Conquering Mountains

Ben Goram and Croagh Patrick, from the south.

In March I took a spiritually-important but perhaps physically ill-advised trip.  I’d had back surgery two months before that had accomplished exactly nothing.  I was in chronic discomfort, with a much-weakened right leg.  But I’d had on the docket for almost a year a pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick—St. Patrick’s Mountain—one of the holiest sites in Ireland, with the plan to climb the mountain on St. Patrick’s Day with three of my closest friends from across the span of my life.  I won’t go into all the advance reasons that I thought this climb was important, mainly because all those reasons were quickly rendered moot as soon as we started up the mountain.

Croagh Patrick is the mountain on which, in the late 400s, St. Patrick lived for forty days and forty nights, emulating Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness.  My three friends and I hired a local hiking guide to take us not up the straight, well-marked, relatively easy north face of the mountain, but up the unmarked, no-trail south face that St. Patrick himself is believed to have climbed.  Our climb actually included two mountains: First Ben Goram, then across a saddle, and then up Croagh Patrick itself.

Blissfully unaware before the hike, with Ben Goram in the background.

Ireland was unseasonably sunny and warm in the days leading up to our climb.  But as soon as we took the first step up the steep and boggy turf of Ben Goram (the first mountain), an unholy tempest as if from the fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel blew in from the Atlantic.  In an instant, the temperature dropped twenty-five degrees, and for the next five hours—five hours!—we were sleeted on and enshrouded in thick fog.  Even so, I approached and attacked the mountain the way I do hikes in the U.S.  I wanted to beat the mountain and, honestly, I wanted to beat my three equally-middle-aged friends, to demonstrate my fitness and vitality.    

Then reality set in.  Fifteen minutes into our climb I began to lean hard into the mountain to keep from being blown off of it.  Thirty minutes after that, my right foot began to “slap” and get hung first on turf and then on scree, as the strength drained from my hobbled right leg.  By the time we topped Ben Goram, reached the saddle between mountains, and briefly paused—but only briefly, because of the risk of hypothermia—I realized that I might not make it to the top.  (Actually, what occurred to me because I watch too many movies, is that, if we became stuck on the mountain and the group was forced to eat someone in order to survive, I’d be dinner!) 

Only because turning around and climbing down the way we’d come was more treacherous than continuing to Croagh Patrick’s summit, we kept going.  But not in the same way as before.  My movements were numbingly slow and deliberate.  With my eyes half-closed against the wind and sleet, I knew that I was the anchor dragging everyone down.  When I finally opened my eyes, I couldn’t see anyone ahead of me.  For a split second, I panicked, because I thought I’d fallen so far behind the others that I’d lost them in the fog.  But then I realized that they weren’t in front of me at all.  Without a word to me, and without a word to each other, my three friends had fallen behind me and were walking in a line with me in front.  All competition and bravado had completely given way in our circumstances.  In essence, my three friends were, on the one hand, serving as a safety net to keep me from falling and, on the other hand, pushing me up the mountain.

Ascending Croagh Patrick in the cold, sleet, and fog.

My eyes teared up, this time not from the wind.  For a moment, I was humiliated, as all the unspoken, subconscious things that has brought me to the mountain were revealed to be empty motivations.  That flash of humiliation then gave way to the recognition that I was encountering, in my friends and in real time, a love that is rare; a love that is life-saving.  Much more slowly than we’d planned, we made it to the top of Croagh Patrick.  And fifteen minutes after we began our descent on the other side, the weather broke, and the sun shined brightly.  God’s wonder!

This is Senior Sunday at Christ Church.  Today, we celebrate those at the cusp of adulthood who have been part of this community and who will remain so, even though they may soon be geographically distant.  So to you seniors, but also to all of our youth here present, I share this: Over the next several years, you will hear many people encourage you to climb all sorts of peaks, metaphorical and otherwise, to demonstrate your prowess, your strength, your ambition, your superiority over your peers.  You’ll be told there is no mountain summit you cannot reach.  You’ll see mountain-climbing memes on Instagram that read, “Don’t give up,” and “You can do anything you set your mind to.”  You’ll be told in innumerable ways that life is there for you to conquer. 

That is not my message to you. That is a message we’ve been conveying for three generations now in our culture.  It is largely a lie.  It is detrimental to you, and it is detrimental to the world.  Because if you succeed in conquering those mountains, you do so by leaving behind those injured on the slopes, or by causing an avalanche in your wake and not pausing to see or care about the destruction it causes.  And if you don’t succeed in conquering those mountains, you are left in humiliation and shame because you have not fulfilled the promise all those people told you was your birthright.

Even though we are now well into the Easter season, today in John’s Gospel we are catapulted back to the Upper Room and the Last Supper.  Jesus has just gotten up from the dusty floor where he, to the disciples’ shock and amazement, has washed their feet.  Jesus now explains in words what he has demonstrated in actions.  Jesus says to those he loves, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

To love is an easy thing.  I love lots of things: bluebonnets in spring, the Arkansas Razorbacks, Wendell Berry novels, my car.  If Jesus had only said “Love one another” and stopped there, we could conquer life’s mountains with determination and grit and love just a bit here and there to make us feel better about the climb.  But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  In the same breath, Jesus interprets for us the kind of love he means for us to show one another, the kind of love on which those who follow Jesus are to model our lives.  We are to love one another as Jesus loves us: a get down in the dirt and wash one another’s feet love; a see one another through the fog love; a love that recognizes that we reach the top together or it isn’t worth the climb.

Drying out in the sun after descending the mountain.

There are mountains to climb.  Seniors, the next one is right in front of you, and when you reach its summit, there may be a brief pause on the saddle, but then there will be another peak to climb just beyond.  To that extent, the mountain-climbing metaphor for life holds.  But Jesus shows us that the goal in life is not to conquer the mountain or beat others to the top.  The goal in life is twofold:

First, push yourself, surely, but also recognize your true limitations not as failures, but as reminders that none of us is a little god, that we are creatures of this world, and that the world will ultimately mold us rather than us molding it.  This recognition and embrace is not humiliation, but humility, the opposite of destructive pride, and our hurting world needs humility more than bravado. 

Life’s second goal is to recognize that, as we climb, our first responsibility is to our fellow climbers.  Sometimes, you will be the only one who prevents someone else from falling off the mountain.  Sometimes, you may be the one who can push someone else to the top, so you both reach the apex together. 

So, climb the mountains.  In summer or sleet, climb.  In sunshine or fog, climb.  But as you put one foot in front of the other, remember Jesus’ words: “As I have loved you, so you should love one another.”  With a love like that, and climbing together, sunlight scatters the fog, and we each become disciples.

May Fete and Moral Ecology

In a bible study several years ago, we were reading Acts, and upon reading today’s passage, a member said, and not at all tongue-in-cheek, “Wow!  Paul had quite a ‘road to Damascus’ experience!”  Indeed, he did, the original road to Damascus experience, the one for which the phenomenon itself is named. 

Paul (at this point in the story still referred to as Saul) has lived in a religious milieu and among people who have formed him, and whom he has formed, to lash out against those who are different from him and who he perceives to be a threat to his way of life.  He has gone so far as to be the likely ringleader at the brutal murder of Stephen, one of the first Christian deacons who became the first Christian martyr.  Note that: Paul himself served as the spark that ignited a conflagration of religious violence against peaceful people that continues to this day.  That’s who Paul was, and he was all-in.  Such was his identity through-and-through.

