LIFE: The Great Ordeal

In my readings this week I came across a statement that I found to be profound:  “Who are these robed in white, and where have they come from? . . . These are they who have come out of the great ordeal . . . . They will hunger no more, and thirst no more . . . For they will be guided to springs of the water of life, and every tear will be wiped from their eyes.”   These words are beautiful words indeed. I don’t know the context in which they were written.  Scholars ponder the particularities surrounding the writing of these words. Debate is intense, encompassing all camps from the conservative fundamentalist to the rational moderates to the radical liberals. It seems that when it comes to this book, the Revelation to John, most folk are pretty opinionated. I am not going to try to reveal the “original” meaning of these words. I am not going to try to interpret prophesies of which even the experts cannot agree. I am not going to talk about the civil or social history of the times. I don’t know what was happening in the first century c.e. The best any of us can do is offer up speculation based on someone else’s writings, or archeological digs, or whatever. However, I do know what is happening in this world today. I do know what is happening around the country, and in the lives of my friends–and enemies. I know what is happening in my family, and in my life. I do know that regardless of the author’s intentions, these words are rich in meaning for us today.

Life is an ordeal, isn’t it. It doesn’t take someone with a sharp analytical mind to figure that one out. We are hurting people. We are hungry for healing and wholeness regardless of our social or economic location. We may often wonder if we can possibly come out of this great ordeal called life. I am not a Matthew Fox fan, however, this priest/writer/spiritual guide and social activist put forth a theory in his work on creation spirituality that is worth noting. Basically, he contends that we are all oppressed, we are all hurting and in need of healing, we all need to be liberated from that which binds us. The wealthy and the comfortable among us need spiritual liberation, or we will forever hunger and thirst for things which never satisfy.  The poor, the most physically challenged among us need physical liberation in the form of food, adequate shelter and respect. We may be spiritually wealthy, but without physical necessities, we die. Wherever we are located along this spectrum, we each know in our own way what an ordeal life presents.

Years ago I had the opportunity to spend two weeks at a conference at Drew University. One evening a group of us took the train into New York City to see the sights. A resident of that city, a Korean woman, accompanied us as our guide. She took us into the Asian section, then we walked to the Empire State Building. We stopped along the way and did all the “touristy” things. That evening, she took us to the garment district where we ate at a Chinese restaurant/ cafeteria. We ordered our food at the counter, ate at long tables and sat in folding chairs. It wasn’t a fancy place, but the food was delicious, and, as is typical in Chinese restaurants, we had more than our fill. While we sat there laughing, talking and eating, a pregnant woman walked in. She appeared to be spaced out on drugs, even to our inexperienced eyes. She walked to one of the tables and picked up a bottle of Tabasco sauce which she proceeded to pour into a Styrofoam cup. On another counter sat a Bunn Coffee Maker from which she poured hot water into her cup, thus making a soup with the sauce. When asked, the waiter told us that this was her evening meal. We sat and we watched. Our bellies were filled.  But, our souls were famished for we thought we were helpless. Life is the great ordeal to both the filled and the unfilled.

While in Nicaragua, I learned of many other kinds of life ordeals. Poverty, hunger, war. That is a country where two thirds of the population are women and children under the age of 14. There are no role models. There are no teachers. Life is a great ordeal for the entire nation, as it is for two-thirds of the world.  I thought, “Those poor, poor folks.” But, I was brought up short by a woman I met in one of the base communities. This is the gist of what she said: We used to think of G!d as being in heaven. But now I know better. G!d is in our boat with us. G!d lives in each of us. So, when I look at you, I see a spark of the Divine. And I have faith…. We are in the storm, the great ordeal.  But G!d is with us.  And in the middle of the storm, the Divine spark within us brings peace. We are in this ordeal together. We are community, together. And if we are to know the calm, we must see the Divine light in each other.

We have a choice here. We can interpret these words to mean that in eternity, in the future, after this life has been lived, if we but persevere, G!d will take us to the promised land where all will be well with our souls. This is good.  But what about life on this side of the grave?

There is another way to look at this passage. G!d is here, now, today, working in this world, empowering us through the great ordeals and sorrows of life. What would these words mean, if, as the Nicaraguan peasant woman, we saw the image of G!d in all whom we encountered? What would these words mean in how we related with each other and with G!d? What would happen if we lived as if this were so? These words then offer the possibility of radical transformation. Living as if these words were being wrought in our lives in the here and now is actually mind boggling. To live as if we truly believed we were created in the image of G!d, that we reflect Divine light to others, would most certainly bring healing to our bodies, our souls, our nation, and all of creation.  Imagine what would happen! Wars would cease. We could only have compassion for those whom we now call our enemy. Poverty would be eradicated. Physical abuse would not be tolerated. Lines of demarcation which divide people, and oppress all of society, would become ways of valuing the diversity and differences, all of which reflects the depth and breadth of G!d.  To this, add your own dreams for a healed world.

You may be saying this is wishful thinking. And I would say, yes, you are right–except for that little voice
that keeps reminding me the beginning of transformation is within each one of us. For each of us, to believe that G!d will guide us to springs of the water of life is to believe that we will come through the great ordeal. G!d is guiding us when we are moved to call a friend in need, or when we call a friend when we are in need. G!d is guiding us when we pause to listen to a child’s chatter when we really have better things to do. G!d is guiding us when we periodically leave canned goods for the food pantry or gemach, for people we will never see or to whom we will never speak.  G!d is guiding us when we choose to walk in just ways through unjust situations.

With every mouth that is fed, with every thirst that is quenched, with every body that is adequately clothed and sheltered, with every soul that is nurtured, with every life that is birthed, with every death that is honored, within and without, individually and globally, G!d is guiding us to springs of the water of life where  our tears will be wiped away. Then sorrow will cease to hold sway over our being. Depression will give way to joy. Contentment will replace dissatisfaction and cynicism. All this, just for truly believing we are beings created in G!d’s image. “Who are these robed in white, and where have they come from? . . . These are they who have come out of the great ordeal. . . . They will hunger no more, and thirst no more . . . For they will be guided to springs of the water of life, and every tear will be wiped from their eyes.”

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4 thoughts on “LIFE: The Great Ordeal

  1. As you have figured out, this is purely homiletical, NOTHING exegetical! I found the words to be profoundly hopeful and humbling for this life and since I strongly believe that any life hereafter is in large part determined by how we navigate through this world, in this instance I felt no compunction to exegete anything. 🙂 In some circles I guess that would make me a heretic, but then “they” probably already think that I am! Thanks for reading and responding.

  2. How can we see G!d in the Nicaraguan peasant woman, in the many who face true ordeals if we do not put ourselves in situations that feel foreign and uncomfortable to us? I am concerned that so many of us stick with “our own kind,” which prevents us from seeing G!d at all. We start to think that having mismatched socks is an ordeal, having the car battery go dead–you get my drift.

    It seems that risk is central to spiritual growth.
    Nancy Poling

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