Monday, July 23, 2007


Charles Rennie Mackintosh table, Holy Trinity Church, Bridge of Allan, Scotland.

The cup in scripture often symbolizes judgment, wrath, and suffering. When Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, "If it be possible, let this cup pass from me," he was visualizing the suffering and death that would come as he took upon himself the guilt and consequences of our sin. He knew Isaiah's prophecy that spoke of the suffering servant as "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief" (Isa 53:3). For him at this moment, the cup was a cup of sorrow.

On the other hand, the cup Jesus drank from is spoken of by Paul in different terms as he wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:16, "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a sharing of the blood of Christ?" The cup of sorrow has become the cup of blessing.

Henri J. Nouwen, a Catholic Priest assigned to a community home for mentally and physically handicapped people in Canada, spoke of what he called a lively memory connected with the cup of sorrow becoming the cup of blessing. One of the handicapped members, Trevor, had to spend a few months in a mental hospital near Toronto for psychological evaluation. Nouwen decided to go see Trevor and called the chaplain to ask if he could visit his friend. The chaplain welcomed him and asked if he would mind meeting with some ministers and priests in the area and some members of the hospital staff for lunch. Nouwen agreed without thinking much about the implications of the request.

When he arrived for the luncheon a large group was waiting for him -- but no Trevor. "I came here to visit Trevor," he said. "Can you tell me where I can find him?" The chaplain explained that he could see him after lunch. Nouwen was stunned and asked, "But didn't you invite him for lunch?" "No," the chaplain explained, "staff and patients cannot have lunch together. Moreover, we have reserved the Golden Room for this occasion, and no patient has ever been allowed in that room. It is for staff only." "Well," said Nouwen, "I will only have lunch with you all when Trevor can be there too. We are very close and I came here to see him, and I am sure he would love to join us for lunch."

They found Trevor and brought him in, but the atmosphere was quite subdued and solemn. Before the meal Nouwen helped Trevor get a coke from the drinks table where others were also helping themselves. As the meal was about to begin, Trevor suddenly stood up and with a loud voice and a big smile, lifted his glass of Coke and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, a toast!" Everyone dropped their conversation and turned to Trevor with puzzled and anxious faces, wondering, 'what is this patient going to do? Better be careful.'

But Trevor knew what he was doing. He looked at everyone and said, "Lift your glasses." Everyone obeyed. And then, as if it were the most obvious thing to do, he started to sing: "When you're happy and you know it, lift your glass. When you're happy and you know it, lift your glass ... " As he sang, people's faces relaxed and started to smile. Soon a few joined Trevor in his song, and not long after everyone was standing, singing loudly under Trevor's direction.

Trevor's toast, Nouwen said, radically changed the mood in the Golden Room. He had brought these strangers together and made them feel at home. With his unique blessing, Trevor had set the tone for a joyful and fruitful meeting. The cup of sorrow had become the cup of blessing. (Henri J.M. Nouwen, Can You Drink The Cup?, 63f).

The communion cup represents both the sorrow and suffering that Jesus experienced and the blessing that we experience through his sacrifice. As we take it maybe we should take a page from Trevor's example and say, "When you're blessed and you know it, lift your cup." "This cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?"

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Pursuit of Happiness Hebrews 12:2

Thinking about the Lord's Supper and the Fourth of July brings to my mind two puzzling statements, one in the Declaration of Independence and one in Hebrews 12:2. The puzzling phrase in the Declaration of Independence is found in the philosophical heart of that document: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

The phrase that puzzled me is: "the pursuit of happiness." It could easily be understood as self-centered, focused on personal pleasure, even hedonistic. Surely that isn't what Jefferson meant. I came to understand it when I learned the educational and philosophical context in which it was written.

The Declaration of Independence was written and signed by men who had been highly influenced by the Scottish enlightenment. In fact, fully 1/3 of the signers were of Scottish or Ulster Scott extraction. They were familiar with and had been influenced by the teachings of Francis Hutcheson of Glasgow who was known as the founding father of the Scottish enlightenment.

He believed that every one's ultimate goal in life is happiness, but for him this meant not the gratification of physical desires but making others happy. "That action is best," he said, "which procures the greatest happiness," and the highest form of happiness is making others happy.

A recent scientific experiment at the University of Oregon, reported in Eugene's Register Guard newspaper, supports this idea. A number of people were given money and the opportunity to give it away or to keep it. Their brains were monitored and it was discovered that voluntarily giving to help others produced a response in the part of the brain that registers pleasure.

Haven't you found it to be true that when you do something that makes someone else happy it produces happiness in you also? Like seeing your child open a gift, or seeing a young person blossom as a result of your teaching. Doesn't it make you happy to see slides by a missionary of someone being baptized in Kenya, or children singing enthusiastically in a Ukrainian church camp, knowing that your gifts help make this possible? On the other hand, the more self centered, the more we try to make ourselves happy by hoarding or spending on ourselves, the more miserable we are.

Jimmy Durante's gravelly voice in Sleepless in Seattle said it in song: "Make someone happy, make just one someone happy, and you will be happy too."

This helps us understand the puzzling statement about Jesus in Hebrews 12:2 which says, "... for the joy set before him he endured the cross ..." It seems strange to put joy and enduring the cross together in the same sentence, but its true that when Jesus went to the cross he was in "the pursuit of happiness" -- yours and mine! The happiness of forgiven sin, of cleansing and renewal. The happiness of reconciliation and hope. All of this he secured for us on the cross. Thus, it was "for the joy set before him that he endured the cross." We experience again that joy every time we join him at the communion table.