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August 2, 2009 | 8:00 a.m.

A New Longing, a New Priority

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 5
2 Samuel 11:26–12:7a, 13–15
John 6:24–35

They said to him,“Sir, give us this bread always.”
John 6:34 (NRSV)

Blessed be the longing that brought you here
And quickens your soul with wonder.
May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
That disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.
May you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.
May you know the urgency with which God longs for you.

John O’Donohue

There are times lately, when I see what is going on in the world, in the lives of others with whom I am acquainted, and in my own life, that I am reminded of what Daniel Boone, the frontiersman in early America, was reported to have said when asked on one occasion whether in all his travels and explorations he had ever gotten lost. “Ain’t never been lost,” he said, “but I was bewildered once for three days.” Bewildered, baffled to the point of disorientation, I sometimes feel like the farmer standing in the middle of his pasture with a rope in his hand, trying to figure out whether he found a rope or lost a cow.

Our society seems to be awash in corruption and chaos, intrigue and infidelity, bribe and betrayal, viciousness and violence. Add to all this the cogent observations of Charles Taylor, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at McGill University, in his tightly argued book Varieties of Religion Today. Taylor states that “we used to live in societies in which the presence of God was unavoidable, authority was bound up with the divine, and various invocations of God were inseparable from public life” (p. 64). Now that is changing in favor of what he describes as a new “expressive” individualism (p. 79) characterized by the pursuit of individual happiness, the rejection of theological correctness or orthodoxy, a stress on feeling and emotion, a spirituality “no longer intrinsically related to society,” an authenticity that accepts only what rings true to one’s own inner self, and an insistence that the only sin that is not tolerated is intolerance (p. 89).

Is it any wonder then that in the midst of all these shifts and changes some people are having considerable difficulty making moral and ethical decisions, as well as knowing what priorities to set among the myriad of options that are on the table for consideration and choice? Like the woman in the children’s nursery rhyme, some people have so many options they don’t know what to do. Even those with fewer options may have difficulty deciding what is most important when the alternatives to choose from leave little to be desired.

Then there is the matter of misplaced priorities or “other priorities,” a phrase that seared itself into the public consciousness two decades ago when a now former vice president used it to justify his seeking four student deferments and one “hardship” deferment to avoid military service in Vietnam. “I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service,” he said to a Washington Post reporter in 1989 outside the room in which confirmation hearings regarding his then-candidacy for secretary of defense were held. About the matter of priorities, especially “other priorities,” historian David M. Kennedy had this to say: “Americans with no risk whatsoever of exposure to military service have, in effect, hired some of the least advantaged of their fellow countrymen to do some of their most dangerous business while the majority goes on with their own affairs unbloodied and undistracted.” (cf. Joan Didion, “Cheney: The Fatal Touch,” New York Review of Books, 5October 2006, pp. 51–56).

All of which brings us to David in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New. But we begin with David. David was a very busy fellow. Trouble is, David was busy about things he had no business being busy about, and he was not nearly as busy about the things he was supposed to be busy about. In other words, he had “other priorities” than those of the affairs of state. He had his eye on the comely wife of one of his warriors. As far as David was concerned, she was his to have. After all, he was king, above the law, and could do whatever he wanted to do.

What he wanted to do was to steal Bathsheba away from her husband, Uriah, and then get rid of him by seeing to it that Joab, David’s commander of his armed forces, sent Uriah into the front lines in battle where David knew he would likely be killed. And he was, while David stayed home frolicking with Bathsheba, after having already gotten her pregnant. Historian David Kennedy was not describing anything new in his remarks I just referred to. I sometimes wonder at the seeming naiveté of those who, when bad things happen, assume that there is something that can be done to keep such from ever happening again. Reduce the chances? Perhaps. And that is why we should make the effort. Eliminate entirely? I don’t think so, given the way things are and the flawed and finite nature of the human condition.

It wasn’t until the prophet Nathan later fingered him as the guilty one that David realized the enormity of his sin and came to his senses. His prayer for cleansing and pardon, which we know as the Fifty-First Psalm, reflects the depth of both his awareness and his remorse. Notice that he acknowledges in verse four that he had sinned ultimately against God by his violation of Bathsheba and his violent dispatching of her husband, Uriah. In this we are reminded that when we violate one another, we sin not only against one another, but ultimately against God. The stakes, therefore, are even higher for those who believe in God and who care about their relationship to God. For others, it may or may not be much of an issue. David had “other priorities” than that of allegiance to God and to God’s righteousness, and those other priorities came back to bite him.

