Amazement and Ecstasy
“Did you enjoy the piano recital?” someone asks me. “Yes,” I reply; “I enjoyed it.” In my cool, objective, critical detachment I have assessed the quality of the evening’s music-making.
But when Chopin played the piano people didn’t leave the concert hall saying, “That was rather good, wasn’t it.” People didn’t leave. They didn’t move. They couldn’t. They were immobilized, speechless as well. Chopin had hands as large as a gorilla’s. With his oversized meat hooks he could caress a piano key as sensitively as a blind person senses Braille. Those who heard Chopin play were beside themselves, taken out of themselves, never the same again.
I was born too late to hear Chopin play.
But several years ago in
I wasn’t present, several years ago, when General
Douglas MacArthur, the old campaigner, delivered his last public address to the
Being pleased at a performance is one thing. It’s entirely something else to be caught up in an event that takes you out of yourself. And for this latter development the Greeks have a word (as usual.) The word is ekstasis. The English word “ecstasy” nowadays means “intense pleasure.” But the Greek word ekstasis is derived from ek (“out) and stasis (“standing”); “standing-out.” For the Greek mind ekstasis means “amazement”, but not amazement in the shallow sense of “Wasn’t that something!” Amazement, rather, in the sense that we’ve been drawn into an event that has taken us out of ourselves and left us standing outside our “self”, outside our everyday “self.” Now we are “beside” ourselves, as we often say. We are even a different person.
If hearing Kathleen Battle sing or General MacArthur speak can do this on a creaturely level, what kind of “amazement” – transformation – occurs when we are overtaken by an event pregnant with God himself? Over and over scripture speaks of this kind of amazement, the profoundest possible.
Today we are going to look at several instances of it.
I: -- The
first concerns the Christian people in
Paul had been the chief villain in the savage
treatment accorded the earliest Christians.
He harassed them, hammered down the door of their homes, had them
imprisoned, and had even arranged for some of them to be put to death.
And then he is found standing up in
We must never minimize the difference that faith in Jesus Christ makes. We now have a different standing before God (from condemnation to acquittal.) We now live in a different relationship with him (from indifference or hostility to love.) We possess a different self-understanding (we are a child of God, no longer a cosmic orphan.) We are motivated by a different aim in life (from “yuppie” hedonism to self-forgetful service of our Lord through our suffering neighbour.) We should never minimize this difference.
On the other hand we should never minimize the difference that faith in Jesus Christ doesn’t make. Our Lord’s incursion into our lives doesn’t make us silly or freakish or psychotic; doesn’t change us so as to make us unrecognizable. Our Lord’s incursion doesn’t mean that the quiet woman suddenly becomes a man-eater or the assertive fellow a wimp. A difference like this would merely point to psychological imbalance, even outright mental illness. Instead God adopts, newly deploys whatever we are. The zeal and persistence and undiscourageability Paul showed in persecuting Christians are the same zeal, persistence and undiscourageability now rechannelled in the service of Christ and kingdom and church.
It was the same with Malcolm Muggeridge after he had come to faith. The waggish sense of humour and the splendid turn of phrase and the sharp eye for contradiction and corruption that marked Muggeridge’s journalism during his pagan years were precisely the same qualities that came wonderfully to be used on behalf of the gospel.
You’ve often heard me speak of Martin Niemoeller,
the pastor and leader of the
It was the same combination of intellectual
brilliance and nervy defiance that became, by grace, the spearhead of his
resistance to Hitler and of the encouragement he gave to fellow-strugglers in
After World War II it was the same combination of traits in Niemoeller that became, by grace, the spearhead of his intercession for ordinary civilians. American authorities had unjustly accused these civilians of being Nazis and were about to punish them. Niemoeller was incensed. “Are you telling me,” he foamed at American military judges, “that the clerk in the local grocery store merits the same treatment as the architects and torturers of the Third Reich?”
Our union with Christ doesn’t make us something we aren’t. Instead it redirects, rechannels, re-deploys what we are in the service of Christ and kingdom and church. This point is important. I think there are many thoughtful, earnest, eager people who are attracted to Jesus Christ, who want to stand with him, and who want to do on behalf of others what they know discipleship mandates them to do. But they are held off by one thing: they fear that faith in our Lord will turn them into religious oddities, psychologically bizarre, somehow distorted. They must be brought to see that intimacy with Jesus Christ doesn’t turn us into religious screwballs. Instead it redirects whatever we are into the service of him whose mission it is to heal the raging haemorrhages of the human heart and the world at large.
