So when I was still a student at Clemson, I spent a semester living with my sister in Atlanta. She was in seminary at Candler, a newlywed to my brother-in-law Mike Jeter (my friends called their apartment the “love shack” to make it extra awkward for me), but it was a good time. I was interning for a commercial contractor, and they let me sleep on the futon in Mike’s music studio.
Mike’s a music extraordinaire, truly. At the time, he was teaching elementary music in Dekalb County and he always wrote his own musical programs for the kids. This semester it was his tribute to Dr. Seuss, featuring such catchy stylings as “Hop on Pop.” The problem was that my futon-bed was about 28 inches away from his keyboard and studio equipment, and I had to go to sleep every night at like 8:30 to get up early for my commute. That meant his time hacking away at composing “Hop on Pop” usually overlapped with my first hour of sleep. You know, during that impressionable period between slumber and waking, when you’re especially vulnerable to subliminal intrusions. I will never, ever, EVER, be rid of every line of every melody from that Dr. Seuss program. If he played three notes of it today, it would sweep me back to Seussian nightmares, and I’d be singing that whole album for days, uncontrollably.
What’s worse, history repeated itself. I lived with Narcie and Mike again during my second year of seminary in Charlotte. This time, Mike’s studio was the next room over from my bedroom. On one occasion, his brother Aaron had tasked him with editing a documentary he was making about some village in Germany or some such nonsense. Mike was also doing the voice-over work. So, for whatever reason, Mike spent about 3 days narrating this one line over and over about the “splendor” of something in that German village. It was “….splendor”, “…Splendooor…”, “SPLEEEENDOR”, “splendor” – all day long. You need to know that if Barry White and James Earl Jones had a baby, it would have Mike’s voice. And that junk reverberated throughout the apartment, through both closed doors, and into my half-conscious brain. To this day, the word splendor has become a non-word to me.
Those experiences are a solid image for me of two important effects. Number one, the way that our surroundings creep and seep into our pores. The way that culture infiltrates our minds and being. And, second, the way that words or ideas can lose their meaning, or have their meaning distorted, by this kind of repetition (the fancy term is semantic satiation).
Those two effects are at work in matters of faith all the time. Faith practice, Christianity in particular, is full of words. Strange ones, old ones, heavily-repeated, beaten-to-death ones. It’s also full of concepts, sometimes ridiculously abstract ones. Not only that, but all of these words and ideas have also been the subject of culture since day one. Within and outside of the church, we are good at drastically altering something’s meaning, or even rendering it meaningless, aren’t we? Even the most holy things. By overuse, or misuse, or the infiltration of our own stuff into the stuff of God.
One such thing in particular, the subject of a funky little story in John 2, is SPLEEENDOOOR. No, but seriously, God’s splendor, or majesty, or glory. Before getting there, it’s good to wonder what exactly we think of when it comes to divine glory. What is the substance of glory? Halos and blinding light, angels and choruses…but what else?
Read John 2:1-11 here.
And the people respond: “Water into wine. Yeah, we know that one. This episode is in the Bible so that everybody knows Jesus was down with letting wine flow freely, you know what I’m saying? Mystery solved, sermon over. L’chaim!” That may be. Or, instead, this little piece of Scripture could be a pretty definitive word on the nature of the glory of God. I think it’s a word on what authentic glory does and doesn’t have to look like. John begs the questions: what qualities make for something or someone to be truly glorious?
Above the fray?
First, picture the most gloried among us as Americans, and I think it’s clear that we think “having the glory” means some kind of elevated status. Not just in terms of being celebrated and popular, but in a more practical way. Celebrities, sports figures, politicians and leaders – they have personal assistants who handle the groceries, dry-cleaning, tax-filing, and standing in line. They have secretaries, and nannies, and a 12-month wait to schedule appearances. And the rest of us understand that they can’t be bothered by the usual menial stuff because they’re busy with more important matters. No one expects the POTUS to fret about finding a parking spot.