Sometimes the priorities we set for ourselves serve to mask our awareness of, as well as become our excuse for avoiding, more important and pressing claims that life may be making upon us. The current brouhaha surrounding the recent incident involving the arrest of Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a case in point. Regardless of the particulars of this incident and the importance of their implications, unless we are willing to probe more deeply beneath them and access and address the underlying issues of the inequities of the criminal justice system and the socioeconomic conditions that foster prejudice and discrimination and help set the stage for violence, we will continue to be trapped in the prison-house of stereotypic thinking on the part of all parties on the social-ethnic divide. In other words, the issues won’t be settled by people playing nice over a couple of beers, though it may well be a good beginning. I believe our president recognizes this.

Priorities in life may shift at any given time, depending on circumstances and the needs of the moment. If I happen to be in a burning building, for example, my first priority, my initial instinct, might be to get out as fast as I can to save myself. However, if I were to see someone in the building needing assistance in order to get out of the building, my priority might shift to that of lending a hand and thereby running the risk of jeopardizing my own quick exit and safety.

Such a particular shift in priorities need not necessarily mean that the ultimate governing priority of my life is that of service to and care of others. However it suggests that fundamentally the trajectory of our priorities over time, our priority profile, will reflect that we are either primarily all wrapped up in ourselves or that we are alert to and aware of the needs of others and are committed to doing whatever we can with what we have to help meet those needs.

A president of the United States was perhaps prescient and certainly prophetic when he uttered these words some years ago: “Ruin in its worst form is inevitable if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few and the triumph in both politics and business of a sordid and selfish materialism.” The president was Teddy Roosevelt. The date was August 1910.

Our priorities reflect our heartfelt desires, our deepest longings, and our fondest hopes. Sometimes they may reflect a certain shallowness and superficiality, a preoccupation with and adulation of the spectacular, the image, and glitz, and of what, in the larger scheme of things, seems flighty and frivolous. At the same time, they may also mask a much more profound longing and restlessness of spirit of the sort that Augustine asserted often precedes one’s final willingness to adopt a new priority of faith and trust in the One whom the psalmist declared is “our dwelling place in all generations” (Psalm 90:1).

Some of Jesus’ followers realized this finally when they said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Only this time the bread they referred to was what Jesus said was the bread of God which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. They had earlier been stunned by how Jesus had taken five loaves and a couple of fish and made a feast sufficient to satisfy the hunger of a huge crowd of folk and wanted him to tell them how they could do the works of God as well. Jesus sensed that they were more interested in the thrill of the deed than in God by whose power the deed had been done. They had another priority than that which the feeding of the hungry crowd signified. Not that the feeding of the hungry was not important or imperative. It was and is both. But our Lord knew that their priority was misplaced inasmuch as it was temporary and temporal. In and of itself, it would not be ultimately sufficient to satisfy the deeper longing and the continuing restlessness of their spirits. “This is the work of God,” he said to them, “that you believe in him whom he has sent.” It is God who gives the true bread that gives life to the world, he said. And when at last they asked for that bread always, he drove the point home with the astounding declaration, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” He was offering himself as the object of a new longing and a new priority to supersede all the more temporal and transient longings and priorities around which we often organize our lives and toward which we direct our energies. At the end of the day and at the end of one’s life, it will be this new longing and this new priority of our relationship to God and to God’s unfailing love made known in Jesus Christ that will see us through and satisfy our hungry and thirsty souls.

Years ago a young woman patient in a mental hospital wrote poetry about her experience with mental illness. The poems by Eithne Tabor were later published under the title The Cliff’s Edge: Songs of a Psychotic. In one of them she sums it up for me with these words:

My wish
Is not now for my freedom
Nor for sanity—
Not to be once more
Whole and clean again,
Free from that which lurks
Far, deep, inside my brain—
My wish
Is but to tell my story
To humanity—
To let them know that God
(Yes, and in spite of Freud!)
Lives closer to the minds
Whose self-shields are destroyed.

My wish
Is for His love,
Even in insanity.

It is this new longing and new priority that can free us from bondage to ourselves and send us out into the world to love and serve the Lord by loving and serving others. May we all dedicate ourselves anew to this longing, this priority, for the sake of the world, for the sake of ourselves, and for the sake of the one who is the bread of life that gives life to the world and by whose forgiving grace we are redeemed and made whole.