A Dual Life: Living with an Easter sensibility

In the Gospel today, the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples, but as with every other resurrection story in the gospels, the disciples have trouble recognizing him.  When confronted with the risen Lord, there is startlement, confusion, doubt, testing.  Mostly, there is the fatalistic inertia of what the disciples expect the world to present to them, and when the world before them breaks that mold, they don’t know how to respond or what to do.

How like them we are.  We are raised and formed to expect the world to be a certain way.  We believe in a regular, even pedantic world, in which all is mundane and/or explicable by processes that can be nailed down and defined.  If anything ever surprises us, the surprise only lasts until we have had a chance to figure it out or explain it away.  C.S. Lewis perhaps articulated our way of being in the world most aptly in his recasting of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.  I know quite well just what you are.  You are just revolving gases, forming into solid masses.”[i]  There is no wonder here.

When something happens to us that doesn’t fit the mold, when we have an encounter that truly and inherently slips our understanding and upends our expectations, we react with incredulity.  The confusion is usually too much for us, so we willfully ignore the rub and go on with our lives as though it never happened, like those followers of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels who ultimately find the inexplicability of Jesus too much to take and go back to their old lives.

8 #156 Resurrected Jesus appears to apostles ideas | jesus, resurrection,  painting

As we learn in today’s Gospel, Jesus will not have it so.  Resurrection has happened.  It will not be explained rationally or by the mundane, and its inexplicable reality confronts the Twelve.  And Jesus will not allow them to lapse back into their old way of seeing the world.  Jesus is insistent, displaying an urgency to the disciples rare in the Gospels.  That the disciples reckon with Easter, that they lean into it rather than furtively flee, is clearly of vital importance to him.  Why?  What difference does it make?

On Palm Sunday morning, as I was driving to the Cathedral, on NPR Krista Tippet replayed her 2016 interview with Irish poet Michael Longley.[ii]  Longley is known, along with Seamus Heaney, as a poet of “the Troubles,” the decades-long socio-religious conflict in Northern Ireland marked by terror and civilian casualty.  Even before the Troubles, Longley’s earliest formative memories are of his father, a trench warfare soldier in World War I, screaming through his nightmares in the middle of the night.  All that is to say, the subject matter of much of Longley’s poetry, like his life, is grim.  And yet, somehow through the grief and vexation of his verse, there is a luminescence to Longley’s poetry.  Somehow, he recognizes that there is, always, a dual reality at play in his encounters with the world: the mundane and something else

One of Longley’s most well-known poems is “the Ice-Cream Man,” about a local man who owned an ice cream shop and was murdered by a sectarian.  The man’s shop, loved by all, had featured twenty-one flavors of ice cream.  After the murder, Longley’s young daughter took a basket of wildflowers and laid them on the sidewalk outside the ice cream parlor.  What was to most passers-by unnoticeable, was to Longley a revelation.  In his poem, he begins by listing flavors of ice cream—Rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, peach—but then transitions to a seemingly endless list of wildflowers: “thyme, valerian, loosestrife, Meadowsweet, tway blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica… marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch…” The effect is that Longley finds a path from something ugly to something beautiful, or perhaps better said reveals the beautiful in the tragic, without for a moment letting go of grief.  He sees a dimension of grace where others see only the brute and prosaic layer of reality.

Michael Longley: Unionists 'should embrace' Irish language - BBC News
Poet Michael Longley

Various sources claim that Michael Longley is an atheist, and he calls himself a “sentimental disbeliever.”  But when pressed, Longley offers more nuance.  He says, “I do believe in the transcendental. I believe that poetry and art, without a transcendental element, doesn’t really exist for me…. [It] is all a transcendental experience for me. My heart stops when I discover an orchid…And then, when I hear a bird sing, it goes through me like an electric shock. These are the things that matter to me. And I would call that transcendental.”  Though a poet, one gets the sense that he means this literally and not only as metaphor.

And, despite his protestation that something more religiously organized is not for him, Longley also slips in the admission, “Once every four or five years, I take communion, and I believe in the poetry of it — the poetry of it.” 

What makes the difference?  How is it that the world is neither fatalistic nor merely inert stuff to Michael Longley?  How is it that a life lived in the very shadow of such pain, and grief, and terror finds itself repeatedly taken aback by beauty and wonder?  Longley explains it as the poetic sensibility.  He tells Krista Tippet, “I have this secret life no one knows about…For me, it’s quite an extraordinary gift to see something beautiful…[It’s] extraordinary. And it’s a way of having more than one life.” 

Intriguingly, Longley also borrows a phrase from Horace, and says he, and poets like him, are, in fact, “priests.”  The basic meaning of “priest” is, of course, to be a conduit of the divine, to communicate truth that otherwise risks being undetected, and where most see only death, Longley sees the buds of new life.  Where most see only grief and pain, he encounters nascent hope.  Where most see shadow and drab gray, for Longley the world shines with color.  Michael Longley sees a dimension of reality that most of us, most of the time, miss, and in response he cannot help but share that vision with the rest of us.

Longley lives, as he says, two lives at once.  The first is the life that recognizes fully and well the world’s tragedy and, even more often, the world’s numbing banality.  But the second life is the life that encounters, knows, and is a conduit of the beautiful, the poetic, and (dare we say it) the miraculous that exists side-by-side with—and in—the everyday.  Longley calls this “adoration.”  Speaking of his poetry, Krista Tippet calls it (despite Longley’s claim of disbelief) “religious in the best sense of the word.”

Michael Longley helps us understand Jesus’ insistence with the disciples today.  I would call Longley’s way of being in the world an Easter sensibility.  He has seen and recognized the miraculous in the mundane.  His eyes are open, and no matter how unrelentingly the world grinds, he will not shut them.  Jesus, as the Resurrected One, knows that this makes all the difference, for the disciples, for us, and for the fragile world in which we live.  Because Easter people—people who look upon the world and see a different dimension of reality, who see wonder, beauty, and the presence of the living God—cannot help but live differently as people of hope, and love, and grace.  That living, in turns, redeems the world, making Easter ever more a reality.

3,705 Celtic Knot Illustrations & Clip Art - iStock

At our Sunday evening Celtic Eucharist, The Well, we often end our worship with a post-Communion prayer from the Church of Ireland that embodies for me this Easter sensibility.  It asks that we remain awake, that we encounter the risen Christ, and that we live in response to that wonder.   We pray this:

“Strengthen for your service, Lord, these hands that holy things have taken; may these ears with have heard your Word be deaf to all clamor and dispute; may these tongues which have sung your praise be free from deceit; may these eyes which have seen the tokens of your love shine with the light of hope; and may these bodies which have been fed with your body be refreshed with the fullness of your life; glory to you forever. Amen.”

[i] I first heard this from the Very Rev. Herbert O’Driscoll, who attributed it to C.S. Lewis.  There are many versions of this ditty floating around the internet, attributed to various authors.

[ii] https://onbeing.org/programs/the-vitality-of-ordinary-things/

Of Easter and the Cosmic Symphony

I was five years old when the movie Star Wars was released in 1977.  My mother took my brother Robert and me to see it in the theater.  Immediately after the movie, we walked next door to TG&Y and purchased our first Star Wars action figures.  Robert got Luke Skywalker and C3P0.  I got Darth Vader and R2D2.  Thus began a childhood love affair with outer space.  For me, then, space was all about starships and laser beams and talking robots.  Space was full of excitement, colorful characters, and action. 

Imgur | Star wars poster, Star wars wallpaper, Star wars games

By the time I was in junior high school, my enthusiasm for outer space translated into two different trips to Space Camp at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where we ran mock space shuttle missions in incredibly life-like simulators.  Despite the fact that the shuttle mission I piloted burned up on reentry because we forgot to close the shuttle’s cargo bay doors, the experience felt a lot like Star Wars minus the ray guns.  It was hugely exciting.

My enthusiasm for outer space came to a screeching halt in the mid-1980s, however, with space shuttle mission STS-41-B.  On that mission, astronaut Bruce McCandless operated, for the first time ever, NASA’s Manned Maneuvering Unit: a jetpack.  Photos of McCandless in the jetpack appeared on magazine covers and newspapers across the globe, the first-ever human being to free-float in space, untethered to the shuttle or anything else.  Most thought it was great.  I thought it was terrible.  It is difficult adequately to describe the dread and anxiety I felt when I saw the photograph of McCandless alone against the black backdrop of space.  It was existential.  My excitement turned to horror, and the horror ran deep.  Immediately, for me, outer space was no longer about Jedi and wookies.  It was about the unearthly cold, human fragility, and the endless empty void.   I could no longer think about outer space without an ominous chill.

Bruce McCandless, the first astronaut to fly untethered in space, has died

In my teenage angst, my interest in space didn’t wane, it just transitioned into something morbid.  I became especially interested in black holes, as the denouement of space’s terror.  Even now, I don’t fully understand black holes.  The best description I’ve found comes from a reporter who describes black holes as “too much matter crammed into one place, [where] the cumulative force of gravity becomes overwhelming, and the place becomes an eternal trap.”[i]

What goes into a black hole never comes out.  And everything goes into a black hole: planets, suns, even something as ephemeral as light itself.  Light, life, the future, hope; it all ends in a black hole.  Black holes are the universe’s Good Friday.  Black holes are the cosmic tomb.

The friends and followers of Jesus experienced their own transition from enthusiasm to horror these past few days, except unlike my childhood terror, theirs was not hypothetical but very real.  It must have been thrilling to follow Jesus, to see his inexplicable power, to believe in him as a leader, a teacher, a savior who would usher in a different, better world.  This must have been true right until that moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the illusion of safety and security with Jesus was shed in an instant.  The next morning revealed Jesus alone and untethered from everything that might protect and preserve him, like that astronaut floating in the void.  Except Jesus wasn’t entirely untethered.  He was firmly affixed to a crossbeam of wood, designed to torture and humiliate him while terrorizing those who loved him.  In every way, it was effective.  Can you imagine the juxtaposition of such horror on the heels of such hope?

And then, all of it—the enthusiasm, the hope, the very light that was Jesus which so briefly but brightly illumined the disciples’ world, is finally swallowed by the tomb.  As with a black hole, it is over.  Nothing is left.  And the disciples are left alone and numb in the void. 

I suspect this year we may have some inkling, some minor conception at least, of that feeling.  Last year at this time the coronavirus pandemic was still so new that there was a kind of morbid, frantic excitement to it:  What did it mean?  How long might it last?  How can we fight or debate with those who view it differently than we do?  Then the horror set in, as people we knew got sick and died, as the death toll exceeded the number of Americans killed in World War II, and as the health crisis became an economic crisis threatening our livelihoods and an education crisis threatening to leave a generation of kids behind.  The past year has been like an endless Passion Week, stretched taut over three hundred sixty-five days.  This Easter we are exhausted; we are numb; and for very many of us all our energy has been swallowed as if into a black hole, as if into a tomb. 

Dark matter could be made of black holes from the beginning of time | Live  Science

My fascination with black holes never entirely waned, and a few years ago I read an article about a startling discovery at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO.  It turns out Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves a century ago, but since then they remained merely theoretical.  No one had ever actually detected them.  That is, until 2015, when LIGO’s antenna, more than two miles in length, picked up a faint chirp from across the void.  In-depth analysis concluded that the chirp was gravitational waves, which were the result of two black holes colliding, a billion years ago, millions of galaxies from the Milky Way.  Not one black hole, but two, and when they smashed into one another, as the article’s author put it, “a few last quivers of energy escaped.”[ii]

You see, though everything ends in a black hole, when these two black holes collided—these cosmic tombs—they also, paradoxically, produced something new.  Gravitational waves pushed outward, just averting the maw of the black holes’ event horizon—escaping the tomb—and coursed through the cosmos.  What’s more, when the waves reached the LIGO antenna on earth and that chirp was finely processed, it was discovered to sound like a run on a piano keyboard, from low A to middle C.  LIGO scientists went on to say that “different celestial sources emit their own sorts of gravitational waves…The binary neutron stars are like piccolos.  Isolated spinning pulsars…‘ding’ like a triangle, and black holes fill in the string section, running form double bass on up, depending upon their mass.”  Which means that, quite literally, all around us, as gravitational waves pulse, the universe is singing “like a cosmic orchestra.[iii]

It is as if the cosmos is telling us, as if God is telling us, that even the black hole—the tomb—does not have the last word.  Even the crushing finality of death itself is not the end.  From the heart of the void, the universe sings!  But we Christians have known that all along.  In our burial liturgy, we say, “Yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!”[iv]

We know this because of this very day.  We know this because Mary Magdalene, and Peter, and John rush to the graveyard to find the tomb empty.  We know this because Jesus Christ, the embodiment of their hope and ours, and the incarnation of God, has emerged from the black hole as the universe’s song. 

On this Easter day, we have resumed our own singing in this space.  We are reminded—our hope is restored—that no virus, no crisis, no terror, no tomb has the last word in our lives.  The last word always and ever comes from the God who creates the cosmos, the God born and resurrected in Jesus.  In our faith, as in this past year, we have moved from naïve excitement, through anxiety and fear and numbness, to this very moment when we first detect, like LIGO’s antenna, something transformed and new.  At first it is but a chirp, but the waves will continue for all who have ears to hear.  They will crescendo from all sources and sides, until our joy resounds like a cosmic symphony and we echo the song of our risen Lord. 

[i] Quoted by the Rev. Ann Benton Fraser in an Easter sermon at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, San Antonio, April 21, 2019.

[ii] https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/gravitational-waves-exist-heres-how-scientists-finally-found-them

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Book of Common Prayer, p. 499.

Love without conditions

Some will know that my favorite movie is Bart Freundlich’s 1997 Indie film The Myth of Fingerprints.  In the film, Daphne and Warren are in broken relationship due to a horrible incident that happened four years prior.  Daphne and Warren have been apart for that length of time, but in a scene halfway through the movie they meet in the middle of a frozen lake.  In that snowy expanse, they drop to their knees facing one another as if in prayer.  At one point, they lean in forehead-to-forehead.  They engage the past, and after soul-searching, Daphne finally says to Warren, “There came a point like a year ago, I guess.  I was lying on my bed, and I thought of you, and I realized I didn’t think about that night.  I just thought about you, and how you loved me.  How you always told me, and I always believed you.”

        The Myth of Fingerprints is one of those movies in which the cinematography tells its own story and practically every line of dialogue is a sermon.  The scene between Daphne and Warren is arresting.  Try to picture it in your imagination.  In the middle of the frozen lakebed, the two of them could be alone in all creation.  There is nothing at all around them, nothing to separate them from the presence of one another.  Each word one says to the other lands in the fullness of attention.  And when Daphne recollects the character of Warren’s love, it is an epiphany to her and to him.

The Myth of Fingerprints - Wikipedia

        In John’s Gospel today, Jesus gives to the faithful the most challenging and cryptic of all his teaching.  One might say he ceases to be the rabbi and becomes the mystic.  Alluding first to his own coming Passion, Jesus then says to his disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

        Often, we imagine that Jesus means his followers must be willing to lose their lives in service to others, and in conviction of the Gospel.  This is undoubtedly true, but read in the sweeping context of John’s Gospel, Jesus surely means more than that.  He means something even deeper and more profound than being “all in” with regard to the things we must faithfully do in the world.  Jesus is talking here, as he has earlier spoken in John’s Gospel to Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, and countless others, of how we must be.  Even more to the point, he speaks of how we must be in relation to God

        Before we can begin to understand that, we must, with open-eyed honesty, look at the way our relationships—virtually any and all relationships—function in the world.  This is not easy, but it is necessary.  More than anything else, we live in a world that is transactional.  Ayn Rand, loathed or loved depending upon one’s perspective, said, “The principle of trade is the…principle for all human relationships, personal and social, private and public, spiritual and material.”[i]  We may not like that sentiment, but we must acknowledge its accuracy. 

It is obvious that our casual interactions are transactional.  We engage in friendly banter with a store clerk, but the basis of the relationship, as both know, is ultimately the exchange of money for goods.  The same is true with every service provider in our lives: banker, attorney, physician.  We would not remain in these relationships if they did not meet our needs in a beneficial way.  They are transactional.

Ayn Rand | Biography, Books, & Facts | Britannica
Ayn Rand

This holds equally true in those relational webs in which the transactional nature is more creatively masked.  I am in a breakfast club, for example, and though (in a non-pandemic world) we enjoy conversation over bacon and eggs, there is a deeper, underlying purpose of professional networking in our meetings.  (Even I scope the room to see if any newcomer might be looking for a church home!)  Similarly, in an earlier phase of my life I was an active member of the Kiwanis Club.  That organization purports service-to-others as its reason for being—and we did much good for the local community—but trust me when I say that each member both expected and received a very real if intangible professional return for being a Kiwanian.

        But surely, we may protest, our familial and friend relationships are different.  Surely they are not transactional.  Not so fast.  As you may have already discerned, “transactional” is merely another word for “conditional,” and therapists’ calendars are kept booked to the margins by those who wake up and realize the myriad ways in which our closest relationships have all been predicated on conditions.  A parent’s love is withheld unless a child (sometimes an adult child) meets certain expectations that often have to do more with the parents own emotional insecurities and needs.  Marriages end when one spouse is left unfulfilled by the other.  Friends betray or fade away when the friendship takes more than it gives.  In all these cases and innumerable others, love is conditional.  It is transactional.  And when the transaction no longer works in our favor, we are left severely disappointed if not emotionally damaged.

        Ayn Rand claims that this dynamic is operative in our spiritual lives as well, and she is correct, for surely this is also how we approach God.  We seek God in our need, and when life fails us, we reproach God for failing us, too.  We subconsciously imagine God as the cosmic parent, or the supernatural fix-it man.  Our relationship with God is transactional.  We may claim that our hearts desire unconditional love, but we consistently levy God with conditions. 

        All that is to say, Ayn Rand correctly diagnoses us.  But her prescription—to embrace and double-down on transactional love—is all wrong.  Obviously, in our secular, economic lives, our very real needs and the reality of supply and demand mean that conditional relationships are unavoidable.  And, it is important for me to say, by their nature there is nothing wrong with them.  But in our relationships of family and friends, and especially in our relationship with God, nothing is more insidiously damaging than conditional love.  This manner of relationship, in which we transfer the dynamics of our economic lives into our intimacy of our closest relationships, is, in fact, what Jesus tells us today must die.  Nothing less than the radical shedding of this way of being in the world can save us.  In fact, in John’s Gospel “eternal life,” rather than referring to some future heaven, is the way of being in which love is received and given unconditionally and for its own sake.  And in order to gain that life, we must lose the old one.

        How?  How can we be jolted out of our old existence and opened to something so radically new?  Perhaps by hearing again the voice of God through the prophet Jeremiah, but this time in light of what Jesus has told us.  Today, God says of God’s people, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

        Lest it be opaque, God here is throwing out all transactions in our relationship with God.  There are no external laws, no quid pro quo, no conditions.  Can we even begin to fathom what such a relationship with God would be like?  Can we imagine a life in which we do not need to plead with God in our weakness, or bargain with God in our anxiety, because God’s love for us is already present and boundless?  Can we imagine a life in which all of this is written on our hearts and thus known to us as intimately as our own names?  What a blessed relief it would be.  It staggers the imagination and boggles the mind.

        God’s greatest desire is that we, like Daphne and Warren kneeling toward one another on the frozen lake, alone together in all the world, will emerge from our troubled and vexed past lives.  We will enter a new, eternal life in which we are fully present to God as God is always fully present to us, in which we come to understand that there is nothing we can do or fail to do that will diminish God’s healing, comforting, empowering, and enduring love for us.  God’s greatest desire is that we will say, like Daphne, “There came a time when I thought of you, and I realized I didn’t think about the old life.  I just thought about you, and how you loved me.  How you always told me, and I always believed you.”

        When we embrace eternal life and a love without conditions, we lean toward God, like those two figures knelt in the snow, until our lives and the very life of God make contact.  When that happens, the love of God permeates us, and no matter what the stresses and struggles in our world, we find that in the love of God we are whole.

Who is Howard Thurman? | Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground
Howard Thurman

        At the very end of his autobiography, the great Howard Thurman says this best.  He describes the eternal life that is found now in God’s unconditional love when he says, “Failure may remain failure in the context of all our strivings, hatred may continue to be hatred in the social and political arena of the common life, tragedy may continue to yield its anguish and pain, spreading havoc in the tight circle of our private lives, the dead weight of guilt may not shift its position to make life even for a brief moment more comfortable and endurable, for any of us–all this may be true. Nevertheless, in all these things there is a secret door which leads into the central place, where the Creator of life and the God of the human heart are one and the same…It is here that the meaning of the hunger of the heart is unified. The Head and the Heart at last inseparable; they are lost in wonder in the One.”[ii]

[i] https://cezjah.medium.com/all-relationships-are-transactional-but-the-connection-ought-to-be-more-important-than-the-228a28d5ea00

[ii] Thurman, Howard.  With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman, pg. 269.

What does it mean to “take up the cross”?

From about the age of ten until I was old enough to drive, my New Year’s Eve tradition, with either my brothers or friends, was to stay up late and watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Yes, I can recite the lines with you, whether it be the Knights Who Say “Ni”, the Black Knight, brave Sir Robin, or Tim the Enchanter, who warns of the killer rabbit with “nasty, big, pointy teeth.”  But my favorite scene is when the cohort of monks processes through a squalid medieval village, chanting, “Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem,” which translates, “Pious Lord Jesus, grant them rest.”  The Python troop’s spin on the Dies Irae is, of course, to have the monks, with each line, whack themselves in the forehead with a board.

Monty Python captures in two minutes of film what is perhaps the prevailing view of Christianity from the actual Middle Ages until today.  Whatever else our religion is, our subconscious assumptions about it include a heavy weight, self-flagellation, and an undercurrent of foreboding or even doom.  Sooner or later, Christianity seems to be about whacking ourselves about the head with a board. 

Monty Python and the Holy Grail - Wikipedia

We can surely understand why this is so, and the rationale comes from the red-letter words of Jesus himself.  This very day, immediately after Peter has acknowledged that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus explains to the disciples that he, “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.”  And then Jesus counsels those who would follow him that they must, “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

That appears to seal it.  Christianity involves sacrifice, and pain, and suffering.  While taking up the cross may be, for us, a metaphor, its associations are unavoidably ugly.  That’s why, I think, so often behind the smile of the most ardent Christian one finds a note of apprehension and unease.  We worry that if we aren’t carrying the cross we are being unfaithful, but if we do carry the cross our lives will be consigned to difficulty and pain.  Sooner or later, we sense that it’s all about whacking ourselves in the head with a board.  What are we to do?

First let me say that such an interpretation of Christianity, whether overt or subliminal, has been the root of much pervasive abuse over millennia.  For example, until very recently in many churches (and still today in some), when a physically or psychologically abused spouse would confide in her priest or pastor, she was liable to receive the response that, as a faithful and submissive wife, her husband’s anger was her cross to bear.   People of color were taught that their social location was their immutable cross to bear and that faith required them to bear it without complaint.  LGBTQ Christians similarly have been told that repressing their sexuality is akin to taking up their cross.  Innumerable others shouldering grief, or pain, or disappointment–including illness or loss of loved ones to untimely death–have been told that their suffering is from God, to be borne as a cross and that the heavier the cross the greater their faith. 

With every iota of authority that I can muster as a priest of the Church, hear me say that these interpretations are wrong.  The Church has done egregious and long-lasting harm in perpetuating them.  It is bad theology that says God will ask us to suffer for suffering’s sake.  It is bad theology that says we must passively endure terrible things as part of our walk with Christ.  It is bad theology that secretly thinks God wants us to bash our heads with boards.

How else, then, might we conceive of bearing the cross?  How might we redeem this commandment from Jesus that we claim is the source of all redemption?

File:Circle of Titian Christ Carrying the Cross.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

For that, we travel back in time millennia before Jesus, to the covenant God made with Abram.  In Genesis 17 today, God renews that covenant.  The covenant was first made five chapters earlier, in Genesis 12, and there in the covenant—the original promise from God—God explains why Abram is worthy of entering into this special relationship with God at all.  “I will bless you,” God says to Abram, “so that you will be a blessing.”

When God reaffirms this covenant five chapters later, in Genesis 17, God renames Abram, “Abraham.”  And Abraham is not the only one who receives a new name from God.  His wife, Sarai, is also renamed “Sarah.”  The change in her name is subtle but equally important.  It is a grammatical change only, altering the form of her name from what had been the possessive.  In other words, her old name had implied inward focus and concern only with what was hers.  Her new name—Sarah—looks outward, toward and into the world that she and Abraham are called to bless.[i]

Make no mistake: In these two chapters—Genesis 12 and 17—God is saying to Abraham and Sarah the same thing Jesus says to the disciples.  In the Gospel, Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.”  In Genesis, God says, “I bless you so that you will be a blessing.”  They are the same thing, and yet the language in Genesis sheds entirely different light on the command in Mark. 

Whatever it may mean to bear the cross of Christ as faithful disciples, it must always be a means by which the world is blessed.  If there is a litmus test by which we can judge whether the burden laid upon us is part of our walk of faith, or whether it is laid upon us by God, then that is it, and it is worth saying again: Whatever it may mean to bear the cross of Christ as faithful disciples, it must always be a means by which the world is blessed.  Bearing the cross of Christ may include suffering at times—indeed, it will—but only if that suffering is a blessing to someone.  Bearing the cross may bring challenge; it may lead to difficult decisions; it may sometimes disrupt relationships; and it will definitely require us to confront powerful forces that can do us harm; but it will only ask such things of us if doing so facilitates God’s blessing upon the world. 

Blessed to be a Blessing — Salt + Light Hawaii

Jesus indicts Peter today because Peter here (and not for the first time) has no interest in being a blessing.  He will later learn and change, and he will become a blessing to many (including in his own suffering), but at this point in the narrative, Peter is completely self-absorbed by what being a follower of Jesus can do for Peter.  And Jesus knows that faith, and our walk of faith, whether in time of ease or difficulty, whether in comfort or suffering, always begins with the question, “How can I be a blessing today?  How can I bless those I love?  How can I bless the stranger?  How can I bless God’s good earth?”  

The miraculous thing is, when we understand bearing the cross in this way, rather than as some foreboding and myopic walk of doom, we begin to experience intuitively what faith really is.  When we bless, we become agents of grace and of God’s own gracious will.  That Christian smile ceases to crack like a thin veneer and instead becomes an authentic expression of who we are and who we strive to be in the world.  In other words, somewhere in the midst of our cross-bearing—somewhere in the mix of faithfully following God and pursuing grace—we find joy.  Joy can reside alongside challenge, or sorrow, or pain, and joy’s presence redeems all these others.  Joy renders them ultimately transient, whereas joy is permanent.  This is what it means to lose one’s life for the sake of the Gospel and thereby regain it.

As we walk through this Lenten season, I pray we will be willing to bear the cross of Christ, in the deep knowledge that what is asked of us is that we be a blessing in our doings large and small, so that in us all the world will be blessed. 

[i] https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/the-meaning-of-the-hebrew-names/

Jesus and the Tempest

No photo description available.
“Jesus calms the storm,” by Gustav Dore

One of my favorite Gospel passages is Mark 4:35-41, in which Jesus and the disciples are traveling across the Sea of Galilee at night. A supernatural storm arises and begins to capsize their boat. The disciples are terrified, but Jesus sleeps serenely through the storm. In the disciples’ fear and anxiety, they awaken Jesus, who then stills the storm and asks the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have so little faith?” Often this passage is taught and preached as if Jesus means by his questions, “Didn’t you know God wouldn’t let our boat capsize?” But Jesus means no such thing. He doesn’t promise that everything will turn out just fine, or that the boat will keep an even keel. Jesus lives in the gritty, real world, and he knows that sometimes storms upend our lives. What Jesus means to convey to the disciples is that, even when the storms sink us, God is with us. That is how he can sleep in peace while the tempest rages.

God abides with us in love when we sail and when we sink. God shares our joy and bears our sorrow. Faith is the recognition and trust that there is no fathom we must endure without God. I have thought of this passage and this promise repeatedly this week as, for so many of us, brief periods of light and warmth have been surrounded by long stretches of cold and darkness. There is no storm in this life greater than the God who creates the heavens and the earth. There is no darkness in this world that can overcome God’s light. It is my prayer that God’s ever-presence with each of us be felt palpably in these days. We are, each and all, loved beyond measure, and, as we support one another every way we can, I pray that warmth of heart sustain us until warmth of hearth returns.


Love comes down

Right out of college I worked in the admissions office for Hendrix College, my beloved alma mater.  Twenty-two years old, with a newly-minted Bachelor of Arts, I was a proud advocate for liberal arts education in a new J. Crew suit and power tie with a Half-Windsor knot.  Frankly, I was a little full of myself.  One autumn afternoon, I drove into the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas for a college fair at Fayetteville High School.  I set up my table and neatly arranged my brochures.  Soon, a young man with greasy hair and a black rock concert t-shirt stopped by and asked, “Y’all got comic book drawing at your college?   I want to draw for Marvel Comics.”

“Well,” I offered, entering the admissions marketing zone, “Hendrix has a superb art department.  And, you could earn a double-major in business in case you ever want to move into management.”

The young man looked at me as if I were an alien from another planet.  “Just want to draw comics,” he said again.  “Y’all got that?”

Suddenly, an idea sprang to my mind, a hook.  I had him.  “Well, no,” I carried on, “but a liberal arts degree is much more well-rounded.  If all you do is learn to draw comic books, and Marvel Comics goes out of business, what will you do then?”

The kid cocked his head and with a smirk I’ll never forget responded, “I guess I’ll stand behind a table and hand out college pamphlets.”

Believe it or not, that was not my worst experience that day.  In those days, Interstate 540 hadn’t yet been built, and the state highway down the mountain from Fayetteville was twisting, narrow and treacherous, with one side hugging the mountain and the other dropping off into abyss.  By the time the college fair ended and I headed toward home, dusk had settled, and with it came a thick fog.  At the top of the mountain, everything was clear and starry sky, but I could see, just a few hundred yards below, that the world was swallowed in dense and soupy darkness.

I began my descent, and before long my arms ached and my neck was stiff with tension.  I was scared.  And then, as if from nowhere, I came upon the taillights of an eighteen-wheeler piercing through the fog.  Light shining out of darkness.  They might as well have been Jesus himself beckoning me to follow, and follow I did.  The trucker had clearly run this mountain innumerable times before, in all weather conditions.  He knew each turn intuitively, and no cloud was going to prevent his progress.  I kept my eyes trained on those lights through the fog, and eventually they led me down the mountain and into the valley.

Image result for old hwy 71 arkansas
Old Hwy 71

Today we celebrate that feast of the church most embraced by our culture, the Feast of St. Valentine.  As I whisked through Walgreen’s this past week, looking at aisles of syrupy pre-packaged greeting cards and cellophane-wrapped, heart-shaped boxes of candy, I paused to consider exactly what it is Valentine’s Day celebrates.

The answer is simple and comes quickly.  The notable thing about Valentine’s Day is its brazen exaltation of love: romantic love, intoxicating love, mountaintop love.  And the reason Valentine’s Day is so commercially successful is that such love is not restricted to any niche market.  We all crave it.  Junior high students and octogenarians are equally vulnerable to cupid, as are people of any gender, ethnicity or orientation.  “I love her,” we say with stars in our eyes, and we mean exactly the stuff of Hallmark cards.

          And, it is an idea that is absolutely, completely, and entirely absent in Holy Scripture.  The kind of love extolled by Valentine’s Day is so foreign to the heart of Christian faith that the Roman Catholic Church ended its observance of the Feast of St. Valentine fifty years ago.  Surely, scripture knows love.  St. Paul affirms love as the greatest spiritual gift, the one without which no other gift has meaning.  St. John tells us not that God is power nor that God is justice, but that God is love.  But that love is different in kind from Valentine’s Day; it is virtually the opposite of the cellophane love sold at Walgreens.

Today’s Gospel passage comes exactly in the middle of Mark.  It is the hinge of Mark’s story, the spine of his book.  It is the Transfiguration, and everything else Mark tells us is oriented to it.  The first eight chapters of Mark lead up to it, and the latter eight chapters follow from it.  Consequently, this brief passage is key to our understanding of who Jesus is and who we are called to be.  This story also gives us the true definition of love, and we are fortunate it appears on our calendar immediately after the alternative definition offered to us by Valentine’s Day outside these walls.

Peter, James and John follow Jesus up the mountain, and once at the top Jesus is transformed in their eyes.  They see him as he is, not the ragged and mud-splattered man who walks the roads of Galilee, but the Son of God, Incarnate Deity, the very completion of every promise God has ever made to humanity.  And they are star-struck.

“I love him,” the disciples likely spontaneously say.  It is, after all, the mountaintop experience!  It is, on a cosmic scale, the Hallmark moment.  Were the disciples Shakespeare, they’d compose sonnets.  Were they Hershey they’d whip up boxes of candy. 

Image result for transfiguration mural mount tabor
Mural in the church on Mount Tabor, traditional site of the Transfiguration.

The disciples say they want to stay atop the mountain, basking in their bedazzlement in the presence of this one they adore.  But almost as soon as they’ve said so, clouds begin to descend.  They are blinded by soupy fog, and when they begin to see, Jesus is ragged and mud-splattered again.  He looks, well, ordinary.

Uh oh.  We know that experience.  It’s the day after Valentine’s Day, the day after the allure wears off, the day when the Hallmark card gets used as scratch paper for the grocery list.  It’s the day when sickness befalls, or financial pressures crowd, or arguments outweigh sentiments of joy.  It’s the day the clear and starry sky is swallowed by the clouds.  This is where Valentine love proves to be no more substantial than cellophane.  And, this is where, Jesus teaches us, real love begins.

You see, in his first act after revealing the fullness of his nature, Jesus walks down the mountain into the fog.  For the rest of Mark’s Gospel he will march steadily toward Jerusalem, where he will receive the blows and taunts and pain of a confused and hurting people.  He won’t walk way.  He won’t quit.  He won’t find excuses.  And he surely won’t debase real and true love by staying safe above the clouds.  He walks down the mountain, and the next time he ascends any hill he will have a heavy wooden cross on his back. 

Starting today, Jesus shows Peter, James, and John—he shows us—what real love does, how real love acts, what real love looks like.  And this is not only the love between lovers, but between parents and children, friends, and, it’s worth saying, fellow Christians.  Fleming Rutledge says, “Love comes down…Love is grateful for the experience on the mountaintop, but knows that it cannot stay there.  Love persists when glory has faded, when the romance has fled, when the curtain has been dropped on the stage set.  Love never gives up.”       

Many of us have been on the receiving end of cellophane love that abandons us when the clouds descend.  We have been hurt by lovers and friends and the church. 

Many of us also, ashamedly, have extended such pitiful, sorry love.  We have loved on the mountaintop but failed to love in the valleys.  We have given up and walked away and left those we professed to love lost in the fog and darkness. 

And we have been Peter, James and John, misunderstanding that Jesus—that love—only first dazzles in order to provide the light we need to see us safely through the clouds and down the mountain.

Today, blessedly, we are reminded that, no matter who has failed us in this life and no matter when and how often we have failed, Jesus does walk down the mountain.  Jesus does enter into the cloud and into the hurting heart.  Jesus does provide light out of darkness, and if we cling to his light we can navigate the most twisting, narrow and treacherous roads.  Just as importantly, pointing to his light we can truly love each other and make sure we all know the way.

The clouds will descend, people of God.  They always do.  They descend in our lives and they descend in our world, as we’ve been so potently reminded this past year.  But don’t fear.  Jesus isn’t staying on top of the mountain.  His light is on the way down to where we are, into the depths of broken promises, loves lost, and sorrows deep.  He travels to where love is most needed, and his love is solid and sure.  Love comes down and meets us.  Thanks be to God. 

The broken world waits

         The 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is woefully underrated and almost forgotten sixteen years after its release, which is a pointed irony if you know anything about the movie.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind stars Oscar winner Kate Winslet as Clementine and Jim Carrey, who is surprisingly good in serious roles, as Joel.  As the film begins, Joel wakes up foggy-headed and skips work, and, seemingly on a whim, takes a train to Montauk, the last stop on the very tip of Long Island.  In a manner the film conveys almost palpably, Joel knows dimly that something is amiss.  He has forgotten something.  The forgotten something is important and momentous, and it lures him forward to Montauk’s obscure and remote geography, but he cannot recall what it is.  Joel is off-balance and adrift, with neither keel nor mooring.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) - IMDb

Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the Torah, serves as the Torah’s retelling and renewal.  Deuteronomy is an extended speech as from the mouth of Moses, recounting to the Israelites their relationship with God and explaining what it means to live completely dedicated to that relationship.  Right in the middle of Deuteronomy, Moses describes the four offices necessary to shepherd the Israelites.  The first of these is the judge, whose job is to administer the law and mete out justice fairly.  The second is the king, who both keeps order and is a symbol of the ideals of the people.  The third is the priest, who leads worship, makes sacrifices, and serves as pastor to the people in need.  These three roles are, perhaps, self-evident.  For any people, they are each indispensable.  Without the judge, the world would be arbitrary.  Without the king, the world would be chaotic.  Without the priest, the world would lack succor. 

The fourth office is that of the prophet, deemed by God to be as important as judge, king, and priest.  It is about the role of prophet that we read in Deuteronomy today.  The prophet’s essential role in the life of a people may be less obvious than the other three offices.  Indeed, in ancient Israel, though there were court prophets like Nathan who sat at King David’s side, the prophets were usually outsiders—think Hosea, Amos, Jeremiah—who the king and people would preferred to have been rid of.  The prophets were nuisances and gadflies who repeatedly questioned the kings’ decisions and the people’s way of life. 

What is a prophet?  Unfortunately, today we too often associate the term with fortunetelling or future-predicting.  The whacky and malleable predictions of Nostradamus are called prophecies.  Certain sects within Christianity seek to read the bible as code book of opaque future-oriented “prophecies” waiting to be deciphered.  But neither of these notions gets anywhere close to what the bible means by prophet or prophecy.  Please give them up.  (I have a short list of gross misconceptions I hope to help people shed over the course of my ordained career, and this is near the top.)

Jeremiah - Wikipedia
The Prophet Jeremiah, by Michelangelo

So, what are prophets, really?  They are those who tell the truth.  That is the beginning and end of prophecy.  In scripture, at times it seems that prophets are harbinger of doom.  But why is that?  It is because the prophet has the courage, and the commission from God, to tell the people the truth about their actions, their commitments, their plans, and the consequences of all three.  When those plans are hell-bound toward destruction, then the prophet’s truth-telling comes across as bad news.  But it isn’t the prophet’s intention to convey doom and gloom.  Some of the most soaring and hopeful passages in scripture also come from the prophets.  Think of Isaiah’s vision of the wolf and the lamb, or of the heavenly banquet.  Or, consider Martin Luther King, Jr.—a true modern prophet—and his vision of the beloved community. 

Prophets tell the truth.  God’s truth.  And what is that?  The truth is that the world we live in most of the time, in which we make our decisions, and choose our paths, and react and respond to others, is an illusion.  It is not what God intends—it flows not from the heart of God—and thus it is not real.  We recognize that dimly.  The illusion and artificiality of the world through which we walk is why we, like the main characters in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, carry with us a dull but ambient anxiety.  It is why we are so often, but without any clear object, confused.  It is why we take note that things seem to be broken, but we cannot pinpoint why, or exactly how, or how to repair them. 


In the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it turns out that both Joel and Clementine have earlier paid a company called Lacuna to erase their memories.  Joel and Clementine had originally met in Montauk and fallen in love, but love is hard.  It is work, and self-giving, and acknowledgement of wrong, and sacrifice.  Clementine’s and Joel’s relationship became so strained that they each chose to cancel love, to banish its presence and even memory from their lives, to live as amnesiacs.  They scrubbed their minds clean, believing that a spotless mind would be eternal sunshine.

What the main characters quickly learn, however, is that such willful amnesia results not in light but in confusion, anxiety, and a discomfiture that is gnawing and ever-present.  Letting go of love seems at first to be the simpler and easier route, but that proves to be desperately wrong.  Such willful ignorance casts a shadow that is a pall over everything.  Without love, the world is false and confused.  Without love, sunshine is merely an illusion.

I doubt that it is a coincidence that the filmmaker named his main character Joel.  Joel is, after all, another of the bible’s prophets, another of its truth-tellers.  In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, despite the supposed erasure of his memory, Joel can’t shake the feeling that the world through which he now walks is broken.  Something has been forgotten, and it must be remembered.  In Joel’s confusion, he lumbers and careens through shadows where he thought there’d be sunshine.  He won’t the abide the falsity, the amnesia, the brokenness, the sorrow, and even in his confusion he doggedly seeks the truth.  Until, miracle of miracles, he rediscovers and speaks it.  Joel and Clementine find one another again in Montauk.  They commit to live in light of the truth and do the hard work of love.

We Remember | 4ThoughtMedia | WorshipHouse Media

There is a moment in the Eucharistic liturgy called the anamnesis.  “An-amnesis.”  It means the contrary of amnesia.  It means to remember.  The words are different in each Eucharistic Prayer, but the anamnesis always comes after the priest has rehearsed the story of Jesus and his friends in the Upper Room.  Suddenly, as if waking from a dream or shedding an illusion, the whole gathered people say, “We remember his death!  We proclaim his resurrection!  We await his coming in glory!”

We remember.  That is the first step in prophecy.  To be prophets all, we must awaken from our confusion and our willful forgetfulness of God’s intention for the world.  We must recognize that we, consciously or subconsciously, have sometimes decided to abandon love, for ourselves, for our intimates, of those who are different from us in the world.  We have come up with all sorts of rationales for why life will be easier, simpler, spotless, and sunshine without love.  We have convinced ourselves and lapsed into amnesia for who God truly is and what God intends for the world.  We must remember.  We must remember that God is love and calls us to love.  The very word “re-member” means to knit back together that which has been frayed and separated.  Remembering is the first step.

And then, as the prophet does, we must speak the truth.  We must tell it both to ourselves and to the world, recognizing that, depending upon the depth of our forgetfulness, the truth may seem like bad news before it is revealed to be Good News.  Awakening and remembering will require that we become different.  Love is hard, not easy.  Love is work, and self-giving, and acknowledgement of wrong and passive complicity in wrong, and sacrifice. But love is also light.  It is the ever and only truth.  And speaking that truth is the way we awaken others to it, the way the world begins to shed its amnesia and knit its frayed edges back together.

The author and poet L.R. Knost understands that light is to be found in the recollection of love rather than in forgetting.  She articulates our calling to the office of prophet in these days:

“Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world.

All things break. And all things can be mended.

Not with time, as they say, but with intention.

So go.

Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally.

The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.”

Sifting through the noise

Blogger Megan Griffith shares what it is like when she listens to the world.[i]  She says, “Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone at a concert, sporting event, or on a noisy train/subway? It’s difficult to hear the other person, right? [My life] is like all your conversations take place in some kind of stadium or subway station, even if you’re actually sitting in a quiet classroom or even your own living room.”  All the time, in any circumstance, Megan hears the sounds all around her, but she can’t distinguish where they come from or the meaning attached to each one.  Sound is a constant bombardment and sifting through the barrage is virtually impossible.  Megan suffers from Auditory Processing Disorder, a condition that includes the failure of “auditory figure-ground discrimination,” or, “being able to focus on the most important sounds in a noisy environment.” 

Autism and auditory processing disorder: What's the connection? | Autism  Speaks

In 1 Samuel today, the little boy Samuel is asleep in the temple at Shiloh, but he sleeps fitfully.  Three times he is awakened by a voice calling out to him.  Samuel can’t distinguish from whom or where the voice is coming.  He thinks it must be Eli the priest, and he gets up each time and tries to follow the sound.  Finally, the bible tells us, “Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy,” and he counsels Samuel that, if Samuel hears the voice again, he should listen with care.

I’ve always loved this story, and it does, indeed, turn out that the voice calling out to Samuel is the voice of God.  That’s why it is included in Holy Scripture, after all.  But I’ve always wondered, what if it hadn’t been God?  Because often, of course, it isn’t.  Often, when we hear a siren song and call it God, the voice is something different altogether.  Albert Schweitzer famously said that sometimes seeking to hear God is like calling out down a deep well and mistaking our own echo for God’s voice.

But even that is just one voice among innumerable others.  In full, it is as if we suffer from a cultural Auditory Processing Disorder.  We are all so bombarded with noise—and I mean this both literally and figuratively—that we cannot process it accurately.  We suffer from a collective failure of auditory figure-ground discrimination.  We too often fail to recognize the trustworthy and reliable voices in a noisy environment. 

As a result, often the sound that lands is the loudest, most incessant, and most outrageous.  Why is that so?  Because we cannot abide ambiguity or confusion.  We are hard-wired to seek simplicity and clarity just as when the earth beneath us feels like quicksand we will seek solid ground no matter what, even if that ground is volcanic.  We desire these things so much that we are sometimes willing to accept whatever pierces through the noise and grants us something distinguishable, whether or not that voice is trustworthy.  Or, to hearken back to the story of Samuel, whether or not that voice is of God.

That can happen regardless of one’s politics or ideology, but it certainly happened in the weeks, months, and, indeed, years leading up to January 6.  The assault on the U.S. Capitol Building was the inevitable result.  The rhetoric, postings, and emblems of those who violated the Capitol Building express fidelity to, and certainty in, loud and incessant voices that are most decidedly not of God.  There were overt expressions of white supremacy; idolatrous signs emblazoned with the message “Jesus Christ is my Savior; Donald Trump is my President;” and, cryptic to those on the outside but most telling of all, ubiquitous symbols of QAnon, the Byzantine, internet-driven conspiracy theory with thousands of devotees that claims to be combatting, as reported by the BBC, “a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media.”[ii]  

The scale of the violence involved in the assault on the Capitol is still becoming clear.  In addition to the Capitol Police officer killed, Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin reports as “mind-blowing” the extent and severity of the acts of violence at the Capital Building.  Sherwin said in his press conference, “People are going to be shocked with some of the egregious contact that happened within the Capitol.”  Sherwin also revealed that live pipe bombs were planted at both Democratic and Republican party headquarters.  Blessedly, they did not detonate.[iii]

In the wake of January 6, we must ask anew, “Through the world’s noise and our own distress, how do we know which voices are God’s and of God, when so many competing ones claim to be?”  For that, we turn, as we should always turn, to the Gospel.  Today, the voice of Jesus calls out amidst the world’s noise, and Nathanael hears him.   Without pause or hesitation, Nathanael proclaims of Jesus in awe and wonder, “You are the Son of God!”  In that moment, Nathanael’s entire life changes.  And by that, I don’t mean he starts going to church twice a month or rests easy in the assurance that he gets to go to heaven when he dies.  Rather, his life becomes, in its entirety, a life of discipleship to Jesus.  Every commitment, every decision, every priority, every passion becomes the shared passions of Jesus.

Why is this so?  Why is this voice different?  Why does it transform Nathanael’s very being in the world?  A few verses prior, John’s Gospel has told us, “No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.”[iv]  That is to say, and admittedly mixing metaphors of sight and sound, “If you want to know what the voice of God sounds like, listen to Jesus.” 

This has always been the central Christian truth, the truth of the Incarnation: If we want to know what God looks like, look at Jesus.  If we want to know what the voice of God sounds like, listen to Jesus.   By extension that means we mustn’t call our own self-affirming echo Jesus’ voice, and we mustn’t choose some ideology—any ideology—and call it the Gospel of Jesus.

Jesus Christ Orthodox Icon

Listen to Jesus.  Let Jesus’ voice reach us through the noise.  Focus on it, and only it.  What does that voice say?  The voice of Jesus denies the temptation of power in favor of sacrifice.[v]  The voice of Jesus defends the vulnerable who are at the mercy of the majority and the mob.[vi]  The voice of Jesus brings good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed. [vii]  And the voice of Jesus blesses those who do likewise as inheritors of his kingdom.[viii] 

This is the voice of Jesus piercing the noise.  This is the only entirely true, trustworthy, and reliable voice.  Any voice, from anyone, that speaks differently is not God or of God.  And following the voice of Jesus in all things is what the life of discipleship looks like.  It is all-encompassing. 

At the funeral of John McCain on August 31, 2018, McCain’s friend and fellow senator from Arizona Jeff Flake said, “This fever will eventually break.  It has to.”  That’s an interesting image.  Fever spikes, often into delirium, before it breaks.  I pray that our national fever broke on January 6.  In hopes that it did, then we must ask how we, as Episcopalians and members of Christ Church Cathedral, can contribute to national healing. 

Importantly, the first word Jesus speaks in the Gospels is a call to repentance, to acknowledge our contributions to the world’s unholy noise, and to turn anew toward the God of love.  Surely and specifically, this means holding accountable all those who participated in and abetted the violent and hateful assault on January 6.  Beyond that, in order to experience societal redemption, we must each ask and answer with stark honesty what sins of commission or omission we have contributed to the acrimony in our nation.  We must amend our speech where we have added to the noise and speak Gospel words where we have been silent.

Secondly, and of equal importance, a restoration of health also requires that we acknowledge that “getting back to normal” is not good news for everyone.  Our experience these past years has revealed that there are those in our society who remain vulnerable and for whom justice and equal opportunity have been ephemeral.  There is much work to be done with regard to race and racism, the economic effects of de-industrialization on communities, and more, all of which must be constructively addressed, from our national leaders all the way down to our local community.  And about these things the Church must have something to say as well, just as Jesus did.         

First of all, we must quiet the noise and listen to the voice of Jesus.  In it there is no deceit.  It is good, trustworthy, and true.  And it calls us, this day and every day, to follow him into the transformed life of discipleship. 

[i] https://themighty.com/2020/07/living-auditory-processing-disorder/

[ii] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/53498434. In preparation for this homily, I traveled down some of the QAnon internet rabbit holes.  It is truly bizarre.

[iii] https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/12/politics/justice-department-us-capitol-breach-list/index.html

[iv] John 1:18

[v] Matthew 4:1-11

[vi] John 8:1-11

[vii] Luke 4:16-20

[viii] Matthew 25:31-46

Epiphany and the God Particle

In college I was a philosophy and religion major.  I loved the passion of the religion department, but I equally appreciated the dogged rigor of the philosophers.  With set jaws and steely eyes, they probed as deeply as the human mind can probe the fundamental questions of the universe.  I especially loved philosophers like Hegel who, while crazy difficult to read, proposed total systems of understanding, leaving nothing out.  There is something elegant and satisfying about the “grand theory of everything.”  I have always wanted to know the Truth with a capital “T”.  I’ve always desired knowledge about the things that hold the world together and give it purpose and meaning.

          It wasn’t long into my first philosophy course when I learned that once-upon-a-time physics was simply a branch of philosophy.  That realization made perfect sense.  The physicists, too, seek to understand the underpinning of things.  They, too, ask the deepest questions.  In fact, at some point along the way modern philosophers became sidetracked with (in my opinion, at least) silly questions and ceded the essential questions to the physicists.  It is the physicists who insistently peel back the layers of the world to discover what lies beneath.  And in so doing, they reveal to us dimensions that sometimes seem fantastic and surreal.

          For instance, there is, right here and right now—around and within each of us—another world, populated not only by molecules and atoms, but by things that even atoms dwarf.  It is a world of quarks and bosons (bo-zens).  It is a world governed by the strong force and the weak force. 

This is the world explored by physicists at the European Center for Nuclear Research.  Theirs is practical in addition to theoretical physics.  With their Large Hadron Collider, these men and women actually smash protons together at nearly the speed of light.  The collisions occur with such force that the protons splinter into their component parts, allowing physicists to see the very basic building blocks of the cosmos.  Because their work is mysterious to folks like you and me, it frightens many people.  Indeed, in the weeks before their Large Hadron Collider fired up for the first time in 2008, there was a crescendo of panic that its proton-smashing might create a black hole that would swallow the earth.[i]

          Lucky for us, that didn’t happen.  But what did happen at the Large Hadron Collider in 2012, and announced with fanfare in newspapers and on cable news channels across the globe, was the discovery of the “God particle.”  In laymen’s terms, the God particle is that subatomic bit that draws other particles to it, causing them to cohere and have mass.  Without it, there would be nothing tangible in the universe.  All would be merely ether.  It is, in other words, the basic property of creation, that through which all things are made: you, me, the tree, the rock, the supernova.  On this tiniest and simplest thing, all else hinges.  You can see how it got its nickname.  The God particle’s proper name is the “Higgs Boson,” and scientists had been searching for it for fifty years.  Without the Higgs, physics had a big hole in it.  Physics’ model of the universe was a hope, but it was not a hope realized.  Until the Higgs was found, physics’ house of cards might’ve fallen.  And so, the wise men of physics were constantly on the lookout for the Higgs at its rising.  They needed it as a lodestar to guide them to the truth. 

Explainer: the Higgs boson particle
The Higgs Boson

          Today, in anticipation of the Feast of the Epiphany later this week, we read about another guiding star.  Magi—wise men, philosophers, we might say the physicists of their day—ardently seek the Truth.  They wish to plumb the depths of mystery and understand the essential workings of the world.  So they follow the lodestar at its rising, wherever it may lead.  On their quest, politics attempts to co-opt them (as politics today often tries to co-opt scientists).  King Herod seeks to influence the magi for his own ends, but these are seekers of truth, and honest truth-seekers will not be used and will not be influenced, no matter what pressure is brought to bear upon them.

          The magi continue to follow the lodestar, which draws them as a force toward Bethlehem.  The star beckons and lures until it stops over the place where lies a child.  These wise men from the east are learned.  They already have a healthy and potent sense of how the cosmos works.  They already hold a fair portion of the truth.  But until this encounter, there is a hole in their model of reality.  Their house of cards could fall. 

Until now, when in this child the wise men discover the heart of the world, when they find the essence, the purpose, the meaning of creation.  In this child they see, in the words of St. Paul, “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.”  As they gaze at Jesus, the magi realize, as Paul also says, “all things have been created in him and through him…and in him all things hold together.”[ii]  In this tiny and simple child, all else hinges.

          Our Gospel reading shares with us the fact of this discovery.  But in the Epiphany season we are about to enter, we also receive the content of the meaning and purpose Jesus embodies at the heart of all things.  During Epiphany we often read the Third Song of Isaiah, known in Latin as Surge, illuminare.  In it, the Prophet speaks of the way the world will be when it recognizes Jesus Christ as its center.  When we awaken to the reality that we are created in and through Christ—when we are drawn to him as our center the way all those subatomic bits are drawn to the God particle—we will take on greater substance and surge with light, which is what the title of that holy song means.

Magi Follow The Star | ImageVine | WorshipHouse Media

          But there is more.  Christ gives us substance and light not for our own sake.  Too much of Christianity grasps only this half-truth.  The Third Song of Isaiah goes on to say that when the Truth is fully revealed, when we kneel before it the way the magi kneel to the Christ-child— when it completes us—we will be changed as essentially as those particles in the Hadron Collier are changed when they slam together at the speed of light.  Where our minds once tended to brood and darken, we will instead see the world in light.  Where we were closed off, insular, and self-protective, the gates of our hearts will remain ever open.  We will, each of us, foreswear violence and live in peace.  We will, in all things, seek to further the purpose of Christ Jesus through whom we are made, which is always, always love

That is the Epiphany.  That is the Truth disclosed by God and discovered by the wisest men and women, both in the first century and today.  It is practical rather than theoretical spirituality.   It bears concretely upon the way we respond all those things that linger from 2020 as we enter into a new year.  Once physicists discovered the God particle, they could never turn back.  Their world will never again be what it was before that truth was disclosed.  Once we have experienced the Epiphany, we can never go back, either.  We have seen the Christ at the heart of the world.  It has been revealed that we were created for no other reason than to live through him and for him.  We now know the Truth.  Surge, illuminare.  Take on new substance, rise and shine. 

[i] http://earthsky.org/human-world/the-real-danger-of-the-lhc

[ii] Colossians 1:16-17.