Enjoy this reflection from Anji as you head into your weekend. I am struck by how relevant and important the message is for our King’s community at this moment. Respond as you are so moved in the comments.
Our podcast interview for this week was supposed to be with King’s grad Olejuru Anozie. We had a great conversation earlier this week, but the Zoom recording didn’t convert…I am still working on it, because I think her stories from her time at King’s, as well as what she has been up to in the last year, will be encouraging for many of us.
Wow, the unpredictability of life! Doesn’t it really make us humble by showing us our true place as humans in God’s creation? Nevertheless, every time can be a time of gratitude. Every time can be a time of hope. Every time can be a time of reflection.
I would like to share my favorite word with you today. Initially, my favorite word was “Hakuna Matata”, it means ‘no worries, for the rest of your life’… (kudos to you if were humming it in your head as you were reading it). But clearly, it is not true. We are human, and we worry about all sorts of things throughout our entire lives. While worrying may not be a big part of our ‘generally abundant’ lives, this situation has led us to worry in many ways. Through these three weeks of the pandemic, now we get a glimpse in a way, of how some people in different parts of the world have been living their entire lives! But let’s be honest, self-isolation and running short of some toilet paper, isn’t that bad.
Anyway, back to the point; my favorite word now is “Ubuntu”, which is often translated as ‘I am because we are’. For those of you who are not familiar with the word, here is a story that connects to it.
“The story goes that an Anthropologist proposed a game to African tribal children. He placed a basket of sweets near a tree, and then had them stand a few hundred feet away. Whoever reached the basket first would get all the sweets.
When he said ready steady go…Do you know what these small children did?
They all held each other’s hands and ran towards the tree together, divided the sweets and enjoyed them equally.
When the Anthropologist asked them why you did so?
They said “Ubuntu”. Which to them, meant ’How can one be happy when all the others are sad?’
I couldn’t help but realize the relevance of this word in this time of pandemic. We may not physically hold hands with each other in our community to run towards our goals, but beautiful are the ways we isolate ourselves because we care for that old person in the neighborhood, or the newly born baby next door or the hardworking essential workers who work day-in and day-out during this difficult period.
In silence, in subtleness, in simplicity, we are forced to stay out of that rat race we run everyday. Instead, here we are forced to walk in the shoes of another. Here we are, forced into downtime from hypocritic individualism to what we are truly called to be: to be for the other, to feel for the other, to walk with the other, just like Jesus did. Hence, I am grateful for this situation in a way, because it reminds me that, for us to overcome this global pandemic, it can only be done collectively.
Because if you suffer, so will I. If I am healthy and happy, it will be because of us. Ubuntu…
One of the hardest things being endured during this pandemic is being physically separated from loved ones who are sick. One doctor I heard interviewed said that this is the worst thing about Covid-19–you drop off a loved one at the emergency room and don’t realize that you may never see them again. This is terrible. In this post Janelle Borders-Denault, an education student at King’s, shares a powerful and hopeful story about separation from her pépère during his dying process.
Please respond in the comments section if you are so moved.
Dying in Quarantine – Janelle Borders-Denault
I, like many others, am being shut out of a loved one’s dying process because of Covid-19. Ironically, I have spent the last year practicing for this, practicing for the moment where I could sit with someone I love through their final hours of life. Being shut out of a love one’s dying process, though, alongside my typical bedside experiences, has taught me a secret:your loved one dying in quarantine is not alone.
This pandemic is changing the dying experience for everyone right now, not just those who have the virus. My pépère does not have Covid-19; he is actively dying from an infection. But the last hand he holds will not be mine or my father’s. As of March 21st, only one, single essential visitor may visit a long-term care facility at a time. Essential visitors are defined as family, friends, or paid visitors who are providing care necessary for a resident, and visitors who are attending a resident who is actively dying. Both me and my father were blessed with one visit last week, where each of us had to go in on separate days, by ourselves, to say goodbye. And now we wait. Because of Covid 19, both directly and indirectly, people in our communities are dying without loved ones by their side.
But what if sitting with our dying people is more for us than it is for them? First of all, withdrawal is one of the first signs that someone is entering the dying process. Eyes glaze over, and suddenly any sort of embodied engagement must be prompted. When my pépère entered this stage, it was really hard for my mémère to accept. “Where is Raymond?” she would ask him. “He’s to the moon!” Pépère would remain preoccupied, ‘somewhere else,’ until she nudged his arm. Most of their conversations deteriorated into her vetting for his attention. Moreover, it is not unusual for people in this stage to report seeing deceased loved ones, which can lead to further withdrawal if their experiences are dismissed as delusion. One of my hospice patients saw a child on the edge of his bed, for example, while I was visiting. “Move!” he screamed. “Lay her down!” Last week, I told my pépère how much I love him. “You can leave whenever you’re ready,” I said. As I spoke, he sat up, looked around the room, and then up at the ceiling. “Where’s that voice coming from?” he asked. This ‘somewhere else’ where our dying endure is, I think, God’s all-consuming embrace. The very onset of the dying process, it seems, is a final one-legged swing over the saddle that rides the crack between ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere.’ It is a draw towards God’s summoning.