The Christians in
II: -- In
the second place a handful of Christians in
How are we supposed to explain providence? If we had time this morning we could finesse what philosophers call “co-planar causality,” a situation where an event is undetermined in one plane yet directed in another plane. We haven’t time this morning.
But I must say this. Regardless of what we say about providence, regardless of what explanations we put forward, we had better not make God the author of the very thing his face is dead set against: evil. And we had better not attribute to God the behaviour for which we lock up human beings.
At the same time I have lived long enough to know that there have been providences without number in my life. I know that God presides and provides. When Bishop William Temple, a giant in the Anglican Church several decades ago, was asked to explain providence he replied, “I can’t explain it. All I know is, as long as I keep praying the “coincidences” keep happening; when I stop, they stop.”
For myself I have found that whenever I’ve suffered significant setback (what I consider significant setback) it’s always been followed by something that lifts me and encourages me and enthuses me. I continue to find it startling.
I began today by telling you I was overwhelmed by
Kathleen Battle. Earlier still I had
been overwhelmed in like manner (albeit more profoundly) by Professor Emil
Fackenheim. I had been
Fackenheim’s student as an undergraduate and a graduate.
I knew he was one of the century’s finest philosophers.
One evening, years after I was no longer his student, he gave a public
address at the
Six months later Fackenheim and I were at a party together. He took me into a corner and told me my letter had meant everything to him. He said he’d been going through a bad period personally, with upheavals on many fronts. In it all he had begun wondering if in his decades of university teaching he had done anything for anyone, begun wondering if he’d ever ignited a student, wondering if he’d made a significant difference to even one person. He had become very depressed. Then he’d received my letter telling him that he had made a life-altering difference to me. “Your letter,” he told me, “did more for me than you will ever know. It got me back above water.” I in turn was amazed again.
You people frequently get to hear my personal stories. I don’t get to hear yours as often. But I’m sure if we sat down together you could talk to me for an hour about the providences in your life that have left you quietly amazed. Remember: the Greek word ekstasis that we translate “amazed” doesn’t mean “surprised.” It means overwhelmed by an event that finds us “standing beside ourselves” as it were, takes us out of ourselves, and leaves us forever different. Bishop William Temple maintained that this kept happening as long as he kept praying.
III: -- Lastly. In Mark’s gospel the disciples are in a boat during a fierce storm. Terror-struck, they are overtaken as Jesus Christ steals upon them and speaks his unique word: “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” The storm abates, and they are “amazed.”
We need to know that Mark’s gospel was written during the fierce persecutions of Emperor Nero. Christians are being fed to wild animals in the Coliseum, or crucified or burnt alive. The tiny church, seemingly fragile then as now, appears about to be engulfed. In the middle of Nero’s storm (thirty-five years after the event described in Mark’s gospel) the same Lord appears and speaks the same word to these newer disciples, one generation later: “Take heart. It is I. Have no fear.” And they are as amazed in the year 65 C.E. as were their mothers and fathers in faith a generation earlier.
Mark wants us to know that when our Lord appears to have abandoned us to the fury of whatever hurricane is upon us, in fact he hasn’t. He comes to us as often as we need him, and his coming to us is sufficient.
We must be sure to understand something crucial here: however often you and I have found our Lord to be sufficient for our needs, we are never such advanced disciples that we are beyond needing his approach and word again. We are never advanced to the point that all we need do is recall that we have proved him sufficient in the past. The truth is, we always stand in need of a fresh visitation. In other words, to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, a learner, is always a matter of learning all over again.
I used to be disheartened by this inasmuch as I thought myself to be a slow learner, uncommonly slow; such a slow learner, in fact, as seemingly to be a non-learner. Now, however, I’m no longer disheartened about myself. I realize now that life’s twists and turns are always new. I’m aware of something else as well: however much we can anticipate in our head, we can’t anticipate anything in our heart. Above all, while we can always store up food and medicine and money we can never store up our Lord. He has to come to us as often as the storm threatens. And so he does. “Take heart. It is I. Have no fear.”
There are days when we are strikingly aware of his approach. There are other days when our head believes the promise even as our stomach seems not to. On both days we are comforted by friends who are the vehicle of our Lord’s comfort. In it all we aren’t forsaken. And in God’s own time we shall be amazed yet again.
God lives and God loves he will continue to overtake us, overwhelm us, render us
beside ourselves as he rechannels our gifts and personalities in the service of
the gospel. He will do as much again
as he startles with that providence which remains the stuff of life.
He will do as much too as he stays our panic once more.
Shepherd May 2005