecessors did, and countless others before them.

God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,
And though the mountains are shaken in the midst of the sea,
Though the waters rage and foam,
And though the mountains quake at the rising of the sea.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
The holy dwelling-place of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her, therefore she shall not be moved;
God will help her, and at break of day.
The nations make uproar, and the kingdoms are shaken,
but God has lifted his voice, and the earth shall tremble.
The Lord of hosts is with us: the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Come then and see what the Lord has done:
What destruction He has brought upon the earth.
He makes wars to cease in all the world,
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear,
and burns the chariots in the fire.
‘Be still, and know that I am God:
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted upon the earth.’
The Lord of hosts is with us: the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Psalm 46

“Be still, and know that I am God.” It’s not such a bad mantra in times of fear or danger. It too has helped me settle my nerves in those long, dark nights.

As has a re-setting of Psalm 46 that may be more familiar to many of us than the original. It began as a paraphrase by Martin Luther, who is also familiar, at least by name, to most of us. What most people don’t realize, though, probably not even most UUs, is that the familiar re-setting is actually a translation of Luther’s paraphrase by our own Frederic H. Hedge, 19th-century Unitarian minister, Harvard professor, and co-founder with Ralph Waldo Emerson of the Transcendental Club, and that its portrayal of the nature of Jesus is characteristically Unitarian:

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.


At February 10, 2007 at 12:17:00 AM EST, Anonymous epiphanist said...

My favourite chant comes from Psalm 139 "In our darkness there is no darkness with you O Lord, The deepest night is clear as the day" I have been singing this chant with kids, they are also taking great enjoyment from it!


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