Withdrawal is exaggerated, of course, as active dying sets in. Each of the senses begin to slip, one at a time. Vision goes first, then touch– hearing goes last. My pépère could not see during our last visit. His eyes were always pacing the ceiling, back and forth. Though he was still responsive to touch stimuli (he swatted my hand away as I tried to place it on top of his), I imagine that he isn’t today. I picture the nurse aids heaving his limp body onto its side to inject the painkillers. He is still ‘here.’ I know this because I am still waiting. And this is where things get hard. God picks us up and swings us onto her hip when the final ride is done. But why is her touch so crushing? Let us, though, listen to those who are in it. The most shocking thing I’ve learned over this last year is that people who experience a gradual death seem to choose exactly when the ride stops. Often, it is when no one is around.
During the last session of hospice training, I felt anxious. “What do you do,” I asked the group, “if someone dies in front of you?” The coordinator was quick to answer: “chances are, they won’t.” My Aunty, who is a hospital chaplain, echoed this response. Over the span of her practice, only one patient has come close to dying in front of her. The patient decided to pass when she had just walked out of the room, and a nurse was about to walk in. My Aunty also told me of one woman who had requested a priest and three musicians, alongside friends and extended family to be in the room as her husband died. After hours of the group praying and singing, and hours of her husband agonal breathing (a gasping that is not true breathing but a brainstem reflex, which can happen shortly before death), the nurses decided it was time to clear the room to ‘give the patient his painkillers.’ The nurses knew, from the longevity of the patient’s severe state, that he was simply not able to die in such a stimulating environment. Almost immediately after the room was cleared of everyone except the wife, the husband passed. Yes, this person decided to have their wife beside them as they died. Yet, many people don’t. My friend’s father passed away last year from cancer. He died when they were out for a quick bite to eat. “He was protecting us, like always,” she smiled. Of course, there are many beautiful stories of people dying in the embrace of a loved one. But during this pandemic, it is important to know that these stories are not the norm. Dying is not communal; no one can share the immediacy of a last breath. Dying is a slow dance with the divine.
Yet, in a way, death is communal–each person, in their dying, teaches the world something. As I sit here writing this very sentence, I have an incoming call from my Dad. He tells me it’s over– Pépère is dead. And while I can’t help but picture him laying in a dark and empty room for those last moments, jaw dropped and gasping, I also wonder if he would have waited for a moment like this anyways, where he felt free to fix on the summoning voice that pulled him in months ago. Though I’ve always wondered what we do when we sit with the dying, it took my pépère’s death for me to realize that we learn. Perhaps we ground our dying through the pain, maybe. Mostly, though, they ground us. They shock us bone deep to the fleeting present. They let us go. They point towards another place. Around the globe people are dying without loved ones near. But my pépère taught me something: the dying are never alone.
Enjoy getting to know psychology professor Heather Looy better in this conversation. She is a bread baking, squash playing, (possibly surprising) rebel, who cares deeply about her work and her students.
If you don’t have much time, I recommend skipping ahead to 48:40 where she begins sharing about her husband Anthony. In that conversation and all that follows, I think you get a good glimpse of who Heather is. Another highlight for me was our conversation about the Silent Retreat and other contemplative practices, beginning at 35:39.
I am trying to release these reflections at spaced out intervals…who knows how long we will have in this quarantine! I waited to post Mark’s first reflection on “Fear and Anxiety” related to stories from WW2 until this week because I thought it would be fitting as we walk toward the cross. Roy Berkenbosch wrote a great sermon for Fellowship Church yesterday where he asked us to pause for a moment and…
“reflect on the courage of Jesus to march into the thick of conflict (on Palm Sunday)- to deliberately act out the role of Messiah-King, singling his fulfillment of prophecy, yet knowing that he was not what the crowds expected (a warrior-type king) and that the ensuing conflict would cost him the ultimate price.
Read Mark’s first paragraph and some common emotional themes between war and those in Jerusalem experiencing Holy Week (not least of all, Jesus) will become apparent.
Mark ends with 8 ways soldiers handled fear in helpful ways, in the comments please respond with patterns, rituals, habits, etc., related to the eight, that you have found to be helpful during this time.
Some thoughts on Fear and Anxiety I: Stories from WW2
I am currently researching the human dimensions of war, with reference to WW2. In my book I will explore how humans experienced war: the broad spectrum of emotions and behaviours which people lived out during this extraordinary time. My aim is to reveal a little of how fear and love and hate affected combatants and prisoners and civilians, of how they coped with loss and anguish and despair, of why some resorted to treachery and revenge and indifference, while others lived in solidarity and hope.
Recently I have been working on my chapter on fear in WW2. And then the pandemic broke. So I am taking this opportunity to write up a couple of things about fear and anxiety that I have been working on. Its very much a work in progress. Maybe these voices from the past have something to say to us in our current predicament.
Obviously there are many ways in which wars and pandemics are completely different. Most of us are not facing a tank or a dive bomber in the flesh (although war is still a commonplace feature in many parts of our world today). But there are some similarities or parallels. Combatants had to deal with a constant gnawing fear and anxiety when they weren’t in conflict, and it is this which seems most relevant to us now. Understanding how millions of ordinary people coped might help us to face down fear and restore it to its proper place in our lives.
In my opening to my chapter, I noted the following:
As I sit here and read about fear in war, I am struck by how deep down the stories of fear affect me. The words on the page seem to open up a world I know nothing of, and yet in truth I know all too well the effects of dread and fear and anxiety in my own life. The dread of illness or pain. The fear of losing a child or a loved one. The deep unexpressed fears. The constant nagging presence of an unspecified anxiety. The waking early. I know nothing of war in my own life, yet in my imagination and my reading I seem to recognise the way that fear constantly assails the mind and the body and the spirit.
Fear was everywhere in WW2. And fears were multiple and overlapping. Fear for yourself. Fear for others. Fear of others. Fear of death. Fear of separation. Fear of injury. Unexpressed generalised fear. Deep abiding fear. Momentary, excruciating fear. Fear mixed with anxiety and dread. Fear produced great resilience and courage, and also panic and cowardice.
At first glance it seems rather self-evident that fear was a ubiquitous part of the landscape of WW2. After all, this was war. People die. People get bombed. People risk their lives. People get horribly maimed and burned. People have no idea what is going to happen to their loved ones. Every day fear cast a shadow. So how did armies address fear, and what did combatants do to try and cope with fear?
For the army hierarchies, this was a critical issue. Fear had to be understood, managed and diminished if the combatants were to be “effective soldiers”. The American army in particular undertook some in-depth studies to try and understand both fear and anxiety. To give you a flavour of the findings of these reports, let us look at John Dollard’s Fear in Battle (1944). Between 1942 and 1945 Dollard acted as a consultant with the Morale Services Division of the US Department of War. Together with psychologists from Yale University Institute of Human Relations, Dollard did a survey of 300 volunteers. It should be emphasised that these were volunteers (and so their experiences may differ from conscripts) and they were veterans, which may also have skewed the findings a little.
His “findings in brief” were as follows:
Fear is useful to the soldier when it drives him to learn better in training and to act sensibly in battle.
The commonest symptoms of fear were: pounding heart and rapid pulse, tenseness of muscles, sinking feelings, dryness of mouth and throat, trembling, sweating. Involuntary elimination occurred infrequently.
7 out of 10 men reported experiencing fear when going into first action.
Fear is greatest just before action.
64 men out of a hundred agreed that they became less afraid the more times they went into action.
Fear of “being a coward” diminished rapidly after the first action.
Wounds most feared were those in the abdomen, eyes, brain and genitals.
Enemy weapons most feared were bombs, mortar shells, artillery shells, bayonet and knife, and expanding bullets.
Fear of bombs centred in the sound of the bomb dropping and on the concussion of the exploding bomb.
The presence of hunger, thirst, fatigue, ignorance of plans, idleness increases the danger from fear.
8 out of 10 men say it is better to admit fear and discuss it openly before battle.
75 out of 100 believe that all signs of fear should be controlled – in battle.
Experienced men who crack up should be treated leniently, deserters shot, and green men made to stay and face the music.
The most important factors in controlling fear are: devotion to cause, leadership, training and materiel.
Only 1 man in 4 thought that feelings of fatalism or belief in luck were of much importance in beating fear.
Veteran soldiers learn that to be busy means to be less afraid: “when fear is strong, keep your mind on the job at hand.”
Thinking that the enemy is just as scared as you are is helpful in controlling fear.
8 out of 10 men believe that hatred is important to the effective soldier – but hatred of the enemy’s cause, not of him personally.
Fear may stimulate a soldier to fight harder and better, if danger to the self also suggests danger to the outfit or the cause.
The best discipline is based on the willing acceptance of orders by purposeful and instructed men.
These findings are related mainly to the army’s attempts to manage fear in combat and so make the soldier effective in battle. However, if we broaden this out to consider fear in war, (ie the much broader experience of being at war: digging in, waiting, in transit, pre-combat, post combat, rest etc.) then we find some different things begin to emerge about fear.
Soldiers feared so many things. The anticipation of being bombed or shelled. And then when it did arrive, it was the visceral assault on the senses which brought pure terror: the screaming unrelenting noise, the shaking of the earth. It was the landmines that you couldn’t see. The fear of ambush just around the corner. So much fear and anxiety was generated by uncertainty, by what was not known, as much as what was known. Many soldiers feared showing fear. In other words, the fears that most preoccupied them were related to shame, and their feelings about themselves, and notably what others would think of them. This sense of social disgrace was often more powerful than the fear of being killed or wounded.
