As I'm committed to try to pray the daily office, I decided to do a little experiment here where I'd record some reflections on whatever Scriptures are assigned in the morning prayers. These are simply devotional reflections on whatever strikes me from the texts. I hope they can be of some value to you. This first one is perhaps a little meatier (as in, longer!) than most of them will be. If you would like to join me in praying and reading through the office with me, today's morning prayer in full is linked here. Thanks for reading--I plan to post more of these as often as I can.
Meditation one: upside down, inside-out time
1 God is our refuge and strength, *
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, *
and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea;
3 Though its waters rage and foam, *
and though the mountains tremble at its tumult.
4 The LORD of hosts is with us; *
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
These are upside down, inside out times. I am tired of elaborating about these times, attempting to explain or account for them. It is not just that political structures that are trembling, but ecclesial structures. It is not just our bodies that quivering in the tumult, but our very souls. It is not just culture that is shifting, but the ground beneath our feet. Angels and demons are at play in this, and not just demographics. I feel it in my bones; I experience it inside each breath.
There are no explanations that are useful; there are no platitudes that comfort. There is this, and only this: that in such inside out, upside down times, the kind of time when the mountains are toppled and thrown into the sea—the Lord of hosts is with us. Our own experience of being turned upside down and inside out creates space in us to be immersed into another reality, a reality in which Love rules over all, despite any evidence to the contrary.
This does not explain where God is present, or how God is present, anymore than it explains the mountains being cast into the sea . The Psalm washes over me this morning, delightfully free and unencumbered by the explanations and machinations of logic, sociology, and psychology, the unending hamster wheel I’m always running inside my brain. It instead only offers me an audacious proclamation: God is here. God is with us. God is our stronghold.
I have all the reasons in the world to be afraid, and yet the audacity of faith is to tell me I don’t have to be afraid, anyway.
Meditation two: the light is never out, and the gates will never shut.
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day-and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.
I never cease to marvel at the brilliance of John’s apocalypse—the brightness and vividness of his visions, the elegance of the literary structure. Revelation is a linguistic cathedral in which no word is wasted. One of the most arresting details is John’s use of “ the nations” and “the kings of the earth”—the exact phrases he uses repeatedly in Revelation 12 and following to describe those who make war against the lamb. And yet in Revelation 21, we see “the nations” and “the kings of the earth” coming into the new Jerusalem. We know that “nothing unclean will enter there,” so whoever is entering into this city has apparently been cleansed. But however you work any of this out, it seems that John wants to see that at least some of these now friends of God were numbered among the enemies of God in the story thus far. Curiously, they would seem to be utterly deposed of in chapter 19--but here they are, entering the new city. (note: I had never seen this movement in the text before reading Brad Jersak’s wonderful book, Her Gates Never Be Shut: Hell, Hope and the New Jerusalem)
As a simple meditation on only one text, I have no desire to put some kind of stake down here on any big ideas about universal reconciliation. I don’t find anything much about either this life nor the afterlife to be simple, but to the extent I have thoughts about such matters that are too deep for me, I’d point to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s excellent little book Dare We Hope that all Men Be Saved? Von Balthasar essentially claims that we should hope for all to be saved, pray for all to be saved, and are given reasons to hope—but also no assurances, which is why we should not be presumptuous about it. For myself, I am as punch drunk on the love of God as I could be, and do in fact believe in a Love wide and strong enough to redeem anyone. But I also find repeatedly in Scripture a sort of dogged determination on the part of the Creator to not override human choice; a God too committed to our freedom to drag anyone kicking and screaming even into bliss. I do not feel inclined nor competent enough to resolve this tension prematurely.
For while I don’t believe the God revealed in Christ condemns anyone, I absolutely do believe there is a kind of hell that can be willfully chosen. Consider the words of Dylann Roof this week, the young man convicted for killing nine black worshippers in a Charleston church last year: “I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.” If that is not a description of self-chosen damnation, I do not know what is. Of course I do not believe that Dylann Roof or anyone else is unredeemable—only that hell is to be stuck in such a place, choosing hate over love. Love cannot melt us, until we say yes to it.
And yet in contrast to the seemingly unending opportunities we have to choose violence, selfishness, and cruelty—here is this city where the light never goes out, and the gates never shut. The light is always on, no matter how dark it gets. The gates are never closed to us, no matter what other gates are slammed in our faces. The night can seem neverending; but so also is the city of light and of love, ever open for us to choose it. This is the city in which one days Caesars and popes and presidents will one day line up to bring their gifts to worship the One who is Love embodied, just like anyone else.
So today the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city that comes down, is teaching me how to exist. And it is not complicated, no matter how complex the world might seem to me in the moment: I’m too keep my light on, and to keep my gates open. I don’t get to go dark, or shut the gates of my heart. I get to choose to imitate God by taking on the character of the home God makes for us—wide, wide open, 24/7. I also have the opportunity to trust that no matter what wounds may come my way in the staying open, or in what ways I may yet wound another—that this too, in the words of the Derek Webb song, shall be made right.