The Blessings of Old Souls

The Temple was a place you could put your faith in.

Imagine it, Beloved. Approaching Jerusalem with Mary and Joseph and the baby, it’s the Temple that you can see from miles off; it’s the Temple that makes up the whole of the great city’s skyline. Within Jerusalem’s walls, in every quarter of the city, your eye is drawn up to the Temple’s immensity. Standing at its base, the great staircases climb and twist up three stories before arriving at the height of the lowest courtyards.

Cunningly carved out of natural features that were extensively reinforced and expanded upon over centuries, the Temple mount seems to be the great foundation of the world thrust up, the navel of civilization bulging out toward heaven. At its base there are carved stones—some 26 feet in length and weighing up to 400 tons, megaliths so large that modern engineers have lost the arts that could have moved them, let alone place and stack them with such exacting precision.

Climbing up to the heights of the walls or the towers of the Temple, 20 stories above the city streets below, you see an expanse of open architecture that could hold every cathedral, every mosque, every sacred site you have ever visited in the modern world—all of them together—with room to spare. Spread out over the mount, across a space that could hold 27 Super Bowl playing fields, you see dozens of buildings and courtyards, bridges and aqueducts, gateways and marketplaces—each with its sacred and civil purposes, leaving room between for up to one million worshipers. You are looking down upon the largest religious construction in all of human history at the height of its glory.

And there at the center of the mount, the Temple itself, the Holy of Holies, the place where God dwells, where the Presence of the Lord IS. In the courtyard just outside it, the blood from sacrifices runs over the hewn stones, and the viscera of lambs, and doves, and bulls sizzles on great beds of red hot coals, God and God’s people are reconciled, and the greasy smoke climbs up into the sky to delight the heavenly hosts with its pleasing smells. On the journey home, miles away by now, you turn your head back over your shoulder where you can still see the thin smudge of dark smoke ever rising, reminding you that the heart of the world is still there, beating, pumping lifeblood, touching heaven in its ineffable way, doing the work that is pleasing to God.

The Temple is a place you can put your faith in—ancient, huge, and holy, it connects heaven and earth, humanity and God, the beginning of creation and the end of all times. From every perspective, the Temple can be relied upon. In a world of uncertainty, the Temple is secure. We know the Temple like we know our own hearts, like we know the soul of our own people. Its walls contain us and protect us. Its weight anchors us. Its smoke tethers us to the Holy of Holies and lifts us to Heaven.

When I stand in the Temple of my imagination, and when I stand in the Great Temple of my own heart, which is a similar sort of place, I suppose, I feel—SAFE. KNOWN. I feel as though—standing here in this temple and looking around—it’s easier to have faith than to doubt, which is not always the case in the unstable world around us. I feel as though I can trust—capital T Trust—without having to take any risks, without having to make myself vulnerable to any sort of uncertainty or failure. It’s effortless. I simply join the ancient and always pulse of my people. The sun rises and sets. The rains flood and the droughts parch. The old die and the young toil. Empires rise and the nations fall. But within the Temple nothing disrupts the homey rhythm of our holy reconciliation. Nothing can touch this truth: that HERE, in the presence of almighty God out of time and space, I BELONG. I feel like a baby, held in the arms of my spiritual grandmother, a prophet to my people, while nearby an old man sings to God out of the joy he feels at the sight of me.

Babies are the exact opposite sort of thing from temples. They’re brand new, untested and unproven. They are small, fragile, weak, rather useless and, frankly, ill-formed. Their heads are ridiculously big, their limbs are comically short, it takes years just to get them to use the toilet, and then decades more hard work from extended family, friends, church, teachers, doctors, orthodontists, therapists, coaches, and counselors just to get them their first decent paying job and to actually start being productive members of society.

Babies? Babies are—cute. Temples… know who they are and what they’re about. The Temple knows who and what I AM. I feel it in the blessing of Anna’s arms, I hear it in the hope of Simeon’s song. Babies don’t know us, they come with no guarantees, no return policy, and are really nothing more than—than a possibility. And you do not know what you are going to get.

So, I’m not that surprised that in all the Temple that day, filled with tens of thousands of worshipers and visitors, in all that ancient and mighty place, there were only two old souls—Anna and Simeon—who saw the Baby Jesus and who recognized him for what he was—a messianic possibility, a change in the temple tempo, an unfixed future—and who were willing and able to celebrate this uncertain sort of salvation. Of all the pious pilgrims in the Temple that day only Anna and Simeon held the baby in their arms, sang to him, prophesied about him, and thanked God for getting to glimpse the possibility of the Good News, for seeing with their old, dim eyes this small and rather unlikely beginning.