What did they do with all this fear? How did they make it through? There were several things that helped (and you will have to wait for my book to be published to get the full list!), but here are some that speak most pertinently to our situation.
Practical actions: it was the feelings of isolation, of being totally out of control, of not being able to do anything about the source of the stress which was so debilitating about fear. And so experienced soldiers taught the new recruits to undertake practical tasks: keep yourself occupied, don’t listen to the horror stories, prep your equipment, don’t carry too much stuff around with you (keep your list of essentials short)
Roll call: regular times with the people closest to you helped reduce the sense of isolation. Times of proximity were important, crucial in fact, to coping with the fear that war brought. Being together at the same time each day promoted solidarity, a sense of being in it together.
Rituals and rhythms: soldiers often developed rituals and habitual practices to alleviate stress. Sometimes these were collective rituals that a whole group would indulge in. At other times, individuals would do certain things at the same time, or in the same order to lessen the power of anxiety. Taking talismans into battle. Getting dressed in a particular order. Often these were reactions to the overall absence of control or power felt by soldiers. What in their own small world could they try and control?
Talking about fear: the fear of showing fear was immense, but often the fear was lessened if someone was courageous enough to own up to feeling fear, or to bring into the open a specific fear they had or were experiencing. One sergeant always soiled himself at the start of combat. He always announced it openly, which allowed others to do the same. Fear exists so much in our imaginations, in the anticipation, in our mental isolation. That is where it derived its power. Sharing it disarmed it.
Times of escape and rest: rest and recuperation were critical. The US army estimated that it would take between 200-240 days for one of their soldiers to “break down” and be unable to perform. The British army estimated that it would take 400 days for this to happen, but that was because the British gave more rest periods to their troops. Rest was critical. And rest was not just physical rest, but mental distance from combat. Times to unwind. Times for sleep. Times for rum.
Helping those in need: soldiers wanted to help the wounded, rescue those in trouble, defend the vulnerable. This was often one of the “practical actions” in point #1. It involved getting something done, but it was about more than being productive or helpful. It was about becoming less preoccupied with oneself, and affirming that if things got tough for you later on, someone would be there for you. It promoted a sense of being part of a network of mutual compassion.
Dark humour: humour often served to lessen the fear by making the situation seem absurd or les powerful. If you can poke fun at it, it immediately became diminished in its intensity. Joking about dying, about death, about combat
Spirituality: although religion was often derided by troops, the evidence is that troops turned to prayer and spirituality to combat fear and anxiety during war. Spirituality and prayer seemed to allow troops to reframe. To put their lives, or the conflict they were engaged in, into a larger, cosmic context, and to consider questions of mortality and immortality. For some, war did devastating things to their faith, but for most soldiers wartime experiences increased their spirituality.
These things were learned the hard way by soldiers from all different nations, from all different backgrounds. For fear was “the common bond between fighting men”. As we face up to months of uncertainty, it is easy to allow fear and anxiety to take up residence in our imaginings. But as the testimony of millions of soldiers affirms, fear can be tamed.
If Tim wants another one, I can also talk about fear and POWs and fear and civilians during wartime!
(I have told Mark that I would very much welcome these additional reflections!)
Juliana Middel, Nathalie Singh, Emily Bouma, and Ashley Elgersma, who live across the street from King’s, share about what life in quarantine has been like for them and their faith, what it is like to live together, and how the King’s community has helped to shape them.
Off the top of my head, Rem Kooistra, Peter Mahaffy, John Hiemstra, Leah Martin-Visscher, Kris Ooms, Chris Peet and the other psychologists, Vern Peters, Will Van Arragon, and Jonathan Nicolai-deKoning are all mentioned for one reason or another- I was struck once again by all the important connections that are made (large and small) within our community.
Get outside for a walk and enjoy learning more about these cool people! If you want to give thanks for anything these ladies shared, feel free to do it in the comment section.
Also King’s grad Caleb van der Leek gives an update on his life and introduces a really great song that was written during his time at King’s and will be on his upcoming album. If you don’t have much time and need to skip ahead to his part, it begins at 49 minutes in.
Below you will find a thoughtful blogpost by graduating biology student Janessa Gritter. She has posted some questions at the end of the post that were initially going to be used at one of our Discipleship and Resistance gathers, engage with these, or anything else that she has written, in the comments! Janessa has been a gift to our ministry team over the past two years. She is thoughtful, hardworking, and willing to proactively step into leadership roles. She is also an incredibly gifted worship leader. We are going to miss you, Janessa! To give you a little background as to who Janessa is and her time at King’s I asked her a few questions:
Congratulations on graduating! What are your plans for next year?
I will be starting as the Intern Worship Pastor at New Life CRC in Abbotsford. I am very excited to begin a new adventure and work with the wonderful people there.
Did you take a class at King’s outside your major that you would recommend to other students?
During this last year, I’ve been a part of the justice semester with about ten other people. Together we’ve taken theology, history, and social science courses. We’ve listened to so many wonderful speakers and tackled so many difficult topics. It’s really changed the way I view the world and understand social justice.