This happens on a more personal level, too. Think about the most “glorious” people in your childhood – parents or grandparents, teachers, etc. They probably didn’t have handlers or stylists or an entourage to pamper them. But they did operate in a realm above and beyond ours as kids. At some point, you realized that these grownups or influential figures had greater responsibilities than you were aware. They had work and tasks that went beyond the home. They were sometimes absent. They couldn’t be expected to spend every waking moment with you. Their attention was needed elsewhere, and we were taught to understand that. We learn, then, that important people, with important things to do, are sometimes above our common concerns. Glory means heightened responsibility which means a free pass on some “lesser” things.
But I wonder if you ever had anybody prove that rule wrong? Was there anybody in your early life who had a way of surprising you with how much attention they paid, how present they were with you at ground-level, or how much time they invested with you? As a kid, that is earth-shakingly valuable. For me, my grandpa was like that. He was one of the most glorious figures in our family. A patriarch, certainly. A spiritual anchor, and a powerful presence. He was ridiculously busy as a high school principal (during integration in the South, mind you) and a full-time cotton farmer, simultaneously. But he was exceptional at noticing so much of what we little ones were up to. For good or ill, he was usually watching, taking it all in from across the room. He wasn’t the talkative or terribly affectionate adult in our lives, but he was present and sensitive and attentive, whatever else went on. None of it was too insignificant for him. And that made him all the more glorious to us.
Jesus, in little Cana, says the same for me of God. You’ve heard it before, but imagine all of the settings in which God could’ve been born, and he chose a no-name family in Nazareth. Of all the neighborhoods for the Messiah to choose to begin ministering and ushering in God’s Kingdom, it was the Galilee. Of all the occasions to call upon his first sign, was it a healing or resurrection or something fairly do-or-die? It was a wedding. Running out of wine. And El Shaddai, the great Lord Almighty, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – personally present in Jesus – is there to help.
This is a very different message. Maybe true glory is never too busy, or too exalted, or too aloof and out of reach, for anything. Maybe true glory calls nothing and no one insignificant.
Glory flows downhill?
Second, glorious ones, as we know it, are usually very much in the driver’s seat. They’re directive. They set the trends. I assume it’s because most of us want to achieve some glory of our own one day, and these folks seem to have insight into how we can get there, so we endow them with influence over us. And, at the same time, we would never expect to exert much influence at all on their lives. Do you walk out of your front door in the morning hoping that Beyonce will get that tweet about your new hairstyle and decide to do hers that way? Sorry, that’s not what culture sees as the natural, top-down, one-way flow of glory.
But I think it’s part of why we struggle with Mary appearing to talk Jesus into the Cana miracle. Roles are reversed. He’s the teacher and healer and Messiah, so how is she being so directive with him? What does God-in-the-flesh need to be taught? Why does he need any help discerning when to act? Who is she to decide when it’s time for his first sign? All of that is theologically hairy. After all, if God can be talked into things like this, then we might decide to just try pestering him until he responds the way we want him to. If God can be talked into things like this, then we wonder why he never seems to listen to our personal demands like he does his mothers’. Is this the real reason that Roman Catholics pray so much to the Virgin Mary, because she’s so good at influencing God? (Joke.) But, seriously, if God is perfect and all-knowing and all-powerful, how could we ever influence him at all?
John 2 is a good challenge to that thinking. After all, some of us get so entrenched in our idea of God’s grand glory that we assume there’s nothing new for us to say to God, or ask of God. We don’t pray about certain things, because we assume God will just do what God wants to do anyway. To the extreme, he’ll ultimately save those he wants to, even damn those he wants to, and go about it all how he sees fit. When we over-inflate God’s sovereignty that way, people start wondering why we pray, or do missions and evangelism at all.
But all of that is bailing out on the intimate relationship that God longs for with us. We have “influence” with God in the sense that God loves us and entrusts some of his own glory with us. If God is truly sovereign, God can choose to be in this sort of two-way connection with us. Would Jesus have preferred for Mary to see the wine running low, panic and look right at him, only to keep silent and resign to herself, “Well, if he’s not going to do something to help, I guess it’s just too bad.” I don’t think so. I think he always treasures it when we ask for help, petition and intercede, and make our hearts known to him. And, here, Jesus’ glory isn’t limited or tarnished because the sign was performed at the prompting of Mary. Her insistence became an occasion for grace and the revelation of the Messiah.