In fact, the very reason Paul was on the road to Damascus was a sanctioned mission to kidnap Christians there and bring them back to Jerusalem.  (For exactly what we don’t know, but judging by Stephen’s fate, nothing good.)  But while on his way, something happens that literally stops Paul in his tracks.  There is the flash of light.  There is the arresting voice.  There is the blindness.  It is a bracing, and in no way gentle, epiphany.  It changes Paul in an instant.  But it is also just the beginning of his story…

I grew up in rural Northeast Arkansas, on the slope of Crowley’s Ridge, at the northern tip of the Mississippi River Delta.  I was raised tromping around in fields, woods, and the long, meandering channel of Eight Mile Creek.  Throughout my young experience, there were birds, and small mammals, and buzzy, creepy, and crawly things that interplayed with the oaks and honeysuckle and various other flora of my environment.  Intuitively, I knew that it all fit together in symbiotic harmony, but it wasn’t until much later that I learned science has a name for my childhood world: ecology.  An ecology is, according to Mr. Webster, “the relationships of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.”  The way it all fits together and works together to create a world is an area’s ecology.

Social scientists have adopted this meaningful word as well.  In his newest book, columnist David Brooks talks about moral ecologies.[i]  Just as we all live in a natural ecosystem, we also all live within a moral ecology, an environment in which prevailing moral sensibilities all fit together and work together to define our relationships and our way of being in the world.  Our moral ecology determines which values we prioritize, and which actions are encouraged or discouraged.  Brooks says, “Moral ecologies subtly guide how you dress, how you talk, what you admire and disdain, and how you define your ultimate purpose.” 

You’ve probably heard the contemporary parable in which the old fish swims by the young fish and asks, “How’s the water today?”  Which leads the young fish to ask in reply, “What’s water?” 

Importantly, our moral ecology is usually like the water in which that proverbial young fish lives.  It is the milieu we take for granted.  It forms us uncritically.  We are rarely even aware of it.  Our moral ecology is the very water in which we live, and move, and have our being.

When Paul set out on that road to Damascus, he was saturated by the moral ecology in which he lived.  It was beyond him to pause and question his abuse of Christians.  He’d been formed—and he’d in turn formed others—deeply to believe that Christians were the threat, the other, to be suppressed and, if possible, expunged.  This was simply his moral ecology—his reality—and so he carried out his role.

But then the upending, world-changing event happens on that road.  In a flash and a voice, Paul’s moral ecology is shattered.  Paul’s blindness is both literal and figurative.  Like his actual cornea, Paul’s uncritical vision of the world clouds over and is revealed to be illusion and shadow.  On that road, Christ exposes Paul’s moral ecology—and Pau’s place in it—to be bankrupt.

Has that ever happened to you?  Through the unexpected encounter, via the new voice breaking through the din, by way of meeting someone who totally challenges your presumptions, have you ever had your vision of the world thrown into clear relief for the first time, and then obliterated?  Have you, with quaking knees and equally quaky heart, realized, as if outside yourself, that where you stand in the world is bankrupt and that where you stand is not where God would have you?

This is a truly shattering encounter for any of us, of course, and certainly for Paul.  Sometimes this is referred to as Paul’s conversion experience.  But by itself, that’s not exactly right.  The final verse of the experience on the road says, “Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing.”  Paul has been shown how wrong his whole life has been, but that’s all.  He hasn’t yet been shown a new way.  Paul’s moral ecology has been disrupted, but nothing has yet been put in its place.

This, too, many of us have experienced in our own lives.  The eye-opening epiphany often reveals the foundation of sand on which our own moral ecologies are built, and our moral ecologies thus crumble to dust, but we know no better at that point how or what to be instead.  Like Paul, our eyes are opened, but we can see nothing.

That’s why the second half of this reading is essential and should never be sundered from the first half.  Blinded, Paul stumbles on to Damascus—he finishes the journey on which he’d originally set out—but instead of bullying the Christians there, he finds himself ministered to by them.  Ananias opens his home to Paul.  He feeds Paul.  He tends Paul’s wounds.  He shares words of grace.  He loves Paul. 

Do you see what happens here?  More than anything that happens on the road to Damascus, this is the miracle of the story.  In the milieu of Ananias’ home, Paul is given a new moral ecology!  In place of violence, Paul is taught care.  In place of othering, Paul is shown brotherhood.  In place of indoctrination to hate, Paul is shown grace.  Whereas the voice of Jesus on the Damascus road obliterated Paul’s old moral ecology, the hands and feet of Jesus in the form of Ananias and the other Damascene Christians provide Paul a new moral ecology, a new vision—again, both literal and figurative—to understand the way in which all the pieces of the world and all human relationships fit together.  Only then does Scripture say that Paul’s eyes are opened and he can truly see.  Paul’s new moral ecology is the Gospel, and by transforming Paul it will then transform the world.

         

May Fete at Christ Church in days gone by

This couldn’t be more important for our world, and this is the perfect lectionary reading for May Fete at the Cathedral.  Since 1839, Christ Church has offered the Houston community a different moral ecology.  For those who’ve walked through these doors since 1839, or 1892, or 1928, or 1979, or who do so today, the moral ecologies that saturate the world outside these doors are exposed to be bankrupt.  Indeed, often people walk through these doors for the first time because they’ve had some shattering experience that has revealed to them just how destructive the moral ecology in which they’ve breathed and moved really is.  But, as for Paul, that revelation alone is not enough.  For the scales to fall, we must be shown a new moral ecology, the only moral ecology that can save the world.  That is why the church—that is why this church—matters.  In the bullying and brutal world in which we’ve all participated, the moral ecology we reveal, and teach, and practice here is one of openness, and feeding bodies, and tending wounded souls, and speaking words of grace.  We form one another in these ways.  We offer one another that Gospel vision.  And, like Paul, we rise from here with newly opened eyes to go out and transform the world. 


[i] Brooks, David.  The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, pp. 3-7.

The event that defines us

Good Easter morning! 

There is a question that is sometimes asked in group exercises, which we’ll engage this morning: What is the defining world event in your life?  What event altered your world and the way you see and walk through it?  What event stopped you in your tracks and made you realize things you can’t take for granted, that shifted your priorities and made you see the world in a different way?

For my grandparents’ generation, one of three events was almost always mentioned: The stock market crash of 1929, the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, or the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.  The first event revealed that economic prosperity is ephemeral and can be gone in an instant.  The second event revealed our national vulnerability, no matter how powerful our military.  The third event revealed that we are children playing with toys beyond our understanding, and who have taken upon ourselves the power to destroy everything we love.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was defining for my grandparents’ generation.

For my parents’ generation, one of two events is almost always mentioned: the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.  Both events shocked us into the realization that, even in our modern age, we will revert to brutality to silence voices that frighten us and with which we disagree.  They upended our pretention to civility and made us recognize that we still live in a personally violent world.

For my generation, for a long time we would cite the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, which revealed to us that our godlike technology we have assumed will save us is actually fragile and paper-thin.  Of course, the defining nature of that terrible event was supplanted on September 11, 2001, when, as with Pearl Harbor for our grandparents, we were reminded of our vulnerability in ways that we are still processing, and often poorly.

For the generations younger than me, we are living through the long, protracted defining event even now.  My own children will never know what a “normal” high school or college experience is like, because the COVID-19 pandemic has so irrevocably affected—and in some way stolen—these years.  At the end of their lives, they will undoubtedly look back and say, “The pandemic changed everything.”

 If it suddenly feels like your Easter morning joy is seeping away, that may be because each of these events is awful.  Each shatters our illusions, uncovers our ugliness to one another, reveals our desperation.  So often, the events that define us are negative.  And when the events that define us are negative, first our emotional disposition, then our outlook on the future, and finally the very lens through which we perceive the world all become negative, pessimistic, fatalistic

But what if we’re defined by the wrong events?  What if the events that seem to run so deep really only skim the surface?  What if there is a current of reality that runs beneath all the rest, into which we can tap, and which counters all the negativity, pessimism, and fatalism?

In a sermon some years ago to the clergy of the Diocese of Texas, crusty theologian Stanley Hauerwas (always the oddest prophet of hope) said, “9/11—or pick your event—didn’t determine the meaning of history.  A.D. 33 determined the meaning of history.  Preach that!”[i]

Hauerwas is, of course, correct.  The defining event in all our lives did not happen in 1929, 1941, 1963, 1968, or 2001.  The defining moment in our lives happened in A.D. 33, when the Incarnate God said “No!” to the world’s drive toward self-destruction and will-to-death and defeated death with the power of the empty tomb. 

