I just returned from my last final of the semester. It was…unconventional, to say the least. Instead of sitting in a wood-paneled classroom for three hours getting intimate with a blue book, I spent the last weekend sitting on a couch by a fireplace at a Mennonite retreat center in Michigan. This was my final.
The idea emerged earlier this semester in a course I treasured: Greek exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount. In the small classroom, with only five of us (and a very diverse five of us, at that), we found community in a way I’ve never experienced in a class before. We found community in the text of the Sermon on the Mount itself—realizing that this text, this challenge is meant to shape community life and that there’s no way we can hope to live up to it without the full support of a healthy community. We also found community in each other. We opened to each other over the course of the semester, or, I should say, the sermon opened us—for when you really dig deep into any text, and perhaps particularly this masterful and yet confusing teaching of Jesus, it touches the wounded and vulnerable in you. That we, a funny mix of three men and three women, of different ages and backgrounds, were able to enter that vulnerability together and keep it grounded in the text was a particularly precious gift. Our community became so treasured, in fact, that towards the middle of the semester the idea of replacing our final days of class with a group retreat emerged.
And so I held a cup of piping hot tea during my last final. Much of the weekend was about listening. Each of us, throughout the semester, had worked on a project combining our own theological and pastoral interests with our study of the text. I listened to my classmates connect the sermon with agrarianism or consider Paul’s views as they related to our text. My own project emerged out of a desire I have held for a long time to memorize and perform Scripture. I have memorized before, even extensively, but always individual verses. As I’ve grown in both my understanding and appreciation of Scripture, I’ve seen how crucial it is to hold whole texts together, especially from the perspective this class took: that of exegesis. I knew early on this would be my project: to memorize my own English translation of the text, a translation I hoped would embody a certain literalism and poetry, and to present the memorized text to my classmates.
In truth, I thought memorization was my project. But over a semester of translating, writing, repeating, walking with, carrying-with-me-everywhere and holding this text, I had to change my language. Memorization was only the catalyst. The real project, the life project the emerged from my final project, became the project of discovering how this text overtook me. How it, as I read somewhere, “worked the earth of my heart”: turning me over and leaving fertile ground for new things to grow.
Now seeing the crowd
Jesus went up into the mountain
and as he sat down
His disciples drew near to him
and he opened himself
and began to teach them,
In the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus “opened himself, and began to teach them…” His words opened me, too. The simplest summary I can give of how working to memorize this text transformed it for me—and transformed me in the process—is that the text slowly shifted from a comforting passage, lending a certain vindication for my chosen simple lifestyle, towards admonition that deeply disturbs me and interrogates me daily. Of course, the sermon still comforts and entices—and yet as this text got into me, deeper and deeper, entering my mind at unexpected moments—I found that memorizing the sermon largely became a daily reminder of how significantly trans-formative Jesus’ words indeed are. How much they ask of us. And how much they offer us.
Fortunate are those who are mourning,
for they will be accompanied.
These are the words that have most profoundly gripped me this semester. I took some interpretive courage to translate them this way. It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility, but also nontraditional. Yet this image of accompaniment gripped me. This has been a semester of grief for me as I watched our dear friends’ three year old daughter weaken and finally die from an incurable, inoperable brain tumor. Cancer in young children is pure evil. And speaking of young children and evil, these words have seized me anew in the last month as a community and a nation reel at the shooting of twenty first graders and seven of their caregivers in Connecticut. “Fortunate are those who are mourning” describes too many this day.
These words, at first, comforted me in my grief at watching little Stella sicken and die. I watched as so many accompanied her into death in beautiful ways. I watched as so many strangers and friends accompanied her family in their grief and remembrance. And yet I couldn’t bring myself, as I walked the path around my seminary campus memorizing and reciting this sermon, to ever say this out loud. Anger lingered in me: what is possibly fortunate, or blessed, about children dying and the deep mourning that overwhelms us?
Here the movement began: from comfort to discomfort. From hope to a certain, Spirit-led disturbance.
