Between a rock and a hard place. The devil and the deep blue sea. In dire straits. All of these sayings and others refer originally to Scylla and Charybdis, the mythical monsters who guarded either side of the narrow Strait of Messina between Sicily and the toe of Italy. Charybdis was a churning whirlpool so powerful that any ship caught in its vortex was torn apart and sunk. Scylla was a monster guarding the cliff on the opposite side of the strait, who would devour any sailors that drifted within her reach. Scylla awaits on a rock. Charybdis is a hard place. Scylla is the devil. Charybdis is the deep blue sea. The straits are, indeed, dire.
Traveling between Scylla and Charybdis is a no-win situation. There is no safe passage. There is no way to shoot the strait without injury. If you travel that way, you will be, at the very least, scarred.
Few monsters show up as frequently in the ancient myths as Scylla and Charybdis. While searching for the golden fleece, Jason and the Argonauts must navigate them. The great hero Hercules faces them. Odysseus traverses the strait and sacrifices some of his men to Scylla in the process. An eon later, Aeneas must brave the same stretch of water. Anyone who is anyone in the ancient stories finds themselves, sooner or later, in these dire straits that cannot be escaped without injury.
Myths are not, as commonly said, false stories. Rather, myths are the stories that convey to us the deepest existential truths. The tales of Scylla and Charybdis, ubiquitous across ages and cultures in the ancient Mediterranean, relate to us the universal human experience. There are those times when we approach a path that must be taken, when there is no alternate route, no other way around, and when any movement forward is bound to lead to pain, loss, and injury. We, like Jason, Odysseus, and Aeneas, find ourselves between Scylla and Charybdis. In those moments, what are we to do?
The Old Testament reading today is such a moment for Jacob, who has spent a lifetime nimbly evading such existential traps. But now Jacob has reached a place from which there is no escape. He flees from his Uncle Laban, who is hot on his trail with violent intentions. He travels toward his brother Esau, from whom through trickery and conniving Jacob stole Esau’s inheritance and blessing. When they departed years ago, Esau had declared his intention to murder Jacob. And now, to escape Laban Jacob is headed back toward Esau. There is no other way to go. Both options are almost certainly injurious if not deadly. Add Jacob to Hercules and Odysseus on that list of ancient characters. This is Scylla and Charybdis. A rock and a hard place.
On the evening before the day he will meet Esau, as he approaches the River Jabbok, Jacob sends his family and servants away from him, so that he is all alone in the wilderness. In the silent darkness, with nothing around to distract Jacob, the reality of his circumstances weighs on him like a shroud. He becomes frenetic and fitful in his apprehension and anxiety (do you know that feeling?) such that his state becomes personified in an actual person who launches into him from the darkness. Imagine that wrestling match. In the wilderness, Jacob wrestles with his own past and the decisions he has made that have brought him to this point. He wrestles with the loss he knows is almost certain to come no matter what he does in the morning. He wrestles with both his public persona, the him people see, and his private self, who he alone knows. And in all of that, he wrestles with God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.
Now, you may be a lot more even keeled in rock-and-hard-place moments than I am. You may be more confident, or better equipped, or less complicit in the making of messes in the first place. For me, though, I get this story. I understand Jacob’s sense that the whirlpool may suck him down on one side and the monster may devour him on the other. And I intuitively attune to Jacob’s desperate cry as he clings to God for dear life, when he says to God, “I won’t let go of you until you bless me!”
When all comforts are stripped away; when the silence and darkness remove any existential shelter; when every option promises to bring loss, what else is there to cling to but God? Where else is hope to be found than in God’s blessing?
And God grants what Jacob asks for, but it isn’t like any blessing Jacob could conceive. It isn’t the blessing Jacob wants. God grants Jacob a new name—Israel—which means “struggles with God.” God says to Jacob, “Your existence in this world, your very being, is to wrestle. You have misunderstood and asked for the wrong things. You are not ‘Jacob the Trickster’ or ‘Jacob the Affable’ or ‘Jacob who escapes trouble like magic’ or ‘Jacob for whom life always works out.’ You are the One who Struggles. That is your identity. But you are not alone. I, God, have made you Israel. I am with you in the struggle.”
And God changes Jacob’s material circumstances in exactly one way: God injures Jacob! Jacob walks away from this strangest of blessings with a limp that will remain with him until the end of his days. When the sun rises, this is the only thing that has changed. Uncle Laban still pursues. Brother Esau still awaits. God has provided no escape route. But where Jacob was paralyzed between Scylla and Charybdis, Israel has new strength, limp and all, to run the gauntlet.
