The Fire of the Word
- Thursday, July 05, 2012
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from The Fire of the Word by Chris Webb (IVP).
Chapter One: Hear His Voice
It’s just a little before six in the morning and the alarm on my cell phone is ringing. It’s winter, and the air in the room is cold and sharp; I grab a warm sweater as I stumble out of the bedroom and head down the stairs. The house is quiet, the family asleep; I’m reminded of some words of the sixteenth-century Spanish poet and mystic John of the Cross: “One dark night, fired with love’s urgent longings—ah the sheer grace!—I went out unseen, my house being now all stilled.” On this dark morning, my home silent around me, I’m heading into the gloomy basement, flashlight in hand, fired by those same urgent longings. It’s time to pray.
Some while back I converted a corner of our basement into a makeshift chapel. It’s a simple and rather inelegant affair: lengths of blue cloth, bought at a thrift store and pinned to the exposed rafters, form the walls, and three old rugs cover the concrete floor. A couple of yard-sale armchairs and an old bookcase provide the meager furnishings, and under the single window is a prayer desk I picked up years ago from a redundant chapel in England. On the windowsill sits a battered electric lamp, a candleholder and a wood-mounted print of the San Damiano cross before which Francis of Assisi used to pray. This is my Jerusalem, my temple: the holy ground where I encounter the presence of God.
It seemed cold upstairs, but the air down here is frigid. Shivering a little, I kneel at the prayer desk, light the candle and open my prayer book and Bible. Making the sign of the cross on my lips, I recite the traditional opening words of the liturgy: “O Lord, open thou our lips, and our mouth shall shew forth thy praise.” Then, as Christians throughout the centuries have done (especially in monastic and liturgical communities), I begin the day’s prayer by softly chanting Psalm 95, the great invitation to worship: “O come, let us sing unto the Lord, let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation” (v. 1). And as the psalm unfolds, I absorb the poet’s encouragement to sing, to rejoice, to celebrate God and his creation, to recognize his care for us.
Buried in the heart of this psalm comes a challenge: “Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Here is the work of today—which is also the work of the whole of life. I’m called daily to open my heart afresh to the living Word of God. I know I need this reminder but, to tell the truth, I’m daunted by the possibility that God might actually speak. I feel like an Israelite at the foot of Mount Sinai, overwhelmed by the swirling clouds at the mountain’s summit, the bursts of thunder and the flashes of fiery lightning. How can I bear to hear God’s voice, let alone listen to it, interpret it, comprehend it? “You speak to us,” Moses was told, “and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die” (Ex 20:19). Wouldn’t hearing the voice of God be something like seeing his face: an experience so great, so consuming, that our mortal frame would be unable to contain it?
So it’s with caution that, in my prayers, I approach the reading of Scripture itself. The contemporary Coptic saint Matta el-Meskeen understood this well when he wrote: “There are those who always fast to read the Gospel. There are those who, when they read the Gospel alone, always kneel. There are those who always read it with weeping and tears.” The candlelight flickers as I turn the pages, and my heart trembles a little too. What will I hear? How will I be called, how changed? Will I be comforted or inspired? Or is it today that my life will be turned inside out? It has happened before—to others and to me.
On another cold winter morning—in February of 1208—a young man named Francesco Bernardone came into a small Umbrian church to hear the mass being celebrated for the feast of Saint Matthias. For three years Francesco had been living as a hermit in the Spoleto Valley under the direction of a community of Benedictine monks. The son of a wealthy cloth merchant, he had become estranged from his family and many friends because of the eccentric fervor with which he seemed to be seeking God’s will for his life—emptying his father’s warehouse to provide for the poor, caring for outcast lepers by washing and redressing their wounds, and begging from house to house as he raised money to rebuild local churches.
As the mass ended and the little church began to empty, Francesco approached the priest. He quietly explained that hadn’t understood the Gospel reading (which would have been in Latin); would the priest kindly read through it again? The cleric obliged, taking Francesco through the passage from the tenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel line by line. He translated Jesus’ words about the apostles traveling from place to place curing the sick, raising the dead and ministering to lepers (that last part must have caught Francesco’s attention). Jesus told them to journey without money or baggage, and to trust in faith that God would provide through those among whom they went. Above all, they were to proclaim the heart of the Gospel message: “The kingdom of heaven has come near!”
As he listened to the priest’s explanation, Francesco’s heart began to race; he could sense the calling of the Spirit on his own life. “This is what I want!” he cried. “This is what I seek! This is what I desire with all my heart!” From that moment on his course was set: Francesco would become a wandering preacher, an itinerant proclaimer of the kingdom. He would travel in poverty and faith to the furthest reaches of his world, throughout Italy and on to France, Germany, Spain, the Balkans, even to northern Egypt to share the good news of Christ with a Muslim sultan who was facing a great European crusading army. Francesco’s shining example of obedience to the gospel would become legendary, inspiring generations of Christians until the present day. Francesco is known to us as that startling lover of Christ, St. Francis of Assisi.
Scripture not only sparked Francis’s tremendous spirituality, it continued to fuel the burning flame of his passion for Jesus. By 1210 the rapidly growing Franciscan movement had caught the attention of the wider church, and Francis was encouraged to present a community rule to the pope. The text of that rule no longer survives, but it seems almost certain that it was little more than a collection of sayings of Christ from the Gospels. That spirit was reflected in the opening words of a revised rule he composed a decade later, in which he committed himself and his Friars Minor (“Little Brothers”) simply to “follow the teaching and footprints of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Francis had experienced the Bible (especially the Gospels) as a life-changing book and was determined to stay open to its transforming influence.
His experience was far from unique; similar stories could be repeated from every age of the church’s life over the last twenty centuries. Almost a thousand years before Francis, Antony of Egypt was a young farmer and landowner in the Upper Nile region. One Sunday morning as he walked into the traditional Coptic service in his local church, he heard the priest reading from Matthew’s Gospel: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mt 19:21). The impact was striking and immediate. Antony sold everything and retreated into the Egyptian desert, charting a course which would be followed later by thousands of others who were seeking a deeper and more committed life with God. The Life of Antony, a short biography by the Alexandrian bishop Athanasius, touched the lives of Christians and churches across the Middle East and Europe, and helped lay the foundations of the monastic movement; Antony himself is often known as the “father of monasticism.” And all this grew from that unexpected encounter with the words of Scripture.
A little over fifteen centuries later, in the remote Welsh village of Pontrobert, the young daughter of a local farmer became captivated as she listened to the Calvinistic Methodist preachers whose fiery sermons were lighting up the pulpits of Wales. She soaked herself in the vivid scriptural imagery which permeated their teaching, and began to sew together a patchwork of metaphors, symbols and allegories into one of the most striking collections of hymns and poetry that Welsh culture has ever known. In every line the impact of the Bible on her life and faith is glaringly evident. One of her hymns, Bererin llesg gan rym y stormydd, opens with this verse (in English translation):
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