If we forget this, then our god becomes the god of economic prosperity, or the unholy power of atomic might, or the circle-the-wagons fear in which we’ve lived since 9/11.  But these are all idols.  None of them reflects the character of God.  In his cranky yet oddly and hugely hopeful sermon, Stanley Hauerwas went on to say, “We didn’t know who God is until Jesus was resurrected from the dead.”

God is the God who casts out fear.  God is the God who will stick with us all the way to the cross.  God is the God who will not allow that cross to have the last word.  God is the God who, in the midst of every danger, after every disaster, beyond every tragedy, will show us resurrection…will resurrect us

So often this work of God seems small in the face of all those other events, writ large and writ small, that the world incessantly throws at us.  But God persists, and grace moves, and resurrection happens always and everywhere.  When the grave seems ready to swallow us all, and we obsess over the seeming finality of happenings around us, God empties the tombs and asks us again, and again, and again, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

It is the Easter event to which the Prophet looks in hope today.  No matter what the world looks like or insists we see, through Isaiah, God says to us: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating, for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.  No more shall the sound of weeping be heard, or the cry of distress.  Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.  The wolf and the lamb shall feed together.  They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”

In Mere Christianity, writing just after World War II, C.S. Lewis describes God’s Easter action like the work of Allied soldiers moving slowly but surely into occupied France after D-Day, liberating inch-by-inch, sometimes, as in the Battle of the Bulge, progress seemingly arrested to the point of worry, but always remaining steely in resolve, and moving forward with the inexorable power of grace. 

A French friend of mine, Bernard Marie, was a child in occupied France.  After years of living in daily, paralyzing fear, Bernard’s village was liberated, and Bernard was handed half a chocolate bar by a smiling G.I.  For Bernard, that was the defining event, the bite of chocolate standing in for the Communion host, reminding Bernard writ-small what was truly happening writ-large.  The world was still full of darkness.  The power of darkness, in human beings and in the world-at-large, was still great, but the outcome was no longer in doubt.[ii]  In that very moment, Bernard experienced resurrection.

 So it is on this Easter Day.  Christ is risen!  God is on the move!  Grace is real!  Resurrection happens!  Whenever we are asked about the event that defines reality for us, the event that shapes our world more than any other, Good Christian people, we must always and only say, “Easter!”  The empty garden tomb outside of Jerusalem is our reality.  It is our power.  It is our hope.  Christ is risen, alleluia, alleluia!         

Easter joy to you. 


[i] Hauerwas, Stanley.  Keynote address to Diocese of Texas Clergy Conference, October 2015.

[ii] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity, 45.  Admittedly with some gentle interpretation on my part.  This is Lewis’ famous “enemy occupied territory” passage.

Finding your joy

Where do you find your joy?  Several weeks ago, a trusted colleague and I were on a walk, and she asked me that question.  It sounds so simple, but the question is as enigmatic as the answer: Where do you find your joy?  It evokes hiddenness, and search, and it begs the prior question, “What is joy?”

I’ve been preoccupied with both the question and the answer, and when I read the Gospel lesson appointed for today, I read it with new eyes.  Today we read the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and it seems to me that the parable is, in its essence, a response to my friend’s question: Where do you find your joy?

“A man had two sons.”  That is the beginning, and it is important.  We’ll have reason to consider both sons, but the parable initially launches into an account of the younger.  His joy clearly isn’t found at home.  He asks his living father for an inheritance that isn’t due until the father dies, and that he, as a second son in an age of primogeniture, isn’t even due at all.  It’s difficult to imagine a more abject rejection of his origin and source.  Whatever joy the second son is searching for, it isn’t there.  And so, given everything by his father, he sets out on his search for joy elsewhere. 

Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son

The younger son searches long and hard, both with regard to miles traveled and stones overturned.  Luke’s Gospel tells us that he, “traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.”  Other translations say, “reckless living,” “riotous living,” or “extravagant living.”[i]  We are left to imagine all the many ways in which this younger son sought to find his joy.  I actually think it would be a mistake to consider the younger son a debaucherous heathen, one who partied hard and burned out fast.  Eugene Peterson’s The Message translates the verse to say, “Undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had.”[ii]  That reads to me more as if this young man is like the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, someone on a genuine quest for life’s joy, and so tries it all, material and immaterial—things, and people, and experiences—and uses all of them up only to find them, and himself, empty.  We are given no indication of how long this process takes.  I don’t think it takes one crazy summer.  Maybe it takes half a lifetime.  All that is to say, I suspect by the time the younger son finds himself in the pigsty he is no longer so young.  And, I suspect the rock bottom he hits is a lot like that experienced by many of us when the search for our joy in wine, wealth, recognition, and other people comes up dry.

Let’s jump ahead to the end of the story, where we discover that the older son has been on a parallel search for his joy during the entirety of his younger brother’s distant sojourn.  The elder brother’s search has taken him no farther than his father’s fields, but it has been no less furtive.  Whereas the younger has sought joy in what the world could do or be for him, the elder son has believed that joy is to be found in the validation and approval of others (and especially of his father), in his dogged observance of propriety, and in the subconsciously smug self-justification that comes with being able to believe that he is better than his kid brother.  And has he become joyous?  No.  He has merely become bitter.[iii]

Where do you find your joy?  Both sons have searched in desperation, and their search has been exhaustive.  Between the two of them, they’ve searched everywhere.  And their search has resulted in emptiness for one and bitterness for the other.  Ironically and tragically, they are much farther from joy than they were at the quest’s beginning.

St. Brendan the Navigator searching for the Isle of the Blessed

I’ve just returned from a pilgrimage to Ireland, an island dotted by churches and monuments dedicated to St. Brendan.  Brendan was a searcher.  His wanderlust was relentless.  He was as restless as the younger son in today’s parable.  He was as agitated as the elder son.  In the great medieval epic, The Voyages of St. Brendan the Navigator, Brendan sets out to find his joy.  He points his curragh westward and sets sail from Ireland in search of the Isle of the Blessed, the place of eternal joy.  For eons, interpreters have variously claimed that the Isle of the Blessed is mythical, or perhaps that it was actually Newfoundland and the historic Brendan miraculously made it to the New World.  But the careful reader of The Voyages will notice that mid-journey Brendan turns his curragh around, back to the east, so that when the Isle of the Blessed is finally reached, it is almost certainly Ireland, his origin.  In other words, the source from which Brendan traveled to find his joy is the source to which he returns and ultimately discovers it.

Analogously, in The Prodigal Son the younger son wakes up in the pigsty and, Luke says, “comes to himself” and determines to go home.  Only then does he find himself in his father’s arms.  The elder son, too, brooding on the front stoop at parable’s end, is invited to cross the threshold into the feast.  He only needs to take the step.

Where do you find your joy?  Have you found it?  Or, do you yet strive; is your appetite insatiable; are you agitated and resentful?  Is your search leaving you empty?  Do you sense that you are actually moving, day by day, farther from joy? 

Our search for joy is frustrated because we—like the two sons in the parable, like Brendan the Navigator—both look in the wrong places and search for the wrong thing. 

There is but one joy, and it is found in but one place.  The quest reaches its destination when we turn around like Brendan; when we “come to ourselves” like the younger son; when we cross the threshold as we hope the elder son will do at parable’s end.  Joy is found when we cease our striving, and shed our appetites, and loosen the grip of our grudges, and give up our need for validation. 

My favorite image in all of Holy Scripture is that of the father in Jesus’ parable running down the path to embrace his shocked and prodigal son, to shower his son with the love that was always his and has always been of infinitely more value than any material thing.  It is the love that is free and unconditional.  That love is the son’s true inheritance.  It is the inheritance of us all, and it awaits us, ready to embrace us if we will but come to ourselves, turn around, cross the threshold.