Was there a faculty or staff person who was particularly impactful during your time at King”s?
Aww man, I only have to pick one person? There was so many people at King’s that were so impactful on me.
Firstly, Dr. Darcy Visscher has had a big impact on my degree in biology at the King’s university. I’ve taken quite a few courses with him. Besides answering my many many many questions about biology with lots of patience, he’s been a wonderful professor. He’s challenged me to think about many different topics critically and helped me to continue to love biology, despite the heavy workload.
Secondly, Melanie Salte. I’ve worked with Melanie for two years as a worship assistant. We’ve laughed together, worshipped together, cried together, and grown together. We’ve had so many great talks and she’s walked with me through some hard decisions I’ve had to make. I’ll definitely miss her!
Do you have a favourite Scripture passage or one that has been particularly helpful lately?
Our graduating verse! Which I feel is a wonderful verse as I leave King’s this year and during the time we are living in. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” – Joshua 1:9
Is there anything else you want us to know about your time at King’s?
I’ve been so blessed coming to King’s. I’ve met so many wonderful people and learned so many impactful things. This is such a beautiful community: loving, caring, and insightful. The lessons, friendships, and moments I’ve made here will impact me for many years to come.
Community in Quarantine Post
During this semester, I did a theology 499 based on the topic of worship and justice. I thought this topic appropriate as I’ve served as a worship assistant at King’s for two years and participated in the justice fellowship. I wanted to connect worship and justice together: two things that I am very passionate about. Before this course, I didn’t think worship and justice were connected. Worship was about praising and singing to our God and justice was about restoring relationships, speaking for those who are silenced, and showing radical love. I think most people would think the same way I did. Worship is in one category with one purpose and justice is in another. However, diving deeper into this topic showed me how important it is that worship and justice should be connected. This topic was an interesting experience and challenged the idea of what worship really is to me.
Often when we try isolate worship, we too often fall victim to ‘problems’ in worship that shouldn’t be the focus of what worship really is. On a Sunday morning, we focus on whether the music of a worship service is too loud, how ‘singable’ the lyrics are, or how many new songs are played in the worship set. When we focus on this, we tend to miss the real purpose of worship. We become spiritually complacent in the rhythm of worship and forget the injustices that are occurring in the world.
The real focus of worship is expressing who God is in worship and embodying God’s character in lives that do justice and seek righteousness for those who are neglected. The book I read this semester was called The Dangerous Act of Worship. The author describes that when we focus on the technicalities of worship, we fall asleep to what matters most. We can wake up only when we remember God’s purpose in the world and live lives that seek justice. Worship should change us. When we sing about knowing Jesus or loving like Jesus it means that we should love our neighbour and stand in the path of those who are neglected. When we sing about our God but don’t love our neighbour our worship to God becomes a lie (see 1 John 4:20-21). Authentic worship, worship that remembers God’s purpose in the world, should push us to act. Worship should remember justice and justice should remember worship. If we don’t acknowledge justice in worship, it becomes meaningless. Isaiah 58:3-9 reflects this idea with the imagery of fasting. The people fast, which is a form of worship, but are confused why God has not noticed. God replies that authentic worship helps to ‘loose the chains of injustice’. When this form of worship is done, worship that is recognizes injustice, God will answer the call.
One of the things that I’ve been reflecting on is to think about how comfortable you are with doing the worship you engage with now. When we become comfortable with the worship we do, same songs, same ideas, we tend to fall asleep. I’ve been wrestling with the word ‘uncomfortableness’ in worship. I think ‘uncomfortableness’ looks different for each person, but it is important to jolt us out of the rhythm of worship to think about what worship should really be. Being uncomfortable in worship, I would argue, reminds you of why you worship and puts you in a place to reflect on what worship is really for.
As we are in self-isolation during these weeks it’s hard to think about worship. Spending the days indoors and especially not getting to go to church is difficult. Perhaps we instead turn on a worship playlist or listen to a worship leader sing on a Facebook Live post. I encourage you to reflect on this idea I’ve written about and to think about the worship you’re engaging with over these weeks.
Here’s some questions to think about over the next couple of days:
What is the point of worship? Who is it for?
Should worship and justice be connected?
Have you, like the author mentions, fallen asleep in worship? What would it mean for you to wake up?
What does it mean to be uncomfortable in worship for you?
Since most of our churches are not gathering this Sunday, and some of our communities cannot offer anything online for us, I thought I would post a sermon from the lectionary text for this week (March 29, 2020- two weeks before Easter). The background music is, once again, from The Translators.
Our second podcast episode is up! It is with philosophy professor Dr. Jeff Dudiak. One part of the conversation that sticks out to me is Jeff’s reflection on his parents. In particular, the story about how his father became a Quaker is really beautiful. This part of the conversation begins at around 31:30, so skip ahead if your time is limited.
Please leave a reply to this post with your thoughts or things you appreciated from Jeff!
