A Certain Burning


“For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace . . . But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever; your name endures to all generations.  You will rise up and have compassion on Zion, for it is time to favor it; the appointed time has come” (Psalm 102:3, 12-13).

“I pray, O God, that I may know You and love You, so that I may rejoice in You.  And if I cannot do so fully in this life may I progress gradually until it comes to fullness.  Let the knowledge of You grow in me here, and there [in heaven] be made complete; let Your love grow in me here and there be made complete, so that here my joy may be great in hope, and there be complete in reality” (St. Anselm, Proslogion, Chapter 26).

My body ached from a combination of institutional furniture and lack of sleep.  Labor and delivery, however, is not for the faint of heart.  I sat next to Susan, who was strapped to the operating table.  Flashes of blue darted here and there, speaking in code, preparing for the portentous occasion.  Tubes and monitors, pans and sponges were arrayed about the room in some indiscernible order, some enigmatic arrangement perceivable only to the initiated.  The doctor said Susan might feel some pressure, a tugging sensation.  She did.

The doctor asked if we wanted to see our daughter.  We did.  Interestingly enough, the first thing to come out of our daughter’s mouth was not gratitude.  She hadn’t practiced any speeches for her mother about how pleased she had been with the service up until that point, or about how she was looking forward to the new experiences they would certainly share in the future.  She had no kind words for her old man who had waited a lifetime to see her face.  None of that.  All she could do was scream.

I suppose that when your domicile is reduced to a bloody agglomeration of torn tissue and spent fiber, words are hard to find.  When they rip you screaming and naked from your home and thrust you into a cold, unspeakable world, maybe there isn’t a whole lot left to say.  Maybe screaming is the only way to speak about the world you left or the world that has left you, and to which you cannot find adequate words to speak about your desire to return.  Mary Grace is her name, and she spoke to me most profoundly with the first screaming words God gave her about a certain burning, a particular longing for home.

I heard her cry and I knew right away what she meant.  I have cried that way before myself.  Who hasn’t?

I think the Psalmist knew that cry.  Somehow I get the idea that he had considerable occasion to seek ways of expressing his longing for home.  Jerusalem, apparently, was an embarrassment, which is an unexplainable mystery if you happen to believe that Jerusalem is a special city, a covenant city . . . the city of God.  If Jerusalem is your heart, and your heart is a smoking ember, how can your bones not “burn like a furnace” until it is restored?  If you have been ripped from your refuge and thrust into a cold unspeakable world, how can you not look for the day when you may return from exile?  The tears you cry speak as much about the home you seek as the pain you bear.

In a world that seems increasingly foreign and hostile, the church has no other way of living except as exiles aching for the enthronement of our God and the reestablishment of Zion, our home.  Without a doubt we have tried to live as though the world as it is presently situated is all there is.  We have tried to get comfortable, making friends with the powers and principalities that seem to have jurisdiction.  We have tried to convince ourselves that if our intentions are good, that if we just put our heads together, we might be able to reconstruct the home we seek.  But deep in our bones we know that Jerusalem is in disarray, that Zion is not yet restored.

While much of the church looks for a way to get more comfortable with its current surroundings, hoping somehow to transform them, I would like to suggest that the ministry of the church has more to do with fanning the flames, of stoking the burning embers, of reminding us that the longing for home we experience can never be satisfied short of the enthronement of our God at the coming of the appointed time.  And if that is true, we are called to live our lives in ways that demonstrate our attachment to a life and place we cannot engineer on our own.  Scripture calls it the New Jerusalem.  We call it home.

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