The story of Jacob at the Jabbok is one of my favorites in scripture. (Indeed, it is one of the selections I’ve chosen to be read at my own funeral.) It is the truest of all passages, denying cheap and easy readings of scripture that claim untrue things about us and about God. Here, in these days of global pandemic, civil unrest, political malfeasance, and economic meltdown, we may experience life as a repeated series of Scylla and Charybdis. Again and again, it may be that none of our options comes without loss. That is real. But between that rock and hard place, we are not alone. No matter how bleak the wilderness, God is with us. Whatever the struggle, and for however long it lasts, God is with us. Whether Laban catches up to us or Esau’s murderous memory remains hot, God is with us. No matter what, we never struggle alone. That is what propels me forward. That is what gives me hope that runs deeper than any anxiety.
There is a coda to the myth of Scylla and Charybdis. Before Charybdis became a swirling vortex and Scylla became a six-headed monster, both were normal human beings.[i] Circumstances transformed them into their monstrous selves. They became Scylla and Charybdis.
We need to wrestle with that, too. Even when we do seek to cling to God, in a world such as ours it seems there are two prevailing religious errors we can make. The first is to lean on feel-good spiritual pablum: easy, comfortable words that pretend the wilderness is really a garden and that our challenges will evaporate in the morning light. That kind of Pollyanna spiritual pablum is Charybdis, a vortex that only ultimately makes matters worse by willful denial and ignorance. The other common religious response is a spiritual militancy that scapegoats “the other,” whoever that may be, as the source of our troubles. Spiritual militancy is Scylla, a many-headed monster that more and more these days maims and sacrifices human relationships.
We preserve ourselves from becoming Scylla and Charybdis, from becoming those who cleave to either Pollyanna or militant faith, also by remembering Jacob’s story and knowing that we, too, are created to wrestle with the God who calls us to live, in a world of real and un-ignorable challenge, lives of sacrificial love and commitment to grace, even and especially when that life puts us between a rock and a hard place. It sometimes hurts to live this life, but the world needs us to do so now more than ever. We are invited to take on the injuries that may come from our dedication to that God and to recognize, and embrace as Jacob embraced God, that the struggle is itself the blessing.
[i] In Scylla’s case, actually a nymph.
Almost four months into the COVID-19 world, I have increasingly wondered why I feel so weird. I don’t mean physically; thankfully, despite a couple of exposures to the coronavirus along the way, I have so far dodged it. I mean existentially weird: frustrated, sad, vertiginous, displaced…sometimes in a cycle of all four plus several other feelings all within the span of an hour. I was greatly helped in my understanding this past week when my good friend and brilliant priest, the Rev. Mary Vano, shared with me her podcast, “J.O.Y.” Mary interviewed fellow priest and life coach Marna Franson, who offered several helpful insights into our present condition.
First, Marna points out, in our regular, non-COVID lives, many of us step out of our homes each day into different activities: work, recreation, volunteerism, and more. Each time we step into an activity, we also step into a different persona. We become, for a little while, “work me,” or “church me,” or “school me.” Each persona moves through the world a bit differently from all the others, and each gives us a break from the “me” who resides at home. We need that blessed variety, but now, with virtually everything happening — virtually! — in the home, the activities all still occur, but we never get the chance to change personas. We do everything as “at home me,” and we become exhausted with ourselves. We become for ourselves that college roommate we couldn’t wait to get away from on spring break…and yet the break never comes.
Second, Marna Franson shares an insight from psychologist Martha Beck who makes a crucial distinction between “clean pain” and “dirty pain.” Clean pain is the pain caused by an objective event itself, such as the coronavirus. Clean pain is the physical symptoms of having the virus, the anxiety caused by potentially contracting the virus, the loss of work, or concern for aged family and friends. Dirty pain, by contrast, is the overlay of meaning we place on that pain. For example, dirty pain is when one feels like a terrible child because she cannot go and visit her mother in the retirement center. Dirty pain is when one self-indicts for losing one’s temper as the four walls of the house seem to crowd in. Dirty pain is almost always misplaced. It isn’t actual. It is a story we tell to make sense of the clean pain, but it is a debilitating and untrue story. Dirty pain simply makes us feel miserable on top of having to manage the unavoidable clean pain in our lives.
