Although I've recited Psalm 95 at Morning Prayer thousands of times, whenever I read it I am always transported back to the beautiful, stark chapel of Westcott House, Cambridge, England, the seminary that formed me as a deacon and a priest. I was in my mid-20s, literally being formed, as the environment around me rewired my neural pathways, making me ready for ordained ministry.
Psalm 95, the opening canticle of every Morning Prayer, invites us to come into God’s real presence. It describes a vision of God where he holds the highest mountain peaks and deepest ocean trenches in his very being, scooping all the world’s seas into his open hands and fashioning from nothing everything that is – including us.
One of the most beautiful parts of that seminary chapel is an icon on the east wall, low down on the north side, of Christus Pantocrator, literally ”Christ the All-Strong”, the embodiment of those sentiments expressed in Psalm 95. In his hand, Christ holds the text of John 15:16, ”You did not choose me but I chose you.” Generations of those for whom Westcott House is their alma mater have been comforted, inspired, challenged and fortified by that icon. Among them is Archbishop Rowan Williams, who wrote of its symbolism in his 2003 book on icons:
"…face to face with Jesus, there and only there, do we find who we are. We have been created to mirror his life, the eternal life of the one turned always toward the overflowing love of the Father; but our human existence constantly turns away … When we look at him looking at us, we see both what we were made to be, bearers of the divine image and likeness, and what we have made of ourselves" (The Dwelling of Light: Praying with Icons of Christ; Canterbury Press, 2003).
There is a tension here: that God’s dream for us often seems not to match up with what we dream for ourselves. This is sometimes because of a blank refusal to admit that there’s anything bigger than ourselves. But I suspect it’s mostly about our failure to go beyond mediocrity in our dreams of what God’s kingdom could look like. Maybe another way to put it is that our faith is barely lukewarm when it could be burning hot.
The theme of these Lenten meditations is “The Gifts of the Spirit,” and today we’re focusing on the gift of faith. Unlike the other spiritual gifts, where there are clear indications whether or not we’ve been given them, faith is pretty hard to pin down. In fact, sometimes it feels less like a gift from God and more like one that we’re supposed to give him in order to get the other gifts. The good news is that, as the Westcott icon says, ”We did not choose God, he chose us”. The great news is that God has faith in us, not because he needs our help, but because he intentionally chooses to involve us in his life and dream.
This is what Will Willimon, former Dean of Chapel at Duke University, says about the matter: “It’s amazing that the Son of God, the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace turns to ordinary folk like the twelve disciples, like us, and gives us his work to do” (Pulpit Resource, vol.36, no. 2). But that’s the truth, and we’re called by God to dream the biggest dreams we’ve ever dreamed for what our world could look like if it was a true reflection of God’s dream.
Image Captions: Icon, Westcott House, Cambridge, England.