Friday, February 20, 2009

Lord, Make Me A Channel Of Thy Peace

In prehistoric times, the peoples of the part of the world we know as "the Middle East" or "Mesopotamia" (the land between the rivers), built skyscrapers called ziggurats.  The earliest examples of the ziggurat date from the fourth millennium BC; the latest, from the 6th century BC. 

Ziggurats were built in tiers, each narrower than the one below, of sunbaked bricks, with facings of fired bricks.  The number of tiers ranged from two to seven, with a shrine or a temple at the summit.  Access was provided by a series of ramps on one side of the structure, or a spiral ramp going upward from base to summit. 

The writers of Genesis, the "book of beginnings" were Jewish scholars -- philosophers and theologians -- captured by the Babylonians and brought to their chief city, Babylon, in what is now known as Iraq.  When they saw the ziggurats, by then several centuries old, and in ruins, they recognized that these "skyscrapers" once served as housing for many more people than would be able to live on the same area of land in single family dwellings.  They also realized what every civilization from then to now has learned, that such conditions allow a small number of persons to acquire power and money, at the expense of a great number of others.  They understood that violence, corruption, and all the crimes associated with slum districts would erupt from the ziggurats like lava from volcanos.

And so the writers of the eleventh chapter of Genesis composed a "myth", a story whose purpose it is to reveal a truth beyond the ken of historical account. Such behavior, they understood, rejects God's goodness, and strives to wrest from the LORD ultimate power over the lives of other human beings. 

The LORD said, "If now, while they are all one people, they behave like this toward one another, what will they be capable of later?  Let us then go down there and confuse their language, so that no one of them will be able to understand another." The LORD then scattered them over the whole earth, and the city of skyscrapers fell into ruins.

That place is called Babylon.  The word means "Gateway to the Gods" in the Akkadian language.  In the Hebrew Scripture, it is interpreted as Babel, from the verb balbal, which means "to confuse".  The word persists in modern tongues as well.  "Babble" in English, and "balbutier" in French, signify "to stutter and stammer, without making sense." 

Today's gospel stands in clear contrast to the attitudes expressed by the arrogant and haughty builders of ziggurats.  Jesus tells his followers that anyone who wishes to share in the peace and joy of God's reign must first deny all earthly ambition, all desire for pleasure, profit and power, take up the cross, and allow God to take charge, just as Jesus did,  "Yet, not my will but thine be done."  Rather than by relying on my intelligence, my talent, my social position, or my bank account to bring me success, I am challenged by the gospel, to "die to myself, so that the LORD Jesus might live in me."  That committment has been difficult to make in any generation; in this era of "fifteen minutes of fame", it seems totally absurd.  But if it is folly, it is "the folly of the Cross." 

That is the theme of a prayer often, but wrongly, attributed to Francis of Assisi.  The attribution is incorrect; the message is invaluable:

Lord, make me a channel of thy peace;
that where there is hatred, I may bring love;
that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness;
that where there is discord, I may bring harmony;
that where there is error, I may bring truth;
that where there is despair, I may bring hope;
that where there are shadows, I may bring light;
that where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted;
to understand, than to be understood;
to love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Chapter 11, page 99. 

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