Using literary license, author Frank Viola boldly asserts that Bethany, the hometown of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus was “God’s favorite place on Earth.” Bethany was the place where Jesus found rest and companionship. In a world of controversy, Jesus could enjoy a meal, laughter, and normal conversation. Perhaps, he could let down his guard for a moment and not be the Teacher or Healer, but the friend, who received as well as gave. No doubt, he taught the family plenty, but I suspect most of the time Jesus was “off duty,” just being a friend and enjoying the give and take of gossip, laughter, and storytelling. Although Viola’s text is steeped in evangelical theology, he raises theological issues that embrace the broad spectrum of mystical and religious experience and doctrine.
As I read God’s Favorite Place on Earth, I was reminded of the Celtic description of some settings as “thin places,” locales in which the veil between heaven and earth and God and the world is lifted. Whether mountain pathways or groves of trees, thin places reveal in life-changing ways the reality that God’s revelations can be experienced in palpable and embodied ways. This world reveals God, matter takes flesh, and – as Psalm 150 proclaims – everything that breathes praises God. Centuries later, the apostle Paul, caught up in the wonder of divine revelation, asserted that God is the reality “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) and that “all creation is groaning for salvation…the redemption of physical existence.” (Romans 8:19-23)
Just think of some of the biblical thin places: Beth-el where Jacob dreams of a ladder of angels, t Jacob encountering the divine mystery and receiving a blessing from a nocturnal wrestler, Moses and the burning bush, Moses on Mount Sinai, Mary’s visitation from Gabriel and Mary’s womb, the Mount of Transfiguration, Paul on the Damascus Road, and Peter’s rooftop dream of a bountiful feast of clean and unclean foods.
Contrary to those who scorn embodiment or assume a narrow understanding of revelation, the biblical tradition affirms that God is intimately involved in history, moving through the non-human and human worlds to achieve God’s vision of Shalom. Still, as Viola notes, the biblical tradition asserts, and I affirm, God’s presence is variable. Not all places and persons equally reveal God’s presence and vision for humankind and the world. God may be more present in some places than others. God incarnate in Christ Jesus may be more active in salvific ways in certain persons (this is the meaning of the incarnation) and in certain settings (in Viola’s case, Bethany and in particular the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus). This is not an argument for separating the world elect and non-elect or suggesting that certain places have been abandoned by God. Rather, it describes a world in which God’s presence is always intimate, contextual, and variable.
While it is theologically bold to describe the mechanics of divine intimacy and variability, I would suggest that there are two “ideal opposites” in understanding God’s variable presence in our world:
- God unilaterally chooses to be some places rather than others. The variability of divine presence and revelation reflects entirely God’s volition apart from any input on our part.
- God’s variability is the result of an interdependent process of “call and response” in which God initiates God’s relationships to creatures, and the nature of this divine initiative is partially determined by our previous choices and environmental factors. God’s future initiatives are shaped in part by our responses.
In unilateral divine revelations, we simple take off our shoes and open to God’s presence. We let the potter mold and shape our experience, almost passively. The human element is minimal. In relational and interdependent revelations, God initiates but the nature and shape of this revelation is a partnership between God and us. Bethany was “God’s favorite place on earth” not simply because Jesus chose Mary, Martha, and Lazarus as friends, but because they chose Jesus and provided an atmosphere of acceptance and hospitality that allowed Jesus to rest a moment, and simply “be” without any need to teach, preach, or heal. Jesus may have experienced healing at Bethany and this healing was a factor in his own willingness to break convention and doctrines of clean and unclean to heal the deceased Lazarus.
While scriptures suggest that Jesus did some teaching at Bethany, his encounters with Mary and Martha suggest someone who loved them and only occasionally stepped into his role as wise teacher. I am sure that great spiritual figures such as the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Billy Graham also let their guard down and “play” with intimate friends. This doesn’t detract from Jesus’ holiness or their spiritual maturity, but reflects the holistic nature of incarnation and revelation. Jesus enjoyed good meals, gazing at meadows, watching birds in flight, and playing with children. Jesus’ blessing of the children and purely joyful encounters with friends over meals reflects his relationship with God as much as his curing of the sick, parable teaching, and welcoming of outcasts.
Frank Viola’s reflections on God’s favorite place invite us to become part of the “call and response” story of God’s presence in our lives. If God is omnipresent, that is, present and seeking wholeness in all things, then every moment can be an epiphany, revealing God’s intimate presence in our lives. Sometimes this happens without warning, like Paul’s Damascus Road experience. Other times, our faithfulness opens the door to surprising and energetic moments of revelation, such as Mary of Magdala’s encounter with Jesus in the Garden or Elijah’s encounter with the divine in “sheer silence.”
In a God-filled universe, any moment can be an epiphany. We can prepare for such moments by keeping our senses open, looking deeper into the nature of things, and asking throughout the day for a deeper relationship with the One who is always ready to make your life a “thin place” of revelation. Or, perhaps, nothing dramatic will occur and we will discover our life’s meaning in the holiness of ordinary, playful, and domestic encounters in which “God is in this place – and we know it.”
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