If grief comes in waves, then comfort comes in waves, too. Paradoxically, the first (and admittedly fleeting) moment when I knew something of this so-called “fortunate” was at Stella’s vigil. It was a cold November night in Toronto. Two hundred of us of us had gathered at a farm to celebrate a little girl who loved pigs. Stella’s mom stood in the wind with a microphone tearfully recalling the most precious moments with her daughter before and after her diagnoses. Hearing my friend speak I saw in her a profound mix of sadness and, unbelievably…could that be hope? I saw gratefulness. New patience. She shared with us about learning to let Stella lead. If Stella wanted to watch the orangutans at the zoo for 90 minutes, they would sit there for 90 minutes. And in those 90 minutes Stella and her mother would see those monkeys with a fresh eye for detail: the monkeys behaviors and quirks, like the little one who loved to pull his siblings hair (just like Stella!). I realized then, that in the midst of their mourning, my friends and their daughter had lived more in the last year of Stella’s life than I perhaps had lived throughout the whole of my own.
Fortunate are those who are mourning.
And when 200 people lit candles and sang that little girl’s favorite song, Happy Birthday, I looked around at the power of 200 lights in the midst of a dark night. For they will be accompanied.
Our God in the heavens
reverence be to your name
May your kingdom come
May your will be done
as in heaven, also on earth
Give us our bread for today
and release us from our debts
as we release our debtors
and do not lead us into testing
but preserve us from evil.
I do not think it accidental that this prayer lies in the center of the Sermon on the Mount. About the time I get to it I am ready to give up both memorizing and living this text. There’s so much to do. So much to change and transform. So much creativity required, and community, and trust.
Our God in the heavens. It is in that moment of doubt and despair when I hit these familiar words and I am suddenly reminded: it’s not about me. The Sermon on the Mount isn’t about me, it’s about God. And the entire call, I believe, is predicated on these words. Our God in the heavens, reverence be to your name. I am not praying that I have the strength for perfect obedience, I am praying that God’s will be done. I am praying that God’s name be revered anew. I am praying that today I am given what I need.
I don’t think I can give up the Matthean language of debts, either. I can’t give it up because I realize I hold so tightly to my debtors. One of them being life itself: I believe life owes me something. This is, perhaps, the greatest thing I mourned this fall with Stella’s passing—the realization that life doesn’t owe us we can’t expect but only accept what comes. Simone Weil, French philosopher and mystic, reminds me that true love thinks less of rights and more about obligations. What do I owe? Not what others owe me. But it is so hard not to live by the keeping of a perpetual scorecard. I know I need this prayer to work against that sense of entitlement.
To memorize this text, I walked. I walked in large, one-mile circles on the path around my seminary campus. It became a ritual of sorts, about 3 o’clock every afternoon. I walked the path and spoke aloud the text as I memorized. In this vocalizing the text didn’t become something passing through my mental synapses, but something involving also my vocal chords. In walking it became a part of my body. I moved to it. Breathed to it. Sang to it.
Though the class is over, and my final has been spoken and heard, I don’t think I can give up this walking, and I don’t think I can give up these challenging words just yet. Perhaps this spring I’ll memorize it in Greek, or French, or another English translation. Or not. Perhaps I’ll just sit with it. For if Scripture works the earth of our hearts, making it ripe for planting, then there must be a time to plant and a time to wait for the seeds to germinate and flowers emerge. Thus I will keep walking and speaking, memorizing, and pondering. I will keep allowing myself to be disturbed.
And I will watch, in this tossed soil, for the seeds I’ve planted this fall to bloom in spring. I know, on the north side of campus, hundreds of crocus bulbs will bloom earlier than the rest. They were planted as a Sept. 11th memorial ten years ago, and many still come up. I will live with this text then until at least I see those flowers, a physical reminder that when we are deeply disturbed—devastated even— there is yet room for new growth.
Image From: By Thomas Wolf (Der Wolf im Wald) (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons