The things we say (Deuteronomy 30:15-20 & Matthew 5:21-37)

A year and a half ago my son Griffin, upon turning eighteen, asked me one afternoon, “Dad, if you could go back in time and say one thing to your eighteen-year-old self, what would it be?”  Immediately, my mind began swimming with the possibilities:

“Begin investing in an IRA as soon as you get your first job.”

“Experiences are invariably more enduring and valuable than things.”

“Don’t speed.  The scenery is worth slowing down to see.  Speeding worsens your blood pressure, and speeding tickets destroy your auto insurance premiums.”

All of these nuggets are helpful and borne of experience, but after some additional consideration I realized the one thing I wish my more worldly self could tell my budding, brash, invincible, doe-eyed, thought-I-understood-everything, fragile-and-unknowingly-on-the-precipice, eighteen-year-old self.  I would tell myself, “Barkley, the things we say we cannot unsay.”

In the beginning, Genesis tells us, God exhaled, and the breath of God (which is the same Hebrew word as the spirit of God) created all that is.  God spoke, and the world came to be.  Similarly, we are co-creators with God.  Alone among creatures, we are blessed—and cursed, as Deuteronomy reminds us today—with the ability to speak words into being that themselves bless or curse.  Our words create heavens and hells, and once we have breathed into the world—once we have spoken—our words are there, substantial as concrete, never to be unspoken.  Have you ever thought about that, in those terms?  The question is, then, when we speak what are we creating?  We’ll come back to that.

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Today’s Gospel is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  Throughout the passage, Jesus takes the dictates of the ancient Jewish law (which was ancient even in Jesus’ day) and moves their force from the realm of external observation to that of our deep internal disposition.  “You’ve heard it said, ‘You shall not murder,’” Jesus says, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement.”

You see, one can stop just short of murder and technically keep the law.  But that’s not the point of the law that Jesus says, just before these verses, he has come to fulfill.  God’s law does not intend merely to keep us abiding one another’s existence.  God’s law is the law of love.  God’s law intends to bind together, to build up, to render us more than creatures sharing space, to draw us into love.

The law is not about setting parameters that allow us warily to tolerate one another.  The law is not about drawing the line outside of which we’ll be punished.  (To many bad preachers claim that.)  The law is about blessing us, about drawing us into the embrace of God and one another, about forming us so that we speak into the world words that bless those we meet.

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In our present world, it’s getting more and more rare to encounter words that bless rather than curse.  Ours has become an outrage culture, in which every fault is a cause for rage, vitriol, and condemnation.   Every disagreement is a reason to castigate not the other person’s idea, but the other person.  Every vulnerability is considered an opportunity to subject someone to humiliation.  It often begins in the virtual world of social media, where otherwise kind and caring people use a platform of distance as license to say things they’d once never have said to another person.  But it often bleeds into the real world, where cruel and disdainful sentiments are increasingly spoken as a new normal for our interactions with one another.  It is as if we have forgotten that we bless or curse with the words we say, that we create our very world with those words, and that, once said, those words cannot be unsaid.

Jesus knows the proverb is true that “As a person thinks in his heart, so is he.”[i]  The spirit within is the spirit we will breathe into the world, and if we hope to bless rather than curse—if we want our outward expressions to reflect a redeemed inner reality—then transformation must happen deep in our inner disposition, in the heart, in the spirit.

In other words, if we are angry, disdainful, destructively lustful, or false (which are the corrosive characteristics Jesus addresses today) then no set of external rules will ultimately prevent us from speaking and doing harm.  These vices will find their way from within us into the world, marring relationships, hijacking opportunities to be empathetic and kind, and further contributing to the mistrust we see all around us.

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I believe the key to our redemption is found at the same place as the problem: In our breath.  The word “inspire” comes from the Latin inspirare, to breathe in, and also to draw in spirit.  Each time we expand our lungs, in other words, we are drawing God’s very creative spirit into ourselves.  What a profound thing!  What a thought to give us pause about what we will do next with that spirit within us.

The words “expire” means, literally, to release our breath.  It also means, of course, to die, and each time we exhale, each time we release our breath in speech, we die just a little.  Each breath is one less we will take.  Each word is one less we will speak.  And as each word leaves us, it becomes something new.  Our voices are, in truth, a bit of our own spirit, and God’s, entering into the world to bless or curse.

