The Lure of Splendor


Cliff Notes of Being Human

Some stories never happened but are always happening. Like the Matthew and Luke stories of the 40 day temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. If everything in Christian scripture should become lost, except for the narratives of the wilderness temptation, we would still have the story to glean what it means, and does not mean, to be human.

The narratives of Jesus in the wilderness are a kind of Cliff Notes on the ways mortal life gets twisted. They condense the challenges of the Christ and of all of us. The Devil is a Trickster, the Liar, twisting the good out of shape.

Is it about power? Or is it about splendor?

As many times as I have read and preached about them, the word ‘splendor’ has seemed incidental to the temptation of power. Or so I thought until this morning.

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if . . . .”

Gospel according to Matthew 4:8-9 NRSV

The genius of scripture is that it brings fresh things to light that speak to new socio-reliigious-political circumstances. Perhaps it is the dark and darkening sky of 2020 that drew my eye to the ‘splendor’ of the kingdoms (nations) as more than incidental. The Greek word is ‘doxa’ (glory, splendor). Perhaps power is not an end in itself, but a means to the end of self-glorification. There could be no greater splendor than owning/controlling all the nations of this world. Yet the Gospel writers knew what we easily forget, until the illusion of power vanishes into nothing. “Glory is like a circle in the water/ which never ceaseth to enlarge itself/ till by broad spreading it disperse to naught.” — William Shakespeare, Henry VI.

The Lure of Splendor

The effort to be splendid or glorious arises from the human condition, but isn’t it a fair guess that the search for splendor by means of power is not the temptation of migrants in detention camps, or starving children and parents, or patients suffering a pandemic? They find within and among themselves whatever shreds of hope and self-regard remain. The third wilderness temptation visits the abundant who are tempted to get to the very high mountaintop of personal power and splendor.

It is no accident that ‘splendor’ caught my attention the First Sunday of Lent following the news of the coronavirus, the threat if a global pandemic, the president’s attempts at minimization or denial, the plunge of the stock market, and the apparent preoccupation of the world’s most powerful man with his own splendor. No person or kingdom is divine, no matter how hard we imagine. Deep down, something in us knows.

“All these [kingdoms] I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him

Gospel of Matthew 4:9-11 NRSV

Prayer for Public Officials

Walter Rauschenbusch’s “Prayer for Public Officials” is preserved by Prayers of the Social Awakening, published in 1909.

We give the thanks that by the free institutions our country the tyrannous instincts of the strong may be curbed to the patient service to the commonwealth.

Strengthen the sense of duty in our political life. Grant that the servants of the state will feel ever more deeply that any diversion of their public powers for private ends is a betrayal of their country. Purge our cities and states and nation of the deep causes of corruption which have so often made sin profitable and uprightness hard. Bring to an end the stale days of party cunning.”

Walter Rauschenbusch, “For Public Officers,” Prayers of the Social Awakening, 1909.
  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, Minnesota, First Sunday of Lent, March 1, 2020.

Strangely Quieted by the Manatees

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods
There is a rapture on the lonely shore
There is society, where none intrudes
By the deep Sea, and Music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more.”
– Lord Byron, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” [1812-1818]

Standing at the edge of the pool of Blue Spring, our hearts are strangely quieted. Calmed. Still. At peace as we watch the West Indian Manatees move through the virgin waters of Blue Spring.

So gracefully does the Manatee approach the spring head, the deep vertical cave through the limestone that gently empties 165 million gallons of water per day into the St. Johns River from the aquifer below, enough for every resident of greater Orlando to drink 50 gallons of water a day.

The Manatee knows nothing of Orlando. Nothing of Epcot or Disney World. Nothing of vacations, technology, shopping malls, or the nearby Holy Land Experience theme park. She lives where she is . . . in this undisturbed place where she spends her winters to survive the cold by the warm water of Blue Spring.

Her movements are effortless . . . fluid and gentle, like the water around her. Her huge flat tail, like a leaf wafting in a soft breeze, glides her through the aqua blue waters of the Blue Spring. Slowly, very slowly, she inches toward the edge of the black oblong opening in the water, the deep black hole in the Earth. Her tail stops moving. She stops. She stays very still. She lowers her head, like the Virgin Mary pondering the mystery of an immaculate conception, as if bowing down to the source of her life.

West Indian Manatees

West Indian Manatees

Blue Spring is its own kind of Temple. A sacred place of the deepest silence where only those natural to this habitat belong. Today I was there, and the beauty of it deepened the sense of wonder of flesh and blood and water and algae and sabal palms and a natural quiet. My head bows in rapture on the lonely shore, mellowed and calmed, joining the Manatee, bowing over the place deep below the surface from which the pure water flows.

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
– William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence,” [1800-1810]

  • Gordon C. Stewart, March 31, 2016