So, how do we alleviate dirty pain so we can constructively and healthfully address clean pain? I have two suggestions; and the first is, again, from my friend Mary Vano. First, when my college-student son was sent home along with all other students mid-spring, his university graciously allowed him to take his spring courses for credit only. The university recognized that these are bizarre and uniquely trying times, and striving for A’s might not be the most appropriate response in the circumstances. That seems to me not a bad mantra for everyday living right now. Give yourself the grace to live “for credit only” in this season. You will get frustrated; you will get sad; you will feel vertiginous and displaced; you will get tired of yourself, not to mention all those around you. And you will likely respond in ways you’d otherwise not. Be gracious to yourself. Don’t strive for an A in life right now. Take life for credit only.
And finally, I’ll share a life tactic that I’ve followed for years. Each morning when I awaken, I sit up, plant my feet on the floor, and in the three seconds before I rise, I quote Psalm 118, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” I then recite to myself the important reminders of the day. These days, this includes, “We are enduring a global pandemic. Texas is presently at great risk. Stay in as much as possible. Wear a mask when you go out. And be generous to yourself and those around you.” These reminders, at the very outset of the day, reset my expectations and remind me that my day, my life, and my world are permeated by the God who loves me and walks with me each step of the way.
Since mid-March, I’ve had a number of people come to me with the lament that they find it difficult to be happy in the midst of the world’s goings-on. They share with me sadness at being physically distant from friends and loved ones, disappointment that long-laid plans and important schedules are upended, and anxiety about the future of their livelihood and even health. In the face of it all, they say, happiness is hard to maintain.
Sadness, disappointment, and anxiety are entirely appropriate emotional responses to our present world, and either alone or in combination they can, indeed, crowd out happiness. That said, I’ve long believed that happiness is a superficial and fleeting emotion in any case, and often happiness is a palliative that serves to mask rather than alleviate those other emotional responses. Happiness is not unlike the laughing gas one receives at the dentist’s office. It may momentarily take one’s mind off the pain, but it wears off quickly. Please don’t misunderstand; I love to be happy, but I don’t put a lot of stock in happiness’ sustainability.
Much more sustaining and sustainable than happiness is joy. Joy is so different from happiness that I would not even call joy an emotion. I would call joy, rather, a posture of the soul. Happiness and sorrow are mutually exclusive, but joy and sorrow are not. I have encountered many grieving families, for instance, whose pain and sorrow at the death of their loved one exists alongside a robust joy for the life they shared. Indeed, I have encountered the same juxtaposition in dying people themselves, who are sad that their mortal lives are nearing an end and overwhelmingly, almost uncontainedly joyous with gratitude for the life they’ve lived.
Whereas happiness is superficial and fleeting, joy finds its deep and abiding source in God. Joy characterized the life of Jesus. In the Gospels, Jesus shows anger, sorrow, and even irritation and impatience, but he is always also joyful. Joy is the awareness that God’s world is, and has been since the first day of creation, good. Joy is the recognition that, no matter what may transpire today, God’s gift of grace — that we are created and accepted by a love that nothing can diminish — is constant. In these days, it is, indeed, difficult to maintain happiness; but even in the midst of sorrow, disappointment, and anxiety, we can be joyful. Indeed, joy can buoy us through such challenging emotions. Joy sees us through whatever today or tomorrow will bring.
Louis Armstrong’s classic “What a Wonderful World” is, for me, the popular song that best epitomizes joy. I hope the video above this meditation helps you connect to your joy today. Blessings to you, friends; take joy in the sure knowledge of God’s love!
Mid-century, a group of pre-adolescent boys are stranded on a desert island in the Pacific, with no adults to supervise them. They live there for months, and in that time their true natures, unbound by enculturation or social conditioning, emerge. They reveal what it really means to be human, and the revelation is startling.
You remember the Lord of the Flies, right? You remember the struggle between the leadership of Ralph and Jack, one seeking vainly to construct a society that reflects the one the boys have lost; the other encouraging the law of the jungle. You remember Simon, the epitome of reason and innocence, beaten to death by the mob. You remember Piggy, the weak one among the strong, crushed by a boulder rolled off the cliff by a bigger boy. You remember the desperate need to keep the signal fire lit, while the boys insist instead on whooping and hollering in front of the Lord of the Flies, until ironically, the entire island is accidentally engulfed in flames.
For almost seventy years, William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies has been on required student reading lists across the world. My parents read it. I read it. My children have read it. Its sober assessment of human nature serves as both existential exploration and societal caution. It is the narrative confirmation of philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ dictum that in our state of nature what is inevitable is bellum omnium contra omnes, or “war of all against all.” Left to its own devices, human life, Hobbes famously says, is “nasty, brutish, and short.”[i] William Golding stresses that the Lord of the Flies lives within each of us, just waiting to crawl to the surface and pit me against you, and you against one another. And he ends his novel with a moment more subtly terrifying than anything the boys have done, when the crisply tailored, rescuing naval officer expresses his disgust at the condition in which he finds the children, but then looks out at his own warship resting on the waves and realizes that the boys are merely a reflection of the world writ large.
In times of relative contentment and calm, Lord of the Flies is interesting. In times days like those in which we are living, it is ominous. We, like the naval officer at the novel’s end, best not pause for even a moment’s reflection, lest we recognize that the Lord of the Flies has welled to the surface in many of us and certainly in our world. We are living in tenuous times, in which our public health is imperiled, some of our actions seem to question our sisterhood and brotherhood as children of the same God, our impulse to politicize anything and everything overrides everything else. We are beating Simon to a pulp. We are crushing Piggy with the rock. Or, to shift analogies, we are Abraham raising the knife above grace and goodness and care for one another. All that is left is the question whether we will bring the knife down.
I will say this as starkly as I know how: We can have but one lord. The Lord of the Flies may increasingly reign these days, but for you and for me, we claim each day of our lives a different lord. We claim Jesus. And what does he claim for us? In the Gospel this very day, Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
The words of our Lord, our only Lord, are words of welcome, and grace, and care for the vulnerable. They are words of a Lord who will not share the dais or the smallest chamber of our hearts with the Lord of the Flies. They are the words of a Lord who has not a moment’s patience with our tribalism, or our politics, or our brutish impulse to put ourselves before our sisters and brothers. It is the Lord of the Flies or the Lord Christ, one or the other. The choice is binary, and it must be made.
Ah, but you see, God’s world is full of surprises. Mid-century, a group of pre-adolescent boys are stranded on a desert island in the Pacific, with no adults to supervise them. They live there for months, and in that time their true natures, unbound by enculturation or social conditioning, emerge. They reveal what it really means to be human, and the revelation is startling.
These words, with which I began today’s sermon, it turns out do not refer to William Golding’s novel. They refers to no fiction whatever, but rather to an actual, real-life event that began in June of 1965.[ii] A group of six schoolboys on the island of Tonga decided to play hooky from their Catholic boarding school. The boys were diverse. Some were light-skined, fair-haired English; others were dark-skinned, native Tongans. Some were full pay; others were scholarship boys. They “borrowed” a fisherman’s boat, packed two sacks of bananas and a few coconuts, and set off to sea. Eight days later, with their bananas gone, small sail shredded by the wind, and no water, the boys’ little boat washed up on a deserted island called Ata. There they would spend the next fifteen months before being rescued by fishing captain Peter Warner. A decade after William Golding penned his hypothetical thesis on human nature, a real-life test case was set in motion.
And what happened? What feral, brutish hell did Captain Warner discover when he dropped anchor at Ata Island? How many of the boys had suffered the fate of Piggy and Simon at the hands of Jack?
What Captain Warner found on Ata was a communal food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store water, and a recreation yard with a make-shift badminton court. As reported by journalist Rutger Bregman, the boys explained to Captain Warner that early on they’d “agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer. [One boy] fashioned a makeshift guitar from a piece of driftwood, half a coconut shell and six steel wires salvaged from their wrecked boat…and played it to help lift their spirits.”
The boys discovered on the island natural blessings, including wild bananas and wild chickens, and they shared them with one another.
Most remarkably of all, one of the boys fell off a cliff and broke his leg, becoming a dangerous burden to the others. In the fictional Lord of the Flies, the fate of the injured boy, weak and useless, would have been swift. In real life, the other boys splinted his leg with sticks and nursed him back to health. When the boys were discovered by Captain Warner, the leg had healed so well that it didn’t even have to be reset.
And, for fifteen long months the boys faithfully kept a signal fire perpetually lit, recognizing that it would be the instrument of their rescue and perhaps that the flame represented much more than that.
Wonder of wonders. When put to the test, William Golding’s savage dystopia did not come to life. The Lord of the Flies did not emerge in the soul. What emerged among the boys of Ata Island was the Lord of heaven and earth, sustaining one another with prayer, and song, and the blessings of shared life with one another.
