“The word is near you,” Paul writes, “on your lips and in your heart” (Rom. 10:8). It’s a stunning, breath-taking idea – the word is in your heart – and the more I sit with it, the more powerful it becomes for me.
Paul is writing about the word of faith he proclaims, and he’s not telling us anything new. He’s telling us what we already know deep in our hearts (Jer. 31:31-34). He’s introducing us to our true selves. But it’s hard to understand what Paul is telling us because we’ve forgotten what’s in our hearts. We’ve forgotten who we are.
In Disney’s movie The Lion King, there’s a scene where the mandrill Rafiki introduces the lion cub Simba to the spirit of Simba’s dead father Mufasa. Rafiki tells Simba to look into a pool of water, and of course all Simba can see is his own reflection. “Noo,” Rafiki says, “Look harder.” Slowly Simba’s reflection transforms into the image of Mufasa. “You see,” Rafiki says, “he lives in you.” Then the spirit of Mufasa speaks. “Simba, you have forgotten me. You have forgotten who you are, and so have forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become. You must take your place in the Circle of Life.”
Paul is our Rafiki, telling us to look deeper into the reflection we now see as if in a mirror, dimly (1 Cor. 13:12). He’s reminding us who we are, that our Father lives in us, that God lives in us. And he’s calling us to take our place in the Circle of Life, the fullness of heaven on earth.
Usually when God appears to someone in scripture, the first response is fear, terror. Maybe that’s why in our search for God we settle on the first thing we see: our own reflection. We see God not as God is but as we are, we create God in our image. We keep the deep, unknowable mystery of God at a safe distance behind our superficial images because we’re less afraid that way.
Following Jesus’ feeding of the multitude, when his disciples in their boat are battered by a storm at night (Matt. 14:22-33) – what a deeply powerful psychological image that is, chaos in the dark of night – they’re not fearful because of the storm or because they’re at risk of sinking. They’re fearful when they see Jesus “walking on the sea,” exhibiting a power they don’t understand.
Their fear turns into worship only after Jesus gets into the boat with them. Their fear subsides and the storm ceases only in a greater intimacy with what they fear, the inscrutable manifestation of God. They’re disciples of Christ, but only when they move into closer relationship with Christ is their fear transformed into worship.
Many people spend their whole lives relating to what they see on the surface, reflections of themselves they mistake for images of God. They fear going deeper, beyond superficial images, because that can be terrifying at first. Going deeper, we realize that every favorite image of God is to some degree an idol, every favorite description of God is also a distortion of God. On our way to the word Paul says is in our hearts, we’ve got to go further than a comfortable surface faith, where we like to dwell, and venture into unknown and frightening depths.
A little boy was being comforted by his mother one night after he fell out of bed, and she asked him how the accident happened. He replied, “I guess I just lay down too close to where I got in.” We fall out of faith and forget the word planted in our hearts when we lay down too close to where we get in. But we can always go further if we remember faith is not about living with Jesus, it’s about following Jesus on the way toward wholeness and perfect union with God and everything else. It’s not about “belonging and believing,” it’s about transformation.
Some of you have discovered the transforming word in your heart during our separation in this pandemic. While we’ve been unable to meet in person, you’ve discovered a strength to adapt to new circumstances; you’ve discovered you’re stronger than you thought; in solitude you’ve heard in your heart a word of comfort and insight. You’ve discovered in your heart a deeper, stronger faith and a deeper relationship with God. You’ve remembered who you have been all along but had forgotten along the way.
Now, don’t lay down to soon. Remember what you’ve heard from your heart, the word you carry there. Listen to its invitation. Give your attention to where it’s calling you to go, and follow its lead. And remember, whatever storm buffets you along the way, there is one divine Mystery whose intimate presence will bring you calm and the fullness of a peace that surpasses all understanding.