So, maybe true glory can be a kind of two-way experience because it has room for interaction and cooperation.
Keeping up appearances?
Last, I think our culture and surroundings give us the message that glory is hard to manage. It seems elusive, fragile, and fleeting. Some people just don’t know how to handle it. Some people spend so much time, energy, and expense trying to manufacture it or preserve it for themselves. And at the same time, even though most of us are drawn to the glorious ones, or want to be glorious ourselves, our culture still puts a pretty strong emphasis on maintaining a good level of humility or modesty. We still don’t like it when someone is an outright glory-hog, right?
There’s a trend in the Twitterverse that really proves the point. It’s called the humblebrag. Just like it sounds, it’s an attempt to meld the tooting of our own horns with some semblance of humility. Because, if you’re going to glorify yourself, you at least gotta try to downplay it a little bit. At any time of day, you can check Twitter for the #humblebrag hashtag for some recent examples. The Times ran an article with some classics:
From former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer:
They just announced my flight at LaGuardia is number 15 for takeoff. I miss Air Force One!!
From comedian, Dane Cook:
Being famous and having a fender bender is weird. You want to be upset but the other drivers just thrilled & giddy that it’s you.
From publicist, Jenny Marie Miranda, my favorite:
Why do men hit on me more when I’m in sweat pants?
Hilarious. Ridiculous. But before we make too much fun of them for a big humblefail, I think we’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who really handles their glory or popularity or fame well. It’s a form of power, so it seems to have great potential to corrupt. As humans, we are so influenced by the eyes and favor of others that it’s easy to get consumed trying to maintain it even at the cost of our own identities. It’s easy to find ourselves saying and doing and trying to be almost anything, for no other purpose than preserving or increasing our own glory. And we can lose ourselves.
But Jesus, to me, breaks that trend at Cana. It’s a seemingly insignificant miracle, sure. Some might even argue that this was God’s humblebrag. Like, Jesus was starting small, keeping the miracle a little quiet, slow-playing his debut. Like, maybe he was just seeing how it would go over, or if it would work at all, and then later he’d get around to raising Lazarus from the dead, etc.
But I don’t think so. For one, if he was trying to downplay himself, he probably should’ve made a little less wine. Or at least not such good wine. We understand that these giant jars of water came to around 180 gallons all told. We don’t know how full they were at the start. But if the servants had to top off even just one of them, it would take time and effort. I imagine Mary and the disciples and the servants getting slowly more and more excited/expectant as they spent the better part of an hour (or more) filling the water jars. And Jesus stood by and waited. It sounds like a fairly dramatic build-up, and it gave the miracle some real impact.
At the same time, though, I don’t see a Jesus who needed to be over-the-top. He didn’t need to prove himself to the large crowd. He didn’t need much credit for what had gone on. The vast majority of people present had no clue that anything miraculous had happened. Those most affected by his sign, those who tasted and enjoyed it, potentially never knew it was from the hand of God. Jesus didn’t walk out and let them know. His only witnesses were his mother, a few disciples, and the slaves/servants. A major sign, without popular fanfare. An audience, but a small one, of commoners. A wedding reception saved, but a Messiah revealed.
So, maybe true glory knows itself and knows what it’s about and why. It doesn’t have anything to prove, but it isn’t afraid to be revealed. It just, naturally, is.
Here in the epiphany season, Jesus has begun revealing his glory. And in doing so, the way he did so, I think we start to reclaim an accurate definition of that word. What if glory isn’t glory unless it’s so abundant that it’s available and within reach of everyone, everyday? What if glory isn’t glory unless it’s so potent that no select few could ever hoard or monopolize it? What if glory isn’t glory unless it’s so generous that it shines brightest when it’s shared? What if glory isn’t glory unless it’s so firmly and naturally Itself that no one and nothing else can define it? What if glory is only, and always, the very stuff of God and the very being of Jesus? If so, we have a chance to start re-evaluating everything in our culture, and in our more personal circles, and in ourselves, that we once thought of in terms of majesty, honor, and even splendor. And we also have a chance to run across undiscovered glories all around us. Thanks be to God.