Learning to Read the Handwriting of God
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B
29 March 2009
Every year to eighteen months I take on some new soul-tending project in my life. A few years ago now it was baking bread and more recently cooking. I have picked up running and yoga and oil painting and leather crafts. Well recently I have started working on my handwriting.
I would like to pretend that this was just a choice out of the blue, but honestly, we have a nine year old in our house who has better handwriting than me when she takes her time. And we have to stay ahead of our kids, don’t we?
Growing up in Mississippi in the 1980’s was like growing up in the 1940’s anywhere else, so I learned the Palmer method for cursive writing. Or I sort of learned the Palmer method. If you remember making long series of loops across the page, chances are you learned from Palmer. Like I said it was the 40’s so my teacher just gave up on me after standing over my desk for a half hour saying, “No, turn your paper this way. No, turn your paper this way.” Ad infinatum. She left me to my own devices which has not always been a good thing.
I have quirky handwriting. Tiny cramped left-handers handwriting. Even though I love fountain pens and nice paper, I have struggled to keep my writing legible through a graduate degree and my plethora of journals.
You can spot my handwriting, or anyone else’s, by the deviations from the normal. We all deviate from the norm, no matter what your fourth grade teacher told you.
So the question this Jeremiah reading kept asking me this week as I sat with the text and studied and prayed was, “What does the handwriting of God look like?”
Contemporary science tells us that all matter in the universe, at the subatomic level, is just vibrated energy. What exists is energy vibrated in small pockets, the syllables of God. The creation is like a long poem of God, with words that continue and words that are used once and pass away.
But we are not just talking about galaxies and pet rocks here. This is personal. How do we recognize the handwriting of God? How do we know that the words we think we see or hear are the words of God? Especially when we see so many words everyday. By some statistics we see more than 10000 word imprints everyday. Watch t.v.? Multiply that by 10. Live in a major city? Multiply by 10 again. How do we know when we are hearing God’s word or just words?
There are three straightforward answers to living into that question. The first is silence and prayer. Spend time with God in silence and with your ear bent inward toward heaven. Listen to God. You have may have noticed that in our liturgy when I say “Let us pray,” I wait for a little bit before the collect. That silence is there for your prayer. In fact we have been working silence throughout our liturgies, because well we need the space to breathe and be breathed by the Spirit of God.
Secondly we need to be having conversations about God in community. It is in discourse with others that we learn to hear their voices and discern their and our own voices from God’s. I cannot commend enough having spiritual friends and/or a director to help talk through the life with God, and to have people to keep you honest about who you are talking and listening to in prayer.
Thirdly we need to read and study Scripture. Just as in the other two, it is not in the silence or the community alone, but it is in the engagement of silence and community that we learn to hear God, so it is true in Scripture. It is not enough to have the Bible, you have to read the Bible. And I would add that it is not enough to read it and take it at face value. When we say at the end of the reading, “The word of God,” we are not saying, “thus sayeth the Lord.” I like what the New Zealand prayer book has revived, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.” Because we are not just looking at the words and expecting them to speak for God, but rather we are reading through to listen for and hear God to read through and see God’s work in the hearing and the reading. Having the Bible isn’t enough, but neither is just reading it. You have to engage God in the reading.*
Take this passage from John’s Gospel. It seems strange for Jesus to refer to his death as his glorification and God’s. Yet John doesn’t look at the narrative the way the other gospels do. They take the conventional route of seeing the narrative from the side with a beginning, middle, and end. John, though looks right down the barrel of the narrative and sees the whole thing at the same time. The verb tenses in John show this. John writes in the beginning as if the resurrection has already taken place. So here Jesus is referring to his suffering as his glorification because he sees already his cross in terms of his resurrection.
But this is the way we see the story too. We look through Good Friday to Sunday morning with a faith that says that it is dark but the dawn is coming. We know from reading and studying the Bible and the lives of the faithful that in the darkness there comes that strange light of resurrection and so we see our suffering in the light of God’s faithfulness, even when it has not yet arrived.
The other Gospels show this too, though we often miss it. Jesus quotes the beginning of Psalm 22 from the cross, and we hear that and think, O he has taken on our sins and is turmoil because God is turned away. He is absent. But read the full Psalm. Jesus surely knew as any student of the Psalms would that 22 is a psalm of faith, trusting that God will rescue and save as God has before. It is a psalm that cries out for salvation, not out of desperation, but assurance at the nature of God.
To read and study this passage, we should learn that this is how it really is, even though the darkness is real, it isn’t the final word.
We have to be careful here too because often we have been given the short version of suffering that says that suffering is good in and of itself. That God is glorified in our suffering. But that really is not the point here. God is not glorified in Jesus suffering. God is glorified as the writer of Ephesians says by Christ’s faith and humility. It is not suffering that glorifies God, but rather our suffering often, not always but often, gives us the chance to glorify God by how we suffer. Do we suffer with humility and the faith that knows how God is? Have we studied enough to know that in our darkest hour when the note slips under the door who it is from?
*The Rev. Tom Wiles, the first minister I worked for, said the first question we should ask of the text is, “What here can I obey?”