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A very long time ago when I took my first Lamaze class, the doula asked each of us to picture an image, something comforting that we could conjure in our minds when labor became “uncomfortable”.
Theoretically, conjuring that image would comfort me, allowing birth to happen naturally, as if I could prevent otherwise.
For classroom purposes, I believe I began with a waterfall. But, by the end, as the birth was unfolding in the hospital labor room quite “naturally” in the same way that an 8. Earthquake on the Richter Scale also unfolds “naturally”, the image I settled on was a sledge hammer. To no one’s surprise I was never invited to actually lead a Lamaze group myself.
Images are as powerful as we choose to make them. We select an image and decide what it will represent for us. As a result, an image has the capacity to quiet distracting chaos, or transport us somewhere else, calm us or empower us. If the image fails to effect any of these positive dynamics for us we discard it.
Some images come ready-packaged for us with their standard quality powers. Puppies in a box or kittens tumbling off a sofa signal domestic bliss as predictably as a gray-haired man speeding down the highway in a red convertible sports car signals, well, you know.
Our faith narrative is riddled with symbols: a staff, a well of living water, tablets of stone, an empty tomb.
A white dove or a tongue of fire symbolizes God the Holy Spirit and an old man with a long white beard sitting on a throne high and lifted up conjures notions of God the Father. A number of images are associated with Jesus: the “suffering servant,” the “good shepherd,” and today the “king of kings.”
I like the suffering servant. I can get my head around it. The first real job I had was as a housekeeper and on more than one occasion my role necessitated me doing what I had to do without complaint so I can extrapolate from that something of Jesus talking to his disciples about coming here to serve and not to be served.
Jesus as a “good shepherd” is also a symbol that works for me. I don’t mind being characterized in this image as among the flock of generally not too bright beasts that lumbers around, losing track of the group, and chewing away on my own interests unaware of the mountain lion crouched unseen by me in the bushes waiting to pounce and the good shepherd arriving in the nick of time to save me – again!
Then, there’s Jesus as king of kings. These sermons practically write themselves, right?!? Well, of course, my immediate response is to say well yeah! Except, not only do connecting images not run easily from my mind to this image, but if I’m honest, the image actually prompts an abrupt halt on my part.
The reasons are pretty apparent. We don’t have monarchs here. We don’t just “not have them”, as in some parts of the country have mountains and other parts do not have them. We affirmatively don’t have monarchs here. We actually have a fairly bloody story – a story of which we are so proud that we keep careful track of who can and who cannot claim to have descended from that story – a story about the origins of us becoming “we” that begins with saying “No!” to the idea of a monarchy.
And, in a smug sort of way, the country we said no to about a monarchy has itself reduced the role of its own monarch to a completely symbolic precious figurehead, proving our point that we prefer to run things ourselves, thank you very much.
Well, of course, we don’t mean that about God. Right? Of course we are good with God being king.
No sign here that we battle against being subject to the authority, the absolute reign of, a force bigger than us. Right?
Legend has it that in 1947, a particularly stubborn doctrinaire politician named Stafford Cripps had gotten under the skin of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Walking away from Churchill one day with an air of injured righteousness, Churchill nudged the Cabinet Minister next to him and remarked, “There but for the Grace of God goes God.”
The truth is that most of my interior struggles in my own life owe entirely to my kicking against this very goad and then whining every single time about my sore toe. King of kings is an absolute monarchy. It exists without our permission and operates without our assistance. Its power derives from an image that God is above all things, in all things, that all things came to be from God, and all things hold together in God.
Unlike the good shepherd with its pastoral image of constantly rescuing me from my own goofiness or the suffering servant whose best work is done off stage and behind the scenes, thanklessly feeding me my lines when I forget them, this image of kings of kings calls me up short every single time for the very reason that a significant piece of my own history is to celebrate my autonomy and chafe at the notion of not being in control.
As long as we are confessing, here, I will go as far as saying that it feels very righteous to think this way. It also feels very foolish and contrary to life as I have known it.
The book of Solomon’s proverbs says “we make our pathways, but it is God who directs our footsteps.” A more colloquial version of this is “if you want hear God laugh, tell him your plans.”
It is meet and right that the conclusion of this ridiculously long season after Pentecost, these weeks that we number in sequence and which are marked by the ordinary quotidian tasks of living the life of Christ in community, figuring out week after week and month after month what it looks like to be constantly reassessing our right size and whether today we are a foot, a hand, or an elbow in this body, that is, what is the piece that is mine to hold and to do it with grace so that God is glorified and the kingdom of heaven stretches its reach to our little corner of the world, it is fitting to mark this season by celebrating Jesus Christ as the King of Kings.
It is fitting because if your experience during Pentecost has been anything like mine, you have stumbled and fallen in attempting to perform these simple life skills. These unsuccessful practice runs should not discourage us from continuing in these endeavors. Instead, we can take comfort in knowing that this is God’s world, not ours, and the larger picture — the origins of which far pre-date our history and whose succeeding chapters don’t even feature us in cameo performances — has the effect of teaching us the value of NOT being in charge.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe we have a duty to manage our lives. And, I do not like hearing bad news from my doctor when I’ve cut out dairy and sugar or hearing my investment counselor say that “markets routinely fluctuate without regard for when I need a cash withdrawal” after I’ve faithfully squirreled away savings for years to plan for just such an event.
But the truth is, when I find myself really kicking against life’s inevitable gotchas, I have to admit that I have gradually eased toward an image of a democratically elected god, subject to impeachment when the image fails to meet my expectations, and away from an absolute sovereign of all time, all places, and all things. Realigning myself spiritually is not only about correcting this laissez faire attitude toward viewing what is mine to do as though it is disconnected from God’s governance, but rather that everything that I am talking about doing proceeds from the heart of God and finds its ultimate balance and gravity in God. Threaded throughout this arrogance is the notion that I am the host of this event.
Instead, reminding myself of the actual order of things revitalizes my commitment to doing what I can do, but with a different attitude, that of criminal number 2: the man who connected to Jesus, the king of kings, by way of embracing an honest awareness of his own self, asking only that Jesus “re-member” him, literally, to complete the work of putting back together all that remained broken within him.
I don’t like being a goofy sheep, more interested in grazing than watching out for mountain lions, but I am. I don’t like losing my way in life, needing prompts from off-stage that signal where my next mark is, but I do. And I especially don’t like being reminded that there are things in this life that I simply cannot control, but there are. And it is heartbreaking, especially when our view is so limited and for all we can see, “this” (our current problem) is not going to end well. And, that’s life. Sometimes things don’t end “well”, or at least the way we’d like for them to end. What I need in times like these is an image I can conjure, an image of eyes that see more than I can see, a heart that can love and forgive where I cannot, and a design for holding all of this together in love.
And when our plans are thwarted by any number of events we cannot control, when that 8 point earthquake “naturally” occurs, the powerful image that comforts us is that of God’s sovereignty:
“…our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble; therefore we will not fear, though our world be moved and the mountains toppled into the depths of the sea; though its waters rage and foam and the mountains tremble, the Lord is with us, the God of Jacob is our stronghold.”
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park, LPC
November 24, 2019