In other words, joy is found when we let go and fall into the embrace of the love of God who is our source and who has been with us all along.  Because that love is joy, the only joy, and it awaits us as relief, and release, and empowering energy, and the essence of our true identity. 

The lectionary does us a disservice today by omitting the two brief parables that come just before The Prodigal Son: the Parables of the Lost Coin and the Lost Sheep.  In those stories, Jesus reveals to us the character of God’s own joy, the joy that comes from setting all else aside to find us, and restore us, and embrace us.  We are stupefied at the realization that the One who places the stars in the heavens and knits the tapestry of time finds joy in us and wants his joy to be our own. Where do you find your joy?  It is right here.  Turn around. 


[i] https://www.biblestudytools.com/luke/15-13-compare.html

[ii] Ibid

[iii] As an aside, every time I preach or teach this parable—and today will be no exception—someone reaches out to me angry and resentful that the elder brother is treated so shoddily at the end, and the parishioner’s anger and resentment mirrors almost exactly that of the elder brother himself.  That’s telling.  It reveals to us that we intuitively, or at least eventually, understand that our joy cannot be found in the things pursued by the younger brother, but we cling to the idea that we can gain validation through our hard work, or justify our worth by comparison to others.  All I can say is that Jesus says otherwise, and if we share in the elder brother’s resentment, it means we aren’t yet ready to set this parable aside.  It needs to work on us some more.

Ukraine and Christian Hope

Perhaps the most famous words of history written in the past fifty years are the first fourteen pages of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.  Tuchman opens her brilliant tome with a description of the funeral procession of King Edward VII of England in 1910.  In the parade are emperors and kings, dressed in pomp and circumstance.  The roadside is lined with legions of people who pay their respects to the king.  Tuchman’s description is exquisite, but for the reader it is also fatalistic.  Each sentence drips with sad irony, because while all those gathered, from monarchs to paupers, believe they are mourning the death of an individual, they are actually, without realizing it, mourning the death of their world.  Unknowingly, they all stood at the very end of what historians would later call the “Century of Peace.”[i]  Four short years after that funeral procession, the First World War would erupt, the globe would descend into a morass of violence, and all that had been known would go down to the grave.

Within the past two weeks, we have similarly witnessed the beginning of the end of the world we have known for three generations.  A global power has, for the first time in almost a century, become an aggressor in Europe.  An eighty-year peace has been broken.  It was a conflicted peace, an uneasy peace, a fragile peace, then by those with short memories a neglected peace, and now it is a shattered peace.

What is happening in Ukraine is an existential threat not only to the Ukrainian people—and it is surely that—but to all people.  Vladimir Putin has put his nuclear forces on ready alert, announcing, that “anyone who tries to interfere with us…must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead to such consequences as you have never before experienced in your history.”[ii] 

Professor Caitlin Talmadge of Georgetown University starkly explains, “Mr. Putin’s unusually explicit rhetoric has sent a clear message to the West: Stay out of my attack on a third party or risk nuclear conflict.”[iii]  For anyone my age or older, there is trauma in the memory of nuclear drills, huddling under desks with the spoken assurance—never truly believed even by my school-age self—that a thin layer of plywood would provide protection against nuclear holocaust.  The generation before me remembers the Cuban Missile Crisis.  My own generation vividly recalls the television movie “The Day After.” 

The violence of the aggressor, whenever and wherever it occurs, is always an affront to the Incarnate God of goodness and grace.  This very day, Jesus laments, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”[iv]  Jerusalem stands in for the whole world that cannot seem to help itself choosing war over peace and trampling underfoot those who would speak words of justice and reconciliation.

A pregnant woman being evacuated from the Mariupol maternity hospital attack

Today, in the midst of all such violence, it is the universal existential threat coupled with the localized brutality of Vladimir Putin’s actions these past weeks that has us on our heels.  What Putin and his military brass (not, we should take care to note, the Russian people as a whole) are inflicting on the Ukrainian people with increasing abandon is scarcely believable.  The World Health Organization reported that, as of Thursday, the Russian military had attacked twenty-four health facilities[v], including a maternity hospital in Mariupol.  Mariupol’s deputy mayor announced that Russian airstrikes are also deliberately targeting civilian food and water lines, and that small children are dying of dehydration.[vi]

Like you, I struggle to make sense of the psyche of a man who would brutalize another nation and threaten the whole world.  Long-time Houston community leader and former Baker-Ripley CEO Angela Blanchard posted this past week, “I will never live long enough to fathom a drive to dominate so strong [that] you destroy what you wish to own.  All the beauty we create.  All the children we birth.  The fields we cultivate.  The art we make.  All fodder for [this] furious…man with his weapons and perverted ambition, screaming ‘mine!’ And those that do what he commands, cranking up the machinery of war, pursuing his goals, though it costs them everything.  The sheer and utter gruesome waste of it.”

So, what should we do?  Cower in fear?  Wring our hands in resignation?  Strap on the saber and go to war ourselves? 

We are disciples of Jesus.  We are those who have died to the ways of the world and been reborn in baptism.  That is the essence of our identity, and thus the questions for us must be, “As Christians, what can we do?  What does it look like to respond in faith to such violent aggression?”   

  

Almost a century ago, two theologically-titanic brothers, H. Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr, debated the Christian response to violent aggression in public and in print when in 1932 another violently-aggressive world power, Imperial Japan, invaded Chinese Manchuria and perpetrated brutal and indiscriminate violence on the Chinese.[vii]  Each brother wrote with raw honesty and an empathy for the beleaguered Chinese that jumps from the page.  Richard wrote first, publishing an essay in The Christian Century entitled, “The Grace of Doing Nothing.”  Richard Niebuhr passionately argued that the appropriate Christian response to aggression was prayerful inaction, a mournful witness that includes Christians everywhere repenting of our own complicity with sin and violence and trusting that God is at work redeeming history, even when we cannot readily detect God’s action.  Richard called for a resigned patience, but of a “patience that is full of hope based on faith.”[viii]  

Richard Niebuhr’s was a robust pacifism, founded in his deep faith, but his brother Reinhold could not abide it.  In the very next issue of The Christian Century, Reinhold published a rebuttal entitled, “Must We Do Nothing?”  Reinhold argued that our faith actually compels our action, even while recognizing that any act we take is never pure, that there are always self-interested and mixed motives lurking in our attempts to act in faith, including in our actions to counter aggression and restore peace.  Even so, Reinhold says we must act, even while acknowledging at every step our own need for redemption, in order to side with the weak against the strong and restore peace on the far side of conflict.

Thank God for both Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr, because only by wedding their thoughts together do we fully grasp a Christian way forward in today’s broken world. 

With Richard, we acknowledge in hope that the God who set the stars in motion is still a God who acts in history, a God at work behind the scenes in ways that we cannot detect or understand.  It is this God to whom we pray, for our own redemption and for the redemption of those who are on the receiving end of an unhinged man’s violence.  I believe in that God, of power and justice, and our prayer to that God is not idle play.

With Reinhold, we acknowledge that sometimes we are the tangible instruments of God’s grace, Christ’s hands and feet in the world.  When the vulnerable are mercilessly attacked by the strong, Christians must respond, moving readily and decisively in the world, even and admittedly with feet of clay, so that goodness and peace have a chance against evil and violence.

As individual Christians, we can respond in both these ways, trusting that God is bigger than we are and praying daily that God’s redeeming will be done and acting in support of the Ukrainian people both monetarily and by engaging our own leaders and encouraging them to thread the needle by robustly supporting Ukraine in its self-defense with materiel and intelligence, while also constantly working all channels of diplomacy with Russia to forestall a much larger and more universally-damaging conflict, both now and in the future. 

As the gathered Body of Christ, today we also respond in both ways.  We adorn the altar of God, we pray, we sing, and we offer through our collection today our tangible, humanitarian gifts for peace.  We do all of this in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and all those on the receiving end of aggression.  We fervently trust, with St. Paul, that God’s power, working in us—working in our Ukrainian sisters and brothers—can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.[ix]  And we hope for that day to end all days, not with the push of a button, but upon the return of the Lord, when small and petty men are no more, when threat washes away like the tide, and when the love of God reigns.  Come, Lord Jesus, come![x]


[i] https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-hccc-worldhistory2/chapter/the-century-of-peace/#:~:text=The%20period%20of%20relative%20peace,Holy%20Roman%2C%20and%20Mughal%20empires.

