Bethel

“Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire, He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?

I came across this parable on Facebook recently, in a post from my friend Alexander, who said, “I have run across this parable before, and I have my own thoughts about what it means, but I’d like to read your thoughts.”  I have run across the parable before myself.  It was years ago, and I had read it in a sermon published in a sermon collection entitled “Sermons That Work” by the Preaching Excellence program.  The sermon was written by a friend of mine from seminary whom I like and respect.  It was an excellent sermon, and the parable served as the conclusion of it.  Still, while I could recognize the ways in which the sermon was excellent, the feeling I was left with at the end of the sermon was “Sure, the idea of being totally changed into fire sounds really appealing.  But I have no idea how to go about doing that.”

The word “fire” came up in one of the songs the campers were singing at Shrine Mont when we went to pick up our daughter at camp and attended the closing ceremony.  And the word “fire” brought the parable to mind.  I also remembered the question my spiritual director had asked me at our first meeting: “What do you want to ask God for?”  A good question, and one I ask people on a regular basis.  I didn’t have much of an answer for it, though.  That’s partly because so many of the things I’ve prayed for, God has already granted me, and of course I am grateful for that.  There are also my regular daily prayers, Morning Prayer from the Prayer Book, with its prayers for guidance, for mission, for peace, for grace, for doing God’s will, and a prayer for each person on our parish prayer list and each person who has a birthday or anniversary that week.  I also have some prayer time for contemplative silence.  Plus now I’m praying every day for a new organist for us.  So those are things I’m praying for, on a daily basis, already.  So what do I want to ask God for?  Is it that I am like Abbot Lot, and according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts.  “What do you want to ask God for?” I wondered whether the answer might be: “To be totally changed into fire?”

But what is that, exactly?  What is it, exactly, that I’m asking God for?  And I was kind of drawing a blank.  And when I looked up from my unanswered interior questions, I gradually became aware of my surroundings.  I became aware of the campers’ joyful songs of praise to God that were surrounding me.  And the experience of worship at the outdoor shrine.  And the youthful exuberance that vibrates through everything that the Shrine Mont camps do. The humor and the warmth and the playfulness.  And my beloved daughter, and her friends, and all the faithful people who contribute to nurturing their faith.  And the beauty of the mountains.  And this most amazing day, and the blue true dream of the sky, and everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes, yes, yes.

And as the tears started rolling down my face, I thought, “You have got to pull yourself together.  You are just going to embarrass yourself.”

So what is it to be totally changed into fire?  Does it have to do with experience of joy? Love?  Awe?  Beauty? Praise?  Faith?  Is it true that I have no idea how to go about doing that?  Or are the things I’ve always wanted right in front of me waiting for me to notice them?  Is God already standing there holding out to us the answer to our prayer, waiting for us to notice that what we’ve asked for is right there in front of us?

Jacob gets his vision of the angels ascending and descending, and God stands beside him, and he hears the voice of God making extravagant and abundant promises to him.  And his response is, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!”  His response is, “He was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”  So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on top of it.  He called that place Bethel.”

Jacob’s response is fear and awe, and desire to mark this holy place, this place where he has experienced God.  There is value in returning to holy places, places where we have experienced God.  It occurred to me that spending more time at Shrine Mont might be a valuable thing for me to do in my own spiritual life.  But there is something that matters more than whether or not we return spatially to places where we have experienced God, and that is whether we return our attention to our experience of God.  Returning spatially is one way to do that, retelling the story of our experience of God is another.  That’s part of the value of preserving these stories in scripture to begin with, and returning to them each Sunday in our worship.  Some familiarity with the stories of other people’s experiences of God also makes us more open to our own experiences of God.  I am grateful that Jacob did mark his experience of God both spatially and verbally.  The reason that so many experiences of God that don’t have much of a lasting effect on someone’s life is often that a person just plain forgets about it.  The people whose spiritual lives become richer and deeper are often those who, in one way or another, continue to return to their experience of God, or talk about it, or explore it, or find other things that resonate with it.

Which is to say, I am glad that Jacob’s response was not to say, “You have got to pull yourself together.  You are just going to embarrass yourself.”

Various people chimed in on the Facebook post about Abbott Lot and Abbott Joseph.  Alexander gave his thoughts succinctly: “Lot is checking the boxes; Joseph is seeking God.”

I can check boxes as well as the next person.  And what am I seeking?

What do we want to ask God for?”