At the end of this podcast we get an update from former King’s chemistry student and member of The Translators, Darren Binnema. He tells us where life has taken him and a little about the song, Detonation, which I have been using for the intro to the podcast.
At the end of the interview I refer to a reflection that Jeff wrote for chapel years ago. He gave me permission to post it here. (I typed it up from his manuscript, so any errors are mine!)
To know as I am known – 1 Corinthians 13:8-13
Dr. Jeff Dudiak
To encounter the Gospel is to be surprised. The Good News, as the name suggests, is something new,specifically not the same old thing, specifically not what is expected. In order, then, to hear the Gospel, to really hear it, with ears to hear, is to expect the unexpected.
When confronted by the man with the withered hand, planted by the Pharisees to trip him up, Jesus does not follow the straight line of the law and refuse to work on the Sabbath, but rather heals the man. But this Jesus does not refer to as breaking the law, as do the Pharisees who see only two options at this point, either to keep the law or to violate it. Jesus claims, instead, neither to have kept nor broken the law, but to have fulfilled it. The Pharisees didn’t see that coming! Expect the unexpected.
When present with the woman caught in adultery, another trap to see if he would condemn her, as any straight-laced and straight thinking Jewish rabbi would be compelled to do, Jesus slips the question of condemnation altogether, ignores the line that runs from sin to condemnation, and then, and onlyafter that, and only with grace, to forgiveness. Rather, Jesus begins at the end, with forgiveness, which changes not only the expected chronology of events, but transforms the events themselves. For here, where forgiveness is pronounced independently of confession, prior to confession, confession becomes possible because it is no longer the sinner’s participation in his or her own condemnation, but the possibility of taking a fuller responsibility for the life now restored. The Pharisees didn’t see that one coming either. Expect the unexpected.
When the disciples informed Jesus of the hunger of the crowds by the sea of Galilee, the disciples sage counsel was that the multitudes should be sent away to seek sustenance. But Jesus took and blessed and broke the contents of a boy’s boxed lunch and transformed them into a feast for five-thousand, with more to spare. The miraculous is the unexpected, the unanticipatable, and the unexpected itself is a miracle, a break with the necessary, which, far from being mere magic, is rather the deeper structure from which even the dreams of magic takes it bearings. The line stretched between the options of staying and being hungry and going for food is transformed into neither, but the filling, the fulfillment of all. Even the disciples didn’t see that coming. Expect the unexpected.
For in the Gospel, it is not merely that roads do not lead to anticipated destinations, they may not lead to destinations at all; premises not only do not necessarily lead to logical conclusions, they sometimes lead to something entirely other than conclusions; and it is not only that even straight arrows do not hit their intended targets, arrows and the targets are frequently configured into something else. Water becomes wine; one is not baptized with water, but with fire and the Holy Spirit; and swords are beaten into plowshares – which, before it is a task for the blacksmith, is a supreme exercise in imagination, in miracles. The supposedly straight lines that should lead from expectation to realization, the seeming logicality that draws us – perhaps inexorably – from anticipation to consummation, when exposed to the Gospel, are often not always (for that would make the unexpected expected again), but often, transformed into something else.
How do we envision this? It is not exactly that the line that leads from A to B is eliminated; the law is not erased by Jesus. It is not that the expectations are disappointed exactly; it is more that they are reconfigured. It is rather that what is – the law, forgiveness, loaves and fishes – are revisioned in the light of a new perspective, are recontextualized to the point of becoming something entirely new. “Behold, all things are becoming new.” Paul writes elsewhere. The Gospel is revolutionary to the point of transforming, re-new-ing, reality itself; which is perhaps why in Acts there is talk of turning the world upside down, and perhaps why Paul can speak of being in but not of the world, not capitulating to the inevitabilities imposed by what is “real-istic.” The Gospel calls for expectation, hope, realization of what is not the case. And perhaps “the world” that Paul opposes to the Gospel is our inability or unwillingness to see and live expansively, to imagine a bigger picture; perhaps “the world” is a narrowing, a reduction, the monotony of the same that always follows the same, the “all is vanity” of Ecclesiastes, over against the Gospel that re-forms, that incited and excites; perhaps, that the Gospel opposes itself to the law. Not constrained by the expectations provided by the Sabbath legalities, nor by the psycho-juridical order of confession and forgiveness, nor by the physical laws of loaves and fishes – the Gospel is the promise of renewal because it is “true to life,” and life itself is unpredictable, and requires for living it well (that is, faithfully) imaginative work. If this were psychology, we’d be talking about a paradigm shift. And we are talking about all of these, and more.