[ii] https://www.wsj.com/articles/what-putins-nuclear-threats-mean-for-the-u-s-11646329125

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Luke 13:34

[v] https://www.wsj.com/articles/russia-ramps-up-attacks-after-deadly-hit-on-maternity-hospital-11646907696

[vi] https://www.wsj.com/articles/russia-presses-offensive-as-ukrainians-try-to-evacuate-11646819525

[vii] https://www.religion-online.org/article/niebuhr-versus-niebuhr-the-tragic-nature-of-history/

[viii] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2013-06/wisdom-doing-nothing

[ix] Ephesians 3:20; BCP pg. 102

[x] Revelation 22:20

The Brush with God

When I was a student at Hendrix College in the early 1990s, a mentor of mine in the religion department, Dr. Jay McDaniel, would periodically invite his own friend and mentor, Japanese Zen Master Keido Fukushima, to campus.  Dr. McDaniel, who was and is one of the smartest people I know, was clearly in awe and wonder at Master Fukushima.  It confused me how Dr. McDaniel could so easily move from being the authority to being the disciple.  Whenever I would see Dr. McDaniel and the Zen master walking across campus, I’d stop and gawk.  Somehow, Master Fukushima glowed.  He had an aura about him that radiated joy, calm, and more than anything else, awareness.  I don’t really know how else to describe the phenomenon.  At that time, I was suspect of Buddhism, and I never mustered the nerve to attend one of Master Fukushima’s lectures.  But Keido Fukushima was also renowned for his calligraphy, and I did watch a demonstration.  He moved around the paper with a such grace that it was almost as if he levitated.  His aura seemed to flow and dance around him as he drew.

Master Keido Fukushima

Today in Exodus, Moses comes down Mount Sinai after his longest congress with God.  Much has happened.  The people of Israel have been redeemed from slavery in Egypt.  They have traveled the wilderness and been disobedient to the point of idolatry with the golden calf.  Through it all, Moses has been faithful to God and repeatedly interceded with God on behalf of the people.  In the mist above the mountain, Moses has spent more time communing with God than he has with the people.  God and Moses have become so close that God’s very presence has brushed past Moses.  And when Moses finally comes down the mountain for the last time, he glows.

The first time I studied this story from Exodus, I was immediately reminded of Master Fukushima.  So much about Fukushima and Moses is different: Different eras, different cultures, different traditions.  And yet, there is no mistaking the glow.   Exodus implies that the people are unnerved by Moses’ changed countenance, and so when Moses is with them he veils is face.  I get that.  Being in Master Fukushima’s presence was both alluring and a little bit frightening.  Though he was very present, there was also an otherness to him that seemed beyond my own experience, as if he’d been brushed by the Holy.  It unnerved me.          

Now, at age forty-nine, with almost two decades of priesthood behind me and a faith that is, God willing, stout enough to see God at work in unexpected places, I can say that Keido Fukushima and Moses are as alike as they are different.  I don’t intend to minimize the differences between Buddhism and Christianity.  They are many, and they are real.  I do intend to say that God is more real than any of those differences, and that when one brushes God—whether that be in the guise of Buddhist enlightenment or Christian epiphany—the change is indelible and often noticeable by others.

I’ve shared in the Dean’s Hour my fairly frequent experience of parishioners coming to see me in my study with an odd look that combines confusion, joy, and embarrassment.  Their first sentence is usually something like, “You’re going to think I’m crazy…” and then they share with me that something has happened.  Almost always, they fumble for words.  Almost always, they stop several times mid-explanation and blurt in frustration, “When I try to describe it, it’s gone.”  They may not quite shine like Moses.  They may not have an aura like Master Fukushima.  (Although sometimes they do.)  But I know that the person in front of me has brushed God and will never again be the same.

Mosaic rendering the glowing Moses with veiled face

Encounters with the Holy don’t fit our modern, scientific worldview.  They are sui generis, unrepeatable, each their own unique and idiosyncratic thing.  According to the scientific method, they therefore aren’t real.  Thus, the embarrassment mixed into the affect of those who come to my study. 

Encounters with the Holy don’t fit into our modern categories of explanation.  They are not irrational, but they are non-rational, and so our descriptors fail to capture them.  Thus, the confusion mixed into the affect of those who come to my study.

For some, the embarrassment and confusion ultimately prevail, and the incredible gift of a brush with God—the gift that made Keido Fukushima dance and Moses glow—is set aside as illusory, a fevered dream, and life goes on unaltered.

But for many, in the end the expression of joy overcomes the embarrassment and confusion.  It isn’t happiness; that’s superficial and fleeting, like the laughing gas at the dentist’s office.  It’s joy, the deep recognition that something has shifted, that God has brushed past, that, for a moment, the veil lifted and one gained a glimpse into the world as God sees it.

Scheduling an appointment with one’s priest is only one response to such an encounter.  In Luke today, Peter, James, and John offer another.  As with Moses, in the mist of the mountain the veil lifts, and the three disciples witness Jesus transfigured and flanked by the embodiment of God’s law and God’s prophets.  Undoubtedly, the three experience that admixture of embarrassment, confusion, and joy, and Peter—bless his heart—blurts out, “Let me make dwellings for you,” or, “Let me make booths for you.”  That interpretive distinction matters.  John Crossan argues that what Peter is proposing is something like ticket booths at the carnival or at a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum.  Peter is saying to the Incarnate God, “If this is where you show your power, let’s set up shop here.  The guys and I can broker access to you.”[i]

The Transfiguration

Peter’s proposal is not as outlandish as it might seem to us.  Throughout all time and all cultures, cultic and religious shrines—places believed to provide access to divine power—are common.  I’ve visited several; you may have, too.  Peter, James, and John are surely mistaken in what they propose—Christ will not be boxed in, domesticated, and brokered by anyone, anywhere—but that they want to respond is good and true.  They are both terrified and allured by the epiphany they’ve witnessed, and they feel a compulsion to do something in response.

That is the common question parishioners ask me at the end of our meetings: “What do I do with this?”  What does one do with the wonder and allure, the deep joy that accompanies a brush with God?  The answer to that question is as idiosyncratic as the encounter.  Moses returned to the people to lead them with stalwart grace. Keido Fukushima became the apostle of Zen to the West.  In each of these cases, and often in others, I suspect the most faithful answer is to lean into what one already does, but in a manner redeemed by the brush with God.  As I’m fond of recalling, before his conversion C.S. Lewis was a professor of English literature.  But after his conversion, he was…a professor of English literature.  In one sense, nothing changed.  But in another sense everything changed.  The question for each of us, then, is how might we do what we already do, and live as we already live, but in a manner that acknowledges the glow, the aura, the brush with God that changes everything?

It is the perfect question for today, the last Sunday of the Epiphany season, because on Wednesday of this week we begin the season of Lent.  We again enter a blessed time when we are exhorted and encouraged to examine our lives, not just the what of them but the how of them.  Where do our attitude, our outlook, our commitments, and our practice need redemption and alteration?  Where can the brush with God wipe the slates for us and transform our being in the world?  Asking and answering such questions is a bigger endeavor than giving up something for forty days or taking on a project.  Perhaps this Lent is the time to ask, “How do I cast my aura?  How to I convey my glow?  How do I shed embarrassment and express the joy of my encounter with the living God?”  How indeed. 


[i] From Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.