We live by the narrative we choose. We live for the lord we choose. Rutger Bregman ends his account by saying, “It’s time we told a different kind of story. The real Lord of the Flies [on Ata] is a tale of friendship and loyalty; one that illustrates how much stronger we are if we can lean on each other.” I would add that it reveals that our authentic and true human nature is not what the myopic William Golding claimed. (It turns out he didn’t like children anyway.) Human nature is formed, as Holy Scripture tells us, in the very image of the God who is love. Our true nature is one of welcome, grace, and care. Our true nature desires to follow the Lord Christ. That is Good News.
But we have told ourselves the other story about ourselves for so long that it has taken on a kind of shadow truth. We perversely cling to it—to our tribalism, our politics, our power, our “me first” thinking—with a kind of dogged pride. In order to exorcise the Lord of the Flies we must sacrifice that pride, instead of sacrificing our love on an angry altar.
Our human nature is God-given and God-formed. William Golding’s novel is not true; the boys of Ata are. We are created to follow the Way of love of the Lord Jesus. When we sacrifice our pride; when we uplift and live into our true nature; when we follow the Way of Jesus, then bonds of grace and community form and strengthen, and our world, that may at first seems like a deserted island cut off from hope, becomes, in the light of love, paradise.
[i] From Hobbes’ Leviathan.
As a kid, I loved dinosaurs. To this day, the rhinoceros is my favorite animal at the zoo, because he looks to me like a Triceratops. Every week in grade school, I would insist my mother take me to the Greene County Library to check out the over-sized dinosaur books, with glossy artist renderings of Brontosaurus, Diplodocus, and Tyrannosaurus rex. These were not with the children’s books but rather found in the grown-up section, and as I read them I felt like a real paleontologist. Somewhere along the way, I learned the motto of the Paleontological Society. In Latin, it is Frango ut patefaciam. In English, that translates to “I break so that I may reveal.”
I hadn’t thought about that motto for years, but lately it has sprung to mind unbidden. Within the past three months, so much of the world has broken. And the breaking has revealed a lot. Cracked open, we have seen where our weaknesses are, with regard to both our public health and our economic models. The breaking open of the veneer of racial harmony has revealed that we still have so much work to do to render this a land experienced by all as life-giving, sustaining, and free. The continued breaking open of our political divide (How much more can it break?!) reveals that, for a long time, neighbors and friends have viewed our county and its challenges very differently from one another.
And, we see more when the view zooms down to the up-close-and-personal. I don’t know about you, but in some ways the past three months have just about broken me. On a personal level, as these months have gone on, as life has shifted once, twice, ten times, the little cracks and yawning chasms have revealed some things about me of which I’d been, at best, dimly aware. How about you? Have you caught yourself responding to situations in ways that surprised you? Have you heard your own voice and barely recognized who was speaking? Have you experienced an undifferentiated anxiety that has a murky source and no constructive destination? Has your breaking revealed things to you about yourself?
The spiritual question is, of course, “What do we make of this, and what might God do with it?” The Gospels remind us that Jesus, too, was broken. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ confidence was shaken as he anxiously sweated like drops of blood. Jesus himself experienced the desolation of abandonment as he cried from the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” As St. Paul adds in 1 Corinthians 11, when Jesus implemented the Last Supper, he told the disciples always to break the bread — which we still do to this day — as a reminder that Jesus himself was broken.
The paleontologists’ motto is “I break so that I may reveal.” Jesus’ own breaking revealed his fragile humanity, but as Peter Abelard first reminded us eight hundred years ago, Jesus’ breaking also and most importantly revealed the fathomless depths of God’s love. By his willingness to undergo the Passion — not in the absence of doubt and anxiety, but in the very face of them — Jesus the Incarnate God revealed that God will go to any lengths, suffer any violence, endure anything for love of us. There is nothing we can experience or encounter in this world absent the God whose love for us birthed the very world.
Most importantly, this is what our present breaking reveals anew for us, whether it is the breaking of the world or our own individual cracks. When we are solid, behind bastion walls and ramparts, it is easy to pretend that we have no need of God, that our own strength can sustain us. When things begin to break, we quickly realize that our walls are as fragile as eggshells. Our breaking reveals our need for God, for a love more subtle than any virus and greater than any strife: a love that picks up pieces and knits them into something new.