What made Anna and Simeon different from the rest? Perhaps, the Holy Spirit was speaking to the whole of the Temple that day, with a spiritual shout to their souls that said, “Come and see! Come and see the anointed one, God’s Messiah, the Christ, who will reconcile the whole world to God! Who will throw open the doors of the Temple! Who will flip the tables of the money changers! WHO WILL DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY!”

And perhaps many did, without consciously realizing it, obey the command and wander through the crowds until they brushed past Mary and Joseph, straining intuitively to get a glimpse of God’s salvation, and seeing—where they had hoped to discover another Temple, another Holy of Holies, another old friend, a Messiah entire who breaths fire and knows my name—just a baby, 40 days old.

“Ahhhh,” they thought to themselves in the deep chambers of their pondering hearts, “hmmmm... Not quite what I was hoping for. I think I’ll wait and see. A few miracles maybe, some good sermons like the old high priest gives, and of course a strong arm, natural leader, head of a great army, fond of me. When he marches forth with his army from the Temple mount, and reaches down to pull me up on the back of his horse, looking deep into my eyes and touching my soul, then I will follow him... to our certain victory. But for now—too risky, too uncertain. Frankly, it looks like he needs me more than I need him! Ha! Let me go and make my sacrifice and go home again and if this was meant to be, at some point, he will come to find me.”

Anna and Simeon were different. Though they had spent their whole lives in the Temple, though in some symbolic way you could say that they were the Temple, they were willing to put their faith and trust in the disruptive possibility—the mere possibility—of something new—of a baby.

Perhaps, they considered it their calling to believe in the possibility that God was offering—not uncertainty infancy, but transcendent, holy possibility. And they were willing to answer that calling at the end of their lives, by reaching out and making the first effort before any evidence of greatness was demonstrated. “If God has called him to us, then surely God is calling us to him,” is perhaps what they would have said to one another. “We’re the oldest ones here. Right now, he needs us more than we need him. So, let’s give him a proper welcome!”

Each of us has an old soul inside of us. Each of us, no matter how young we are, no matter how young at heart we may be, we have within us, not just the young soul, but the old soul. We start out in the world as a baby with just the seed of a soul straining toward light, and love, and purpose. And as we approach the end of our lives, hopefully at an old age, we can live into the full-grown soul, the big ol’ oak tree soul—roots deep, branches wide, filled with the nests of birds—beautiful, wise, life-giving stillness with just one last thing to do—to offer a great blessing for the future.

There are so many stereotypes of the old souls being the old guard, the ones who refuse to offer their approval to anything new. But any of us can lean into the life-affirming energy of the great old souls, Anna and Simeon. This is where the true greatness of the old souls lies. Our old souls can summon a blessing from the very tips of our deep old roots, we can give permission to the risk of the future, we can welcome in a good possibility without reservation, without worldly verification, by listening to and trusting where the Spirit is leading us, and pointing it out to everyone. It’s the young soul who will leap into the future. But it is the old souls who can hold the future up over our heads, branches pointed in every direction, up into the sky.

It’s February. By now we’ve stopped writing 2018 down where we should be writing 2019. We’ve most past denial into the new year—the year we hope we’ll be welcoming in a new settled pastor into the role that I have been filling as the interim for the last year. And to get ready for that transition and that exciting new possibility and relationship, we’ve all got to find—every one of us—what it is that we have to give.

When the new pastor arrives, fresh-faced and dreamy and having never been here before, what will be here to welcome them? Who will be their Anna and their Simeon? Who will sing? Who will bless? Who will welcome them? Who will say, “YES!” before they say, “Let’s wait and see.”? In times of change we want to go and live in the Temple—where we are forever known and sheltered. But those who live in the Temple, like Anna, are there to give something. What are we going to give?

Ultimately, we are forced to admit, there is really no such thing as the Temple—no such thing, I mean, as a safe place where we will be effortlessly empowered without having to take any risks; a place where we can forever trust, without having to be vulnerable with one another, with ourselves, with change. No, such a perfect Temple, such a perfect church, such a perfectly limited relationship, does not truly exist.

But possibility, hope, babies, blessings—they exist. Old souls exist. And if there’s any hope of relationship, it will come in the transcendent risk of faith. And if there’s any of hope of us learning to trust in the uncertain future God has in store for us, we’re going to have to take that risk and welcome the unknown future on day one, take it our arms and sing to it. That is the closest we will ever come to being the Temple.

Amen.