The Mountain or the Valley

In his autobiography, scholar and Civil Rights pioneer Howard Thurman tells the story of a goodwill visit to India with his wife Sue.  One morning, Thurman was invited to participate in a predawn, two-mile climb up Tiger Hill to see the sunrise over Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world.  He says, “It was completely dark.  I could feel the presence of other people close at hand but could see no one.  I knew that tourists from all over the world came here to witness the sunrise.  Murmurs of conversations could be heard but not decoded.  Then as dawn approached, everyone became silent.  One could just hear now and then the sound of gentle breathing.  At first, there was a just a faint finger of pink  in the sky, then suddenly the whole landscape burst into one burnished gold radiance…More than forty years have passed since that morning.  It remains for me a transcendent moment of sheer glory and beatitude, when time, space, and circumstance evaporated and when my naked spirit looked into the depths of what is forbidden for anyone to see.  I would never, never be the same again.”[i]

Cracking the Kanchenjunga code
Kanchenjunga sunrise

Interesting that Thurman uses the term “beatitude” to describe his literal mountaintop experience, because the Beatitudes themselves are, of course, conveyed by Jesus on another mountaintop, through the Sermon on the Mount.  As the nature and wonder of God are revealed to Howard Thurman in India, Jesus reveals God’s virtue and will: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness…blessed are the pure in heart…” 

On mountaintops, literal and figurative, we find ourselves drawn up into God, with profound insight the reward.  The mountaintop encounter often is, as Howard Thurman describes, transcendent and changes us forever.

________________

On Thursday night, February 3, just across the street from the Cathedral in front of 500 Fannin, Margaret Perez froze to death.  Margaret was forty-one years old, a mother of four, and a grandmother.  She liked to crochet, dance, and write.  In high school, she’d been a cheerleader.  As recently as last Christmas, she gave her granddaughter a plush My Little Pony doll.  When she would visit her parents’ house, she’d clean incessantly to help out.  Her brother said of her, “She was a very beautiful person.  A gentle soul.  She loved very deeply.”[ii]

And, Margaret suffered from mental illness and consequent addiction.  She had lived on the streets for the past twelve years.  When the temperatures began to drop, our own Beacon staff encouraged Margaret and those around her to move inside to one of the warming centers.  The illness that put Margaret on the streets led to the paranoia that caused her to resist and ultimately, tragically forego the safety of indoors.  And while so many slept in warm and safe beds, she died from exposure, one of God’s beloved children.

Family and friends remember Margret Perez as a “gentle soul.” She died in freezing temperatures on Feb. 4.
Margaret Perez

Margaret did not know the mountaintop.  She spent her days in the valley.  She’d have had little time for Matthew’s Beatitudes, lofty in the ether, speaking of spiritualized truths.  But then again, God is not revealed only on mountains.

Today we read the Beatitudes.  But the careful listener will have noticed that they are not from Matthew’s Gospel, they are not part of the Sermon on the Mount.  Today we read from Luke, and in Luke’s version Jesus does not climb a hill to reveal God’s will and virtue.  In Luke, Jesus pointedly comes down and reveals himself in what is called the Sermon on the Plain, on that low and level place where we experience most of our days, and where some struggle mightily and often through no fault of their own just to make it day to day.  Luke’s Jesus hasn’t time to spiritualize his truth.  He does not say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  This Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor.”  He does not say, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  This Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are hungry.”

Our God—the Incarnate God—is telling us that we don’t have to look for God above the clouds, on some transcendent plane.  God is on our level, right in front of us, all the time, in the struggle of one another, in the face of one in need.  There God is: in these pews, in the lunch line at the Beacon, huddled on the sidewalk against the cold.

Howard Thurman is a sublime writer—obviously—but in his autobiography after he describes the experience atop Tiger Hill he can’t help himself and adds, “When I returned, I teased [Sue] smugly, saying, If you hadn’t chosen a cozy sleep and remained down in the valley, you would have gone up the mountain with me.”

In oblique response, Thurman’s wife Sue published a true parable in a magazine some time later.  She writes:

“Two friends were spending some days in the region of Darjeeling.  One of them had persuaded their companion-guide to go with him to the top of Tiger Hill, so that he might catch the vision of sunrise over the Himalayas…They would start climbing at early morning in order to reach the summit for the one silver instant when Kanchenjunga would be flooded with rays of shimmering light.

[But] the other friend remained in the valley.  There were visits to make: A Buddhist priest in saffron robe would be sitting near a shop in a bazaar fingering his prayer wheel.  Friendly street vendors would be peddling their wares of shining brass decorated with semi-precious turquoise.  There would be salutations to the sunrise in a thousand different languages. ‘I shall not climb Tiger Hill,’ [she says], ‘The object of my search is in the valley.’”

Sue Thurman ends her reflection by saying, “The mountain climber might return from his heights with an attitude of condescension toward the valley seeker, not perceiving that the preferences of their choosing indicated not only the variation of their goals.  Once the goal or quest of an individual is made clear, it is revealed that whether he searches mountain or valley, he finds his own ‘acre of diamonds.’”[iii]

There is nothing wrong with hoping to have a mountaintop experience, or, indeed, with occasionally climbing the mountain seeking one.  The real question—Sue Thurman’s question, I think—is where we spend most of our time, and in which direction do we orient our gaze.  The mountaintop, when too often indulged, can be an escape.  It can lend itself to the over-spiritualization of our faith and an avoidance of God’s commitments to the gritty and real in the here and now.  That’s why, I believe, Jesus comes down into the valley in Luke today: so that the very God looks directly and level into the eyes of the people and says, “I am with you; I am in you; I am you.”

The Sermon on the…? | God in the Midst of the City
Jesus comes down into the valleys of our lives.

It is an admittedly often frustrating faith that says, “blessed are the poor” and “blessed are hungry;” that strives, sometimes in vain, to convince the homeless to seek the warmth made available to them; that grieves the futility of a woman frozen to death.  But thank God it is our faith.  Thank God that God came down into the valley of our lives, to live among us and teach us to love.  Thank God this Cathedral extends its heart, its hands, and its resources to feed the hungry and remind the poor that we are all created in God’s very image.  Thank God that when we grieve; and when we laugh; and when we hurt; and when we celebrate; when you look level into my eyes, and I into yours, that we see Jesus reflected back. 

Like Sue Thurman, it is in the valley—on the plain—and not on the mountaintop that we make our daily quest.  It is here that we meet one another, and struggle, and labor sometimes futilely, and see the sunrise.  You and I live in the valley, not on the mountaintop, and thank God that Jesus is here, too. 


[i] Thurman, Howard.  With Head and Heart, pp. 127-128.

[ii] https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Woman-who-died-on-Houston-street-during-freeze-16843006.php

[iii] Thurman, Howard.  With Head and Heart, p. 128.

Of Love and Valentine

We are two days away from the month of February, which is itself the month in which that most Hallmark-y of holidays resides: Valentine’s Day.  Only sixteen shopping days left!  And Valentine’s Day is big business.[i]  In a recent year, Americans spent $18.2 billion on the holiday.  That comes out to $137 per person, and that includes kids!  Breaking that down, $4.3 billion is spent on jewelry.  Another $2 billion is spent on flowers.  A cool $1.7 billion is spent on candy and chocolate.  And don’t forget those Hallmark cards.  Americans purchase 190 million greeting cards for Valentine’s Day, to the tune of $1 billion.  My goodness.

Valentine’s Day was, of course, originally the Feast of St. Valentine.  Though Valentine’s Day is thoroughly secularized, since it is named for a Christian martyr and dedicated to love, it is worth our consideration. 

The hazy historical record actually mentions three separate Chistian martyrs known as Valentine, each of whom lived during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius.  Analogous to the legends of the historical St. Nicholas that evolved into our modern Santa Claus, the little we know of Valentine (or the several Valentines) informs our modern Valentine’s Day practices. 

St valentine's day Memes
There are some pretty good St. Valentine mems on the interwebs.

At least one of the historical Valentines was a priest.  When Emperor Claudius determined that single men made for more dedicated legionnaires and consequently outlawed marriage, Valentine continued to marry young lovers in secret, for which he was executed when found out.  Another of the Valentines was imprisoned after being caught helping others escape Roman capture.  This Valentine then fell in love with his jailor’s daughter, and he wrote her letters from his cell signed, “From your Valentine,” thus coining a phrase that has survived to our own day.