In these days, it is worth remembering the lyrics of the great Leonard Cohen:
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
In April, just a few weeks into our COVID-19 new reality, world-recognized author, filmmaker and fellow Houstonian Lois Farfel Stark wrote an essay entitled, “Breakdown or Breakthrough: Changing the COVID Crisis to Opportunity.” It is a profound piece of writing, and it is a living word, meaning that it has taken on additional meaning in the six weeks since Lois wrote it. In it, she says:
The name of the virus is a shortened form of Coronavirus Disease of 2019. Another way to read the word Covid is to notice that it combines Co, meaning together, and Vid, a root word meaning to see. This is a time of seeing together. Our connectivity is literally staring us in the face, even our masked faces.”
Covid 19 is highly infectious. You can catch it from anyone, whether they know they have it or not. It is invisible, just as the connections that bind us are invisible, but understood intuitively.
An early language of the Dagara tribe in Africa had no word for ‘you’. Their closest translation for the word ‘you’ was: ‘my other self’. That is as close as we can come to describing today’s situation. We are all potential infectors, potential helpers, potentially sick and potential scientists who can devise new cures. The very cure may be from antibodies in the blood of another who lived through it.
You are my other self.
Covid 19 is a virus. A virus does not replicate by itself. It needs a host. Every human being, regardless of age, nationality, race, or belief system, can be a host. This is so fundamental it is easy to overlook. Our most common and connected truth is that we are human beings. We have the same bodies.
It is as if at the same moment, everyone on the globe realized we have a potentially fatal disease. To be reminded of our own mortality wakes us up. All of a sudden, we pay attention to time, to those around us, to the environment we are a part of, to the echo of every action we take, to life itself. That kind of awakening has never before been felt by all humans on Earth at the same time.
Only halfway through the year, 2020 is an experience of crisis layered upon crisis, coming to a head: medical, environmental, economic, racial. There can be a tendency to allow our physical isolation to grant us permission to cocoon, to draw into ourselves as if in a cloistered monastery, walled away from the cares and needs of the world. But I am always reminded of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, who became a hermit only so that he could more potently pray for the people.
That is to say, even in his physical isolation, Cuthbert was ardent and active for those he loved. And who are we to love? As Lois Stark reminds, us, our whole human family, who the coronavirus has, paradoxically, reminded us are our sisters and brothers.
My encouragement to you is to spend some of our physically-distanced time apart in prayer, asking of God which of the layered crises of these days you are called to engage. And then, engage! Use the miraculous ways in which we are still connected, digital and otherwise, to speak, and act, and participate in the redemption of our world and the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.
Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday, when we were reminded that even in God there is no one alone. God is relationship between the three persons of the Trinity, and each is the other. Our lives truly mirror God’s. You are my other self. When you hurt, I hurt. When you encounter joy, I cannot help but smile. May we strive in all things for the redemption of one another.
We have now been a Cathedral family together, you and I, for a long time. I believe you know that I don’t prefer to preach sermons that can be construed, or misconstrued, as political. I abhor when I, or churches, are referred to with secular terms like “liberal” or “conservative.” I, and the other preachers I know, seek only to preach, and with feet of clay to live, the Gospel that defies such designations. Sometimes the world compels us to proclaim the Gospel when it isn’t comfortable to do so. I trust that you will hear the words I preach today as from someone who loves our Cathedral community and means it whenever we quote Psalm 46:5 and say that we seek to proclaim God in the midst of the city. This is also Trinity Sunday, and as such I’m beholden on this day to say something about the nature of that God. In other words, when we proclaim God in the midst of the city, just what God are we proclaiming? Our answer to that question makes all the difference.
I was downtown at the Cathedral this past Tuesday, when 60,000 people converged on downtown Houston to march in memory of George Floyd, who was murdered in Minneapolis on May 25 after allegedly spending a counterfeit $20 bill, by a policeman who asphyxiated him by pressing his knee into George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes. I’ve asked myself, why has this event sparked reaction and protest of such proportion compared to other incidents of unarmed Black men dying in custody or otherwise at the hand of white men?
The reason, I believe, is that George Floyd’s words (hearkening back to Eric Garner’s own dying words in 2014) gave universal voice. As he slowly suffocated, George Floyd said, “I can’t breathe.” A Black colleague shared with me this week that George Floyd’s dying words speak the felt truth of the daily Black experience in America: that anything that is theirs, or anything they might become, can be and is always at risk of being taken from them, as if liberty and even breath itself were merely on loan from a white majority.
