- Published: 17 March 2015
We know best by heart.
There was a time when I had as a passion for memorizing as much Scripture as I could. This task was founded upon good intent but had woven into some false expectations. The false expectation was that if I memorized scripture it would keep me from doing “bad” things, would keep all “temptation” away. This false expectation was founded upon some faulty thinking that included misguided understandings of God, misguided understandings about the meaning of sin, all of which was associated with a denial of sensuality and a myriad other rather strange concoctions which I won’t bore you with.
What I have come to realize is that this task of memorizing scripture was actually a way of hardening my heart by reinforcing preconceived notions. It was a way to avoid being honest and being real. It was a way of putting a shell around the heart.
Now the Spirit works in mysterious ways. Since the stories of the Scripture are life-giving, these words began to crack open the heart, became a source that softened the heart. I am keenly aware that when we speak about knowing best by heart, it is much more than rote learning. Learning by heart is not a stamping onto the heart ideas, but rather a breaking open of the heart.
The breaking open of the heart happens most poignantly in the experiences of life, especially when we are honest or real about those life experiences. Experiences like the one we sang just a few minutes ago. A people faced a time of exile, a time of profound loss and uncertainty and “wilderness”. You can feel the depth of the cry from the heart…there we wept when we remembered Zion. Zion was home, and home is carried in the heart.
I don’t know about you…but even though this particular experience of being conquered and stolen away as foreigner in a foreign land is not my literal experience, I am able to relate my to the experience of exile that happens in my own life. I feel it in the heart.
Today we read about a heart experience of Jesus. The reading is short and terse, yet profound, profound because we encounter a story about the breaking open of the heart of Jesus.
In our gospel reading the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, drives Jesus away from his home town, to a desolate place, a place of reckoning, of vulnerability, a place where both the heart of life and his own heart is exposed.
This wilderness journey parallels or is similar to a spirit quest, not unlike the initiation practices many of our First nations people describe. This is an initiation rite where youth from the community go out into the wilderness for an extended period of time to seek personal growth and spiritual guidance. They go to learn about themselves and to learn for themselves. It is a journey of becoming, of coming to know one’s own heart.
In this spirit quest, conditions are intentionally created to allow the soul to move beyond childhood illusions and embrace a larger vision and connection through a struggle with the elements of nature. Conditions to break open the heart. Equally, there is a confidence, a trust expressed in the innate strength of the one who begins the spirit quest. They are ready for it.
In our gospel reading, the Spirit, knowing of the readiness of Jesus, compels Jesus to embark on a spirit quest. The Spirit trusts in Jesus as Jesus tackles this task. The writer of the gospel story weaves together a clear structure of readiness because this spirit quest begins right after the assertion of Jesus as Beloved, begins with a starting point of love, a starting point of original goodness, and it is from this starting point that Jesus can wrestle with his own demons, wrestle with “Satan” if you will, wrestle with the temptations of ego and the struggle to establish one’s own identity, wrestle with the pathways he will choose.
This Lent, our theme is being informed by the theological work of Rita Nakashima Brock in her book “Journeys by Heart”. Nakashima Brock, in my mind is an unheralded heroine of theology, because she has articulated insights and methodologies that are ground-breaking that have shifted theological thinking and our spirit questing though she is often not acknowledged for her insights
Nakashima Brock has done must of her theological work by attending to her own spirit journey, her own spirit quest. Writing in partnership with Rebecca Ann Parker in another book titled Proverbs of Ashes. Rita’s opening reflection titled “Haunted by Loss” describes her own family of origin, a chapter that begins by quoting the Psalm of weeping by the Rivers of Babylon.
Rita was reared in a bi-racial family and intuited that maybe everything was not “as it appeared”. Later in life she learned the truth. Her “father” was not her “biological father”. As a child, she intuited that there was more to the story and was haunted by this loss.
Do you know that there is a loss in the family of Jesus? We know little about the life of Jesus, but allow me one observation.
Most biblical scholars acknowledge that the gospel of Mark is the first gospel written. Do you know that if we only had the gospel of Mark, we would not know that Jesus had a father?
In advent, we recognized that there is no birth story, and hence no Joseph. As the gospel unfolds, there are two references to the family of Jesus, references limited to mother, brothers, and sisters. Jesus is even identified as a carpenter who is the “son of Mary” but there is no Joseph. Even in all the earlier writings of the apostle Paul, Joseph as the father of Jesus is not mentioned.This is a notable absence, an intriguing experience. Even in the other gospels, Joseph while mentioned is a fleeting character.
While I don’t want to wallow in meaningless speculation, there is a story there that had a profound impact on Jesus.