In a world so often marked by disdain, apathy, and hate, it is good that there is a holiday—even a crassly commercialized holiday—dedicated to love.  The question to ask is “To what kind of love is Valentine’s Day dedicated?”  The answer, of course, is romantic love.  But for Christian people that begs a second question: “Is romantic love—the love of mushy greeting cards, boxes of chocolate, and bouquets of roses—what Holy Scripture means by love?

And that question is the answer to the question rolling around in some of your heads: “Why is Barkley preaching about Valentine’s Day on January 30?  Doesn’t he know there’s a Sunday the day before Valentine’s Day?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to preach Valentine’s Day on February 13?”

You’d think, except that today, as we prepare to usher in February and with Valentine’s Day on the near horizon, the lectionary gives us 1 Corinthians 13, read at 90% of all the weddings ever (including my own), and universally regarded therefore as Holy Scripture’s poetic homage to romantic love. 

Turning Romantic Jealousy into Power - Mind Body Spirit Festival

At first glance, it may seem so.  Because those starry-eyed couples almost always choose St. Paul’s great love hymn in 1 Corinthians 13 to be read at their weddings, we assume it is a romantic love poem.  There, Paul says that, among lovers, “Love is patient.  Love is kind.  Love is not arrogant, boastful, or rude.”  But there’s a problem.   When we really think about it, romantic love is not patient.  It exists with passionate urgency.  Romantic love is not kind.  It will push everything out of its way to attain its end.  Romantic love does not, as the passage goes on to say, rejoice in truth.  Instead, it will believe anything but the truth in order to keep a romantic fantasy going.

Paul must, therefore, be talking about something other than romantic love. And indeed he is.  You see, Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth because the Corinthians bicker and fight about everything. The superficial bonds that drew them together in community have broken.  Their relationships have become one-sided, and each focuses on what is best for him, or how the others ought to fawn all over her.  They are not patient.  They are not kind.  They do not rejoice in truth.  They are boastful, arrogant, and rude.  They each claim to bring to the table gifts and graces that set them above their sisters and brothers, that make them more important and more worthy.  And they wonder why their community is dysfunctional.

To this crowd Paul writes about a different kind of love.  Paul speaks of a love that is tenacious, that endures amidst strain and pain, that perseveres in the face of challenge.  It is a love that is a daily decision, that is, as I have said elsewhere, an act of dogged will.  It is a love that gives meaning to all other gifts, because when we have it, we use those other gifts always for the building up of someone else and not for our own pride or prestige.  It is a love stronger than granite or iron, because it is forged in the very heart of God and then flows to and through God’s children. 

Close to Corinth - Response - Seattle Pacific University
The Corinthians were a dysfunctional lot.

About this love Paul writes, “If I have not love, I gain nothing.  Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it rejoices not in wrong-doing but in the truth.”

It is my joy that I can say this is the love I see most often expressed here at Christ Church Cathedral.  The character of our community is not like that of the Corinthian church.  And for us, this is necessarily so.  Christ Church is a downtown parish in the center of a sprawling urban maze.  Even before the pandemic, becoming and remaining part of this community required that daily and weekly decision, that dogged act of will.  And now, when the world starts and stops in COVID fits, nurturing membership in this community is a compounded challenge.  And yet, the Cathedral is here, and strong, and faithful.  Not fuzzily or superficially romantic is the love that binds us to one another and to this place.  The love here is of God, the powerful, enduring, sustaining, transforming love of which St. Paul speaks.

But when I look out upon the broader world, this love is sorely lacking.  Today’s world is Corinth writ-large.  Power, coercion, and self-satisfaction often masquerade as love.  Abuse, abandonment, anger, recrimination, and disdain are rampant.  It is enough almost to make one despair.  Almost, but not quite.  Because we know that relationships of love can be different.  We know that the dogged act of will is worth it.  We know what love looks like, and we—like St. Paul—can be apostles to a world that mistakes Hallmark cards and chocolate for love.

This year on the Feast of St. Valentine, let’s celebrate the love of which St. Paul sings.  Sure, it can be conveyed in a card or a gift, but it is best shared through acts of courage, attention, kindness, and care.  It is the love expressed by the historical Valentine (or Valentines!), when he made the dogged decision and took great risk to marry the faithful and free the innocent.  It is the love that is God, and which, through God’s grace, we are blessed to share.


[i] https://abcnews.go.com/Lifestyle/valentines-day-numbers-money-spent-flowers-candy-cards/story?id=45480956

The next day…

I have been to Cana in Galilee.  It is on the outskirts of modern-day Nazareth.  From Cana, the road winds down a hill to hit the 77 motorway toward the Sea of Galilee.  Not a whole lot to see there these days.  In Cana, our group stopped at a roadside diner.  I had falafel and a Coke.

Who knows what Cana was like two thousand years ago?  We know that Nazareth was a relatively new and very small settlement of immigrants transplanted by King Herod to shore up the tax base in his northern most—and backwoods-most—territory.  Cana was likely similar, though our Gospel text today does share with us that there was at least one resident established and affluent enough to host one heck of a wedding.

It’s a great story.  As commonly known, it is the context for the first of Jesus’ signs.  Still today, it serves as the very beginning of the Episcopal wedding liturgy, where we say that “the bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.”  As a wedding account, it’s a realistic one, with irritable mothers, aloof sons, and furtive staff rushing around making sure everyone has a good time.  At this point in my ministry, I’ve officiated more weddings than I can count, and I’ll tell you that not much has changed in the past two millennia.

Cana of Galilee - Journey to Holy Land
Modern day Cana in Galilee

But as with all of John’s Gospel, there’s more to this story than meets the eye.  There are two levels of activity in John’s narrative, one cosmic and the other intimate.

Cosmically, to understand what’s happening here, we actually have to back up a chapter.  John’s Gospel begins with the Bible’s fourth creation story.  The first two are in Genesis, and the second is in Job, and in John 1 sacred scripture gives us one more cosmic account.  Just like Genesis, John’s first words are “In the beginning,” but unlike Genesis, here the Creator God is not alone: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” 

This creation story includes light and darkness, and it tells us that in God’s great project of creation there is intention and trajectory, that the world of which we are a part is not meaningless, that from the start the Word—the Christ—has been present throughout, shining light, giving life, and weaving grace through the whole.  John’s first chapter is grand and fantastical, and it intends to jolt us into seeing the world with new eyes.

Our Milky Way galaxy is on collision course with nearby Andromeda galaxy -  Tech Explorist

But then, like a cinematic panorama shot showing the galaxy, then quickly zooming in to the blue marble of planet earth, continent, country, city, street corner, and individual person—can you see it?—John’s Gospel shifts to specific, everyday lives, and it begins describing the world day-by-day.  Day 1 in the Gospel, John the Baptist preaches.  The Gospel then says, “The next day” John the Baptist meets Jesus.  The Gospel then says, “The next day”—that’s day 3—Jesus calls his first disciples.  At verse 43, “the next day”—day 4—Jesus calls two more.  And then we arrive at chapter 2, which begins, “On the third day, there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee,” which, if you count them off, is day 7. 

It only takes a moderately attentive reader to see what John has done here.  How did the bible’s first creation story in Genesis go?  It followed God’s progress through seven days.  Once again, like Genesis, John is hearkening to the creation story. 

But there’s a difference.  In Genesis, on the seventh day, the last day of creation, the culmination of creation, God rested.  But in John, on this seventh day, something entirely different happens: There is a party!  And not just any party.  There is a wedding.  This culmination is a consummation.  After all, a wedding is, itself, the beginning of something brand new.  It is not the last day, but the first day.  Which is to say, the process of creation begins all over again.

Why does John tell the story in this way?  Why does he doubly describe creation, beginning cosmically, at a sixty-thousand-foot view, and ending up at an intimate, common, human event?