For white people, at least this white person, George Floyd’s dying words—along with the look on the police officer’s face captured in photos—catches my breath with the realization that I can’t fathom what it is like to walk through the world that way. As I said in a blog post last weekend, “I am a Southern, white, heterosexual, cisgender male, which means that when making small daily decisions or large life-altering decisions I have never (literally never) had to pause and consider anything other than my hopes for my own actualization. Whether certain opportunities might be denied me; whether those in authority might treat me poorly; whether I might be profiled because I am somewhere I look out of place, [or whether my very breath is at risk]…I’ve never had to consider any of these things.”[i]
These two realities exist side-by-side in the United States. This was driven pointedly home this past week, by SMU professor Mark McCoy, who is white. The Dallas Morning News interviewed McCoy about a tweet in which the professor revealed that twenty years ago he’d been arrested for the same alleged crime as George Floyd. “George Floyd and I were both arrested for allegedly spending a counterfeit $20 bill,” McCoy tweeted, “For George Floyd, a man my age, with two kids, it was a death sentence. For me, it is a story I sometimes tell at parties. That, my friends, is White privilege.”[ii]
The God we proclaim is Trinitarian, and it is Trinity Sunday, but instead of an erudite treatise on the doctrine of the Trinity as such, I want to say a few brief words about each of the three persons who make up the one God. In the beginning, God the Father created; in each moment, God the Father creates. God looks upon the whole cosmos, the whole world, the whole human family, and says without degree or distinction, “It is good.” God raises up women and men and blesses them, but God does not bless any of us so that we may falsely understand ourselves to be worthier, or freer, or more deserving than others. God blesses us, as God first said to Abraham in the mists of prehistory—and I am quoting from Genesis 12:2 here—so that we may be a blessing. Those are, in fact, the very first words God ever says to Abraham. They are the words that launch the salvation story. They are the original lesson. Any of us who have anything at all in this world, if we believe in the Bible’s God, are blessed entirely and only so that we can be a blessing to others.
How do we do that? In order for us to know how, God had to come to us in the second person of the Trinity, God the Son. In Jesus, God shows us the way of love. It is not the way of triumphalism. It is not the way of dominating power. It is not the way of bravado. It is certainly not the way of ignoring, denying, or disregarding the needs of the other. If we believe that Jesus is God, then the only way for us to know how God loves, and how God calls us to love, is to look at Jesus. This is the basic Christian truth. And Jesus gives himself—his time, his voice, his power, his social capital, his life—for the lonely, the marginalized, and the voiceless. Jesus does not do so sometimes. He does not do so when it doesn’t hurt his own standing. He does not do so when there is no cost to acting. He does so always, all the way to the cross.
Christ Church Cathedral is blessed, and I pray we always seek to be a blessing. I have known Jesus all my life, since I kept my denim-covered, red letter, Good News Bible on my bedstand as a kid. Like you, like all of us, I want to live like Jesus. I want to name my privilege, and wield it in order to render it obsolete. I want to help make the world a place where a policeman’s knee doesn’t press on George Floyd’s neck, and where the systems that allow and excuse that action are dismantled. I want, as St. Paul tells the Corinthians today, to “Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace.” But of my own I am weak, and I lack courage. And that is why we need the third person of the Trinity, God the Holy Spirit. Uninspired and un-empowered, we can only lament. We can mourn, and we can regret, but we cannot transform. With the Holy Spirit, the very creation which God called good from the beginning, for which Jesus died and rose again, for which 60,000 Houstonians marched this past Tuesday, can be fully restored.
The Holy Spirit in Old Testament Hebrew is ruach, in New Testament Greek is pneuma, in English is breath. In and through the Holy Spirit, we have strength and courage we otherwise lack. We can use our breath—the Holy Spirit within us—in service to finally remove the knee from George Floyd’s neck, so that all our sisters and brothers, who share within them the image of the Trinitarian God, can finally and forever breathe.
May 8, 2016, changed my perspective on the world and my place in it. It was the day that I traveled with a group of Christians from around the world through the concrete wall from East Jerusalem into the West Bank. Like all Christian pilgrims, we visited Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity, but we also broke bread and shared conversation with Palestinians living in the West Bank. Some of our Palestinian hosts remembered having had their lived uprooted and their land confiscated decades ago. Others had lived their entire lives in the West Bank as refugees in their own country. (As a side note, Americans often equate “Palestinian” with “Muslim,” but the indigenous Christians in the Holy Land are all Palestinian as well.) As our bus was in the queue to leave the West Bank and cross back through the concrete wall into East Jerusalem, we saw a stream of men and women passing through a checkpoint and crossing into the West Bank on foot. “Who are they?” I asked the Dean of St. George’s College. “They are Palestinians who work in East Jerusalem,” he explained, “If they aren’t back behind the wall by 7 p.m., they lose their work permits and their jobs.”