Now, present circumstances suggesting the contrary, I am no preacher. I am sanctioned by no ecclesiastical body to preach, no am I called of God to do so. I am a mere philosopher, a mere teacher of how to ask better questions, and so while I am honoured to share with you on my gifts, such as they be, I do best to stick to who I am and what I do. And as a philosopher I would like to have you join me in asking a few questions about something of perennial fascination to philosophy, but something that also plays a key role in Biblical testimony, namely, I would like you to think with me this morning a little bit about “knowledge.” What I want to suggest is that when it comes to the Gospel’s treatment of knowledge we should not be surprised if we are surprised, should not be surprised if our conventional expectations regarding knowledge are not also undermined and transformed in the light of the Gospel. This is, I want to suggest, precisely what we find, for example in 1 Cor. 13. Now, I understand that Tom Oosterhuis spoke to you on this text just last week, and employed this text, as per convention, and most appropriately, to address the issue of love. I apologize for the repetition, but want to use this text not to speak of love, but of knowledge, …at least, that is, initially.
Let us look in particular at verses 8 to 13, with a focus on the function and fate of knowledge, and I will quote the familiar locutions of the King James Version.
8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, (that is “love,” agape in the Greek) these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
Now, we are dealing here (in verse 9) with a knowledge that is partial, which is opposed (in verse 10) to that which is perfect. We are dealing (in verse 11) with an immature knowledge, which is opposed by a subsequent maturity. We are dealing (in verse 12) with a “seeing” (which is at least a kind of knowledge) that is “through a glass” (the Greek word is “einigmati,” from which we get our word “enigma”), seeing in darkness that is, a seeing poorly, which is opposed to seeing “face to face.” We are dealing yet again (in verse 12) with a partial knowledge, which is this time opposed to a knowing “as I am known.”
We are dealing, in short, with a movement, cast eschatologically, that is, from what is the case to what is to be accomplished. On the side of “what is the case,” we find: partial knowledge; childish understanding and thinking; seeing enigmatically, that is, in obscurity, and in darkness; and, again, partial knowledge.
Now, on our normal way of thinking, according to our expectations, we should expect these examples of insufficient knowledge to be completed by a fully sufficient, or complete, knowledge. We would expect partial knowledge to find its completion in full knowledge. We would expect seeing through a glass darkly to find its completion in seeing clearly, and seeing in darkness to find its fulfillment by a seeing in perfect light. We would expect the repeat of partial knowledge to again find its fulfillment in total knowledge.
But listen to what we do get; and notice that (with one exception, which we will have to discuss) that word “knowledge” does not appear in the list: in the place of partial knowledge we do not get full knowledge, as we would normally expect, but becoming a man; in the place of seeing enigmatically, and seeing in darkness, we do not get seeing clearly, and in the light, as we would normally expect, but seeing “face to face,” in the place of partial knowledge mentioned here for the second time, our normal expectation of full knowledge again is not promised, but rather, knowing “as I am known.”
That is, the expected trajectory, running from partial to full knowledge, from knowing in part to knowing perfectly, is, in this text, subverted. Incomplete knowledge is not completed, fulfilled, perfected, in more or more perfect knowledge, but in something else altogether, something that is not knowledge at all, and doesn’t have to do with knowledge, at least not directly. The perfection of knowledge is not a supreme knowledge; rather, the whole task of knowing is subverted, and displaced, by something that is not in its turn a matter of knowledge at all. Allow me to put this as startlingly as possible: the perfection of knowledge is precisely in its being overturned! As a philosopher, I didn’t see that coming! But as readers of the Gospel, as ones prepared to expect the unexpected, we should not be entirely shocked, since already in verse 8, right before this new and unexpected trajectory is given, we were already told that knowledge would pass away.
And if there was any question as to what it is knowledge, under the auspices of the Gospel, would evolve into as it comes to perfection, we are surly given the response in both the verse that precedes this revisioning of the trajectory of knowledge, and in the one that follows: in both verses 8 and 13 the passing away of knowledge has as its context the non-passing away, the non-failure, of love.
And if this is the case, then two phrases in our passage can be more fully understood: what it means to see “face to face,: and what it means to “know even as I also am known.”
For recall that in lieu of our present, enigmatic knowledge, the promise, the goal is seeing “face to face,” which I am suggesting is not just another way of saying “seeing clearly,” but a revolutionary revisioning. Now, we are all familiar with the difference between knowing about someone, having knowledge about them and actually meeting them. I could take several hours to tell you everything I know about my mother, and then have my father come in and do the same, to tell you things about my mother that would surprise even me, but even after several hours of instruction, if I were at ask you: “Do you know my mother?” most of you would have to say: “Well, I know a lot about your mother, but I don’t know her. I’ve never met her.” A face to face relationship is not one qualified by the knowledge of facts. It is not the relationship between a knowing subject and a known object. A face to face relationship is personal. It is a relationship between subjects, a two-way relationship, and one wherein the “knowledge” of each other is not about facts, but about intimacy. Face to face is the posture of intimacy, the posture of lovers, of interlocutors, and also the posture of combatants: which is why we can love God, speak with God, wrestle with God, as we can love our intimate, speak with our intimate, and wrestle with our intimate, things that are impossible to do with mere things that we know about, because all of these require someone who will love, and speak, and wrestle back. And it is this relationship that the Bible refers to as “knowing” when it is using that term in its most important sense. When Adam “knew” his wife Eve and they conceived a child, they were not engaged in an intellectual exercise! This was a face to face relationship; this was intimate familiarity.