Nakashima Brock in her theological work, places the experience of the family at the centre. She notes that it is with those persons with whom we develop our first interpersonal bonds that shape us throughout our lives, that shape us literally from birth until death. There are the bonds formed with the primary persons from whom we learn what it means to be ourselves, that are closest to our hearts.
Jesus had a real family. While there is a family experience here that we know little about, it is an experience that has impact and worth noting even if the reference is fleeting. There were economic and social impacts to not having a father. There would be hardship which would have also created a bond of survival and shared experiences allowing for a deep connection and love among the family of Jesus.
I don’t know what the impact is, but we do know that the gospel story of Jesus had a radical approach to the place of women in the Jesus movement, that there is a challenge to systems of partriarchy. Jesus would have known firsthand the loss and woundedness in the absence of a father.
While the gospel of Mark, with a certain purposefulness, does not delineate the content of the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness, we know the context of spirit quest is a time to come to face himself and his own life experience, which includes the absence of a father.
What is not so fleeting, and in fact is rather blatant, is that while Jesus goes to the wilderness by himself, this sojourn actually propelled him more deeply into his own story of origin, and into the story of his people. He goes to the wilderness for 40 days. This is an overt connection with the communal story of when his people wandered in a desert for 40 years.
While Jesus has to do discover the sacred for himself this discovery is intimately linked to community. The spiritual journey is always a personal and communal experience.
Rita Nakashima Brock notes that the Christ energy is not actually in a person, but is realized in community. This is core to her understanding of the Christ story and one that we readily embrace here at First United.
Jesus having experienced loss and the impacts of this kind of loss in his world, now is set to become a second Moses to free his people. To free the marginalized people of his own day from the tyranny of their own religious leaders, religious leaders who have sold themselves to political expediency of a Roman empire.
Nakashima Brock speaks about developing a Christology of Erotic power. By this she means that in the Jesus movement and story, there is energy released to bring a transformation of personal and social structures. There is a healing energy which is potent. An energy available to all of us and which can change lives and society for the better.
This energy happens not in one person but in a people. Jesus is connected to a people, a community that unleashes a power to transform. In the wilderness, with wild beasts and angels, Jesus comes to carry the story of his people in his body, comes to embody the story. In the wilderness, Jesus sat down and wept, his heart broke open as he confronted woundedness in the story of his people’s slavery, woundedness in his own story.
This experience breaks open the heart of Jesus, it goes to a deep place in the heart as the community is present in the 40 days and symbolically present in the angels and the wild beasts who help Jesus.
This Lent we are invited to journeys by heart, to allow our hearts to be broken open. Let us open the heart for these 40 days, allowing the potent power of God in community to be unleashed in our own lives. Now, communities are not perfect, they can sometimes drive us to distraction, but the edginess of community is what makes us grow. The only thing worse than the company of community is having to live exclusively with my own company.
The goal of community is to remind us that we are all “beloved”. The heart of Jesus could break open because he understood he was God’s beloved.
Nakashima Brock brings us back to the Biblical teachings of original goodness, of a core belovedness, of an essential trust. Though not working in isolation, Nakashima Brock was one of the first to clearly articulate the need to abandon the doctrine of original sin, a doctrine she could see nowhere in the Bible and a doctrine that she experienced as grievious and not life giving.
The doctrine of original sin has been connected with blame, punishment, and guilt, weaving into the consciousness of many a foundational self-hate which in particular negatively impacted women who were blamed even more intensely based on misappropriation of the Eve and Adam story.
This understanding needs to be challenged because it has damaged our self-understandings and ripped away at core identity. The Scriptures tell us, that at the core, we are created good and named as God’s beloved.
We recognize that an understanding of original goodness does not mean that one negates any concept of “sin”. To the contrary, sin is actually taken more seriously without a doctrine of original sin. That doctrine lets us off the hook too easily. Rita Nakashima Brock notes that while sinfulness is not a state that comes inevitably with birth or something that permeates all human existence, it is a reality that happens because of the unavoidable relational nature of human existence. None of us are exempt from the realities of life and the experiences of brokenness that happen in life.
The fact of the matter is that when we leave behind the doctrines of original sin, we actually opened up to take the hurts in our world more seriously. We move beyond a naïve optimism about humanity’s goodness to a profound acknowledgement of our interrelatedness and the experiences of brokenness that happens in our relationships. Ultimately, we are called to look for the ways to find grace and the means to embrace and heal the brokenness of our deepest selves and society. “Sin” is not something to be punished but to be healed.
This is what happened to Jesus in the desert. His heart, coming from a foundation of belovedness, was broken open so that he could embark in a journey of healing and become an agent for transforming the brokenheartedness he encountered all around him.
We too are called to such a “journey by heart”