That night I was haunted by questions: “If I were enclosed within a concrete cage (which is what the West Bank wall is, as anyone who has experienced it in person will attest); if the authorities treated me differently in my own country; if by either law or social pressure I were forced to be wary all the time; how would I react and respond? How long would it take before my frustration overflowed, and I erupted in violence?” I did not pose these questions generally; I pondered them with my actual self in mind: I, who am quick to stand up for myself and those I love, who knows in myself what indignation looks like, who believes with my whole heart and soul in God’s vision for the kingdom. And my honest and sobering answer, which kept me up all night, was, “It wouldn’t take long.”
Ever since my experience in May 2016, my wonder has not been at the occasional violence in the West Bank; it has been, rather, that there is so little of it. I am amazed at the fortitude, the patience, and the faith of Palestinians who yearn for a better—and fairer—life.[i]
Closer to home, my experience of the West Bank also altered the lens through which I view issues of race in the United States, and especially the relationship between black and white America. I am a Southern, white, heterosexual, cisgender male, which means that when making small daily decisions or large life-altering decisions I have never (literally never) had to pause and consider anything other than my hopes for my own actualization. Whether certain opportunities might be denied me; whether those in authority might treat me poorly; whether I might be profiled nefariously because I am somewhere I look out of place…I’ve never had to consider any of these things. But if I did have to do so—every moment of every day—how might I respond and react? How might indignation and frustration build in me? And then, if I saw every attempt at peaceful demonstration denigrated as unpatriotic; and if I repeatedly saw unarmed people who look like me molested, harmed, and killed by bad actors with the authority to protect; what would I do then? Not what would some hypothetical person do then, but what would I do then?
All that is to say, it is not a wonder to me that the aftermath of George Floyd’s death has included violent protest. Rather, it’s a wonder to me that such protest is so rare.
Which is not to excuse violence. Violence is like cancer. It refuses to remain within any bounds, and as has already happened in Houston (as happened last night to the Magnolia Hotel just across the street from Christ Church Cathedral) violence quickly leaves destruction in its wake. And the destruction is not merely of physical property. As a friend and former parishioner who is a police officer said on Facebook yesterday, the overwhelming majority of police officers are good cops, and last night in Houston good cops were injured while faithfully doing their jobs. That is also unjust.
I can lend my voice to condemn violence, which I do without reservation, and I can say forthrightly that violence in the face of chronic racial discrimination is to be expected. Human beings created in the image of God will demand dignity, and when dignity is denied indignation will become frustration. When no remedy is found, frustration will become violence. Tamping down protests is akin to taking Tylenol for a fever. It may mask the symptom briefly, but it will not restore health.
In order for us to be a healthy society, in order for us to approximate the Beloved Community of which Holy Scripture speaks, we must individually and corporately soul-search. We must acknowledge, as I realized that day in the West Bank, that our experiences of the world are constitutively different, and in order to understand one another we must be willing to see and to listen. To put a fine point on it: This must begin with white people. Earlier I listed all the things I’ve never had to do as I walk through the world. We could add to that list, that white people have never had to listen to the experiences of black people. The world has been our world, in which we choose the frequency and the song to be sung. To put down the microphone and let another speak, especially when we know that the words will, at least in part, indict us is very uncomfortable. But it’s not as uncomfortable as the black experience of seeing, again and again and again, versions of the police officer’s knee on George Floyd’s neck.
For Christian people, this is not only a civic pursuit; it is a calling. From the prophets through the Lord, Holy Scripture points us to the Beloved Community that will be the fulfilled kingdom of God. And, Christians are called to live now as if the Beloved Community is already a reality, to model what the kingdom looks like as a witness to the world. When we read the beautiful metaphors in the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, they are not to be for us mere poetry. For Christian people, they are the mirror in which we are to see ourselves, and they are the blueprint for how we are to live our lives:
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
The Cathedral’s Justice & Peace Council has begun formulating a program on racial reconciliation, which we’ll launch next year. In the meantime, may I be—may we all be—agents of grace and reconciliation in the world. And may God weave us together as the Beloved Community.
[i] It is important to say, because some will read into my comments things I do not intend, that I believe equally that the enduring State of Israel as a safe and secure home for the Jewish people is a necessity.