And that is why the passage continues: “At present I know in part, but then I shall know fully, even as I am also known.” The final goal, here eschatologically cast, is “to know as I am known.” And so “knowledge” is not entirely destroyed, even if the only knowledge that survives the passing away of knowledge is the kind that correlates to the knowledge of God for me: and this knowledge in turn is best understood as the knowledge of the face to face, as a knowledge that is love – and why this discourse on knowledge is not out of place in Paul’s great hymn to love. Yes, God knows the number of the hairs on my head, but not in the manner of some supercomputer, coldly and impassively tabulating and calculating, knowing for the sake of knowing. Rather, God knows the number of hairs on my head to glory in my development through infancy, to embrace me in my insecurities at balding and aging, and to love me through the chemotherapy that reduces the count to null. The facts, by themselves, are enigmatic, pointless, meaningless, passing away, open to any sense we might choose to project upon them. They only become “knowledge,” in the only sense that the Bible cares about on my view, when they are personal. The fullness of knowledge, its perfection, or fulfillment, is not more facts, but intimacy, the personal, and an intimacy that transforms the very meaning of the facts themselves.
And this is why not many wise will enter the kingdom of God; they are looking in the wrong place. And this is why Christian education cannot be the mere learning of more, or even different, facts – but a knowing differently, in a different mode, by an entirely different measure. It is not the “knowledge as knowing about” is irrelevant, at least not at present, but we only participate in the Gospel when the end, that is the purpose, of our knowledge, is Biblical knowledge, knowledge as love. And this is why neither theology, nor science, and above all not philosophy, can be the key to the knowledge of God – all of these are a part of the “in part,” are what will pass away, in deference to the knowledge that is, in the end, love itself. And if we don’t know that, if we don’t know in that way, then, it seems to me, we have become, as the first verse of this chapter informs us, but a sounding brass or a tinkling symbol.
There are many ways to pray and just as many definitions of prayer. There are liturgical prayers, carefully composed and at the other end, there are spontaneous prayers, arising in the moment and in the speaker’s own words. There are payers of lament, found in the book of Psalms, and there are prayers of adoration and proclamation, such as in 1 Timothy 1:17. Every religious tradition will have its own versions and varieties of prayer language. Here, I want to focus on intercessory prayer and one way I have been holding others before God during this Covid-19 pandemic.
Before I get to that, what is intercessory prayer? Richard Foster, in his book on prayer explains it as “a way of loving others.” MaryKate Morse, in a chapter on “Blessing Prayer” explains this form of intercession as acts of hesed. She explains that this is a Jewish word that is difficult to translate as there is no direct English equivalent. The closest we can come is loving-kindness. She writes, “Our God is a God of hesed, loving-kindness…The word suggests generosity, commitment and love.” We see a lot of hesed in the Bible as people pray for others. I have felt the call of God’s Spirit to pray in hesed-like fashion for those I know as well as for those I do not, including governments, institutions, public services and leaders near and far. I have been prompted to pray frequently, the echoes of the apostle Paul’s words ringing in my ears, “For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you.”
How have I enacted this intention to intercede and act out generosity, commitment and love in my daily life right now? How have I made the desire to love others through intercession a reality? I have done it through the health guidance to wash our hands frequently. We must do this for at least 20 seconds, taking time to lather meticulously, systematically scrubbing the backs, between the fingers and under our nails. Some have suggested singing happy birthday as a time guide. I have chosen to practice intercession by using what’s known as the breath prayer.
Breath prayers go back to the early centuries of Christianity, historically associated with the Greek and Russian Orthodox Eastern Churches. The desert fathers and mothers of the early centuries would practice short prayers that carried them through their days and nights. One of the most famous is what’s called the Jesus Prayer. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner,” often shortened to “Lord Jesus have mercy.” This would be repeated to the rhythm of a breath in and out. I have been using the pattern of the breath prayer for a while, adapting it into prayers for myself, others and situations. So for example, I might pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me as I wonder what’s next.” Or I might pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on my neighbours who are struggling with the death of their dad.” And so it goes. I have timed that you can get through “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner,” twice in 20 seconds, if said slowly and meditatively. This gives me an approximate guide to adapting the prayer as I lift others before God.
I invite you to unite your loving of others with the practice of intercession while you wash your hands. You might as well put your increased time at wash basins to good use!
 Richard Foster. “Prayer. Finding The Heart’s True Home.” 191.
 MaryKate Morse. “A Guidebook To Prayer. 24 Ways To Walk With God.”
Thanks for the great thoughts and encouragement, Witty. For the rest of us–consider leaving a comment letting us know who you are praying for as you wash, and who you would like our community to be in prayer for.
And consider sending me a reflection to post! In particular, I would love to hear about impactful moments from this last academic year.