The key, I think, is that Jesus is at both.  Jesus, the Word, is present in the cosmic opera John describes, but Jesus the man is also present at the wedding.  In other words, God’s creative act is not only about forming the stars and seasons. God also creates each and every day, in us and through us.  The Irish poet Padraig O’Tuama says it best: “If the incarnation means anything, it must speak to us on our own turf.  It must enter into the clay of our landscapes, the texture of our languages, and the tensions of our cultures.”[i] 

And so, when John the Baptist preaches repentance, that’s God creating.  When Jesus welcomes disciples into relationship with him, that’s God creating.  And when the community gathers in hope and joy as two lives are joined as one, that’s God creating.  In each of these moments, and infinite others like them, God is doing something new

Wedding Feast at Cana Icon Wedding Greeting Card

Creation is cosmic, but it’s also intimate.  Creation is spectacular, but it’s also mundane.  So mundane that as we trudge through life we are liable to miss it.  How do we stay alert and attuned?  How do we notice what God is doing all the time among us and in our own lives? 

For that, the mom in the story gives us the answer.  After Mary berates Jesus just a little bit to jolt him into action, she points to Jesus and says to the stewards, “Do whatever he tells you.”  They do, and as a result they are wowed by the final act in this week of creation, as water becomes sweet wine.  The mundane becomes the miraculous, and they are a participating part of it.  Through their own cooperative, creative action, the veil is pulled back, and all experience the wonder of God.  And the next day, Jesus begins creating all over again.

Upon reflection, it makes sense that modern-day Cana is just a bend in the road, a place where one stops for a snack and a Coke.  Because it isn’t the grandeur of the place or the portent of the moment that makes the difference in the creative action of God.  John’s lesson is clear.  God is incarnate in our world, and God is creating—remaking—that world every day, in each moment, all the time.  Every morning when your eyes open, a new creation story begins.  And you are part of it.  We all are.  All we have to do is listen to the Incarnate God and do as God says, and we will become the agents of miracles.  That is an epiphany, indeed!  This year—this third year of pandemic in which the mundane seems to overpower all else—I can’t think of anything more important to hear.  All things are made through the Word.  Christ is incarnate, even here, even now.  Creation is happening.  I wonder what God will do on the next day…


[i] O’Tuama, Padraig.  In the Shelter, 47.

A light through the storm

By 1927, Captain Bill Winkepauw was already an experienced pilot.[i]  Though mechanized flight itself was still a relatively new phenomenon, Captain Winkepauw was as adept and accomplished as any man one might see careening through the open sky.  He was learned; he had raw talent; and he was meticulously careful when in the air.  Captain Winkepauw was born and raised in New England, and he also knew the unpredictability and the potential fury of New England coastal weather.  He had a healthy respect for the elements.  Flying with Captain Winkepauw gave others a sense of security, because they had confidence in his command of any situation.

That December morning in 1927 was a frigidly cold one, but the sky was clear and the forecast unforeboding.  Bill Winkepauw had an assignment that would take most of the day.  He had to fly up to Maine and make a delivery.  Though Captain Winkepauw knew it would add hours to his trip, this was an important delivery, and he wanted to take it from the plane to its destination personally.

Curtiss P6-E Hawk #biplane #1920s | Biplane, Vintage airplanes, Aircraft  images

In good time, Captain Winkepauw made it to Maine, delivered the package, and made it back to the airport to ready his plane for the teturn fight home.  He ignored the snowflakes that had begun  to flurry around him as he walked around the airplane.  He pretended not to hear the old man at the tower door yelling to him that something unexpected and ominous was whipping in from the East.  Captain Winkepauw wanted—needed—to make it home that evening, and in his humanness he set aside everything he knew about flying and the weather and took off into the darkening, late afternoon sky.

Captain Winkepauw had not been in the air more than a few minutes when he realized his mistake.  It seemed as if he had hit the air from one direction and hell’s full fury had slammed him plane from the other.  The gray sky turned to black in a heartbeat, and the churning weather outside his windshield confused his bearings and, in his confusion, made him question his instrument panel.  He was no longer even sure if he was over land or sea, and fear welled up in this capable, confident pilot so much so that he was practically paralyzed.

nativity-1 | Eavesdropping with Johnny

Mary knew fear.  She lay on a makeshift straw bed, surrounded by curious and perhaps agitated animals.  She was in the throes of her first labor and about to give birth to her child in a barn.  The only one there to attend her was her nervous, rough-handed fiancé Joseph.  (I can tell you, if I’d been the only one present to attend to Jill at Griffin’s birth, she’d have suffered abject terror, and rightly so!)

The shepherds knew fear.  They lived without cover in the fields.  (They’d have been envious of Mary’s barn.)  The slept fitfully if at all, always nervous about the wolves who might slink through the darkness and attack their sheep.

Yet, something happened that night that cause the fear in Bethlehem to melt away.  The baby was born, and even the animals perceived that this was no ordinary child.  As Mary cradled the baby, the animals calmed, and a hush fell over the stable.  Joseph’s knees must have trembled unto kneeling, and who knows whether he knelt out of exhaustion or out of wonder that this tiny baby was also the very Son of God.

As Jesus emerged into the world, the shepherds, too, lost their fear.  In contrast to the quiet and reverent scene in Mary’s barn, in the fields the night’s darkness gave way, pierced by a light surrounding an angel of the Lord.  “Do not be afraid,” the angel said, “for I bring you good tidings of great joy for all people: for unto you this day is born in the City of David the Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

As if coming up out of drowning water and taking a first blessed breath, the shepherds realized in the angel’s words that they had been given life anew.  Their prior fears vanished; they rushed to the place about which the angel spoke; and they found there the Incarnate God, come to live among humanity to show them that he loves them, lying in the arms of his mother.  They shared the angel’s words with Mary, who we are told “treasured them and pondered them in her heart.”  Mary was speechless and the shepherds could not stop speaking.  They left the Lord to proclaim his birth, glorifying God in the highest.

Storm at Night | Waves batter the shoreline at one of Maine'… | Flickr

For Captain Bill Winkepauw, the fear that enveloped his plane that night melted away when in the corner of his eye he saw a flicker of hope emerging in the cold and the dark.  He turned his head to see, and he realized that the solitary beam from a coastal Maine lighthouse pierced the darkness.  That light enabled Captain Winkepauw to get his bearings, and he followed it, and then its subsequent lighthouse brothers, all along the coastline until he made his way safely home.  Captain Winkepauw landed his plane without incident, and he returned to his dwelling that Christmas Eve, only a little late and worse for wear in time to share the holiday with his wife and children.  Never before had he understood the joy that was born when God’s light entered into the world’s darkness.  Never again would he forget it.

In the following years, Captain Winkepauw shared this joy by making annual Christmas Eve runs over all the lighthouses along the coast.  He dropped Christmas packages from his plane for all the kids whose families lived isolated in the lighthouses.  When Captain Winkepauw became too old to continue the tradition, others picked it up, and Christmas joy is still shared along the coastal lighthouses to this day.

In our world, in these days, the churning existential blizzard is so relentless that it confuses and disorients.  We begin to distrust our bearings, and our anxiety threatens to overwhelm us.  But the light born this night in Bethlehem still shines!  It pierces as pinpricks in the darkness and shows us the way.  Indeed, it shines because it is also born within each of us.  Like the lighthouse keepers dotting the coastline who guided Bill Winkepauw home, the Christ light within us shows one another the way.  And like the good Captain back to those lighthouses, through our gestures of grace and care for one another, we incarnate God’s gift of grace.           The light still pierces the darkness, even ours, even in these days.  The light shows us the way through the storm.  It melts fear and gives great joy.  Like Mary, let us ponder these things and treasure them in our hearts.  And then like the shepherds—and like Captain Bill Winkepauw—let us go from this place to spread our joy, glorifying and praising the tiny child who is God, who is born this day. 


[i] This story is told by Charles Kuralt in the audio book, Charles Kuralt’s Christmas.