To imagine inspiring and expiring in this way can change us deeply in the way Jesus hopes today.  But how do we do it?  There is a spiritual practice to aid in our redemption.  It is the breath prayer,[ii] in which we need spend only a few moments each day attending to our inspiration and expiration with sacred words chosen deliberately and with care.  I might breathe in saying, “Love my neighbor.” And I might breathe out saying, “As myself.”[iii]  I might breathe in saying, “Faith, hope, and love, these three,” and breathe out saying, “And the greatest of these is love.”[iv]  Done faithfully over time, even for the briefest moments, one begins to think differently—less dismissively and causally, more intentionally and carefully—about what is happening when we breathe, and when we speak.  One begins to be different, understanding from deep within that we are, in fact, co-creators, that we are the stewards of God’s Spirit into the world.

If I could go back in time, I would counsel my eighteen-year-old self, “Barkley, the things we say, we cannot unsay.”  I have said so many things that I wish I could unsay.  I have at times cursed rather than blessed those who have received my words.  So have we all.  But God’s law seeks to draw us together in love, and God’s spirit transforms our very hearts, so that with each word we speak we can participate in the creation of a world of wonder and grace.  So, what will you say?  Take a deep breath, and speak.

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[i] Proverbs 23:7 NKJV

[ii] https://www.upperroom.org/resources/the-breath-prayer

[iii] Mark 12:31

[iv] 1 Corinthians 13:13

Writing your life story

At the sublime Episcopal service of choral evensong, after the second reading, the congregation always hears the Nunc Dimittis.  The text is this:

Lord, you now have set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.

The Nunc Dimittis is a benedictory hymn just right for the end of a day, or the end of a life.  Because it is at life’s end that these words were first and actually uttered.  We read them today in Luke’s Gospel, from the mouth of Simeon.  Simeon was an old man living in Jerusalem.  He was faithful and devout, but his fidelity was not born of any superficial adherence to religious norms.  Simeon wasn’t putting on airs.  His life had been marked by authentic connection to God, and that connection had defined his days.  Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit rested upon Simeon.  The Spirit also had a purpose for him, to see and bear witness to the Messiah, and on this day, at the Spirit’s prompting, Simeon made his way to the Temple just as Joseph and Mary were making theirs.  Joseph and Mary come to present their son to God.  Simeon comes to see the Savior.  And when they meet, Simeon’s whole life is fulfilled.  He takes the child in his arms (much to the amazement of Jesus’ parents) and he says the words we know as the Nunc Dimittis: Lord, let your servant depart in peace.  My eyes have seen the Savior, and I am free. 

Simeon’s work is done.  His story is written.  He can depart in peace.

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Simeon holding Jesus

In 2017, the University of Wisconsin conducted a study[i] among terminally ill patients in which two groups were provided the same palliative care, with the exception that the members of one group were also given opportunities to tell their life stories.  The patients were encouraged to share verbally and were then given written transcripts of their stories to continually edit and add photographs.  Many patients reported that they’d never undertaken such an exercise.  They’d never before considered the lives they’d lived as being a story, with a narrative coherence that made sense of the whole.  Almost as if reading about themselves in a novel, the patients looked anew at the lives they’d lived and which would very soon end.

To the researchers’ surprise, the exercise also gave new voices as if from elsewhere to even some of the most tight-lipped and introverted patients.  Researcher Meg Wise says, “When the storytellers opened up about things that were very meaningful to them, it created a unique space that impacted elements of their speaking. ‘It’s like as people start to get down deep into their soul or their heart, that there’s something that opens up, that people became eloquent and almost poetic.’”

The study gauged participants on the criteria of meaning and peace.  By both measures, the well-being of the control group decreased, while the well-being of those who told their stories and came to understand their lives as stories increased.  The storytellers began to see the thread of meaning throughout the lives they’d lived, and they were able, ultimately, to depart those lives in peace.  What a profound gift, a grace free of charge and all given to oneself.

In Simeon’s long life, not every moment, of course, was solely about his waiting on the Messiah.  He had to earn a living, and go to the grocery store, and walk the dog, and cherish his friends.  But Simeon’s life had a coherence, a central narrative thread to which he maintained fidelity.  The purpose for which God made him stayed in the center of his vision.  It was the plot of Simeon’s story, and it gave him his meaning.  Simeon’s fidelity to the story of his life, a story ultimately fulfilled on that day in Jerusalem when Mary walked through the Temple portico with Jesus in her arms, also—crucially—allowed Simeon to depart that life the way we all hope to cross the threshold, but also the way very many do not: in peace.

The bittersweetness of the University of Wisconsin study is that the epiphany that our lives are stories we are writing came only at the end of life.  That the sudden recognition of a threaded meaning was such a comfort and a strength is wondrous, but that it came so late is near-tragic.  As Christian people, if the grand, and miraculous, and conflicted, and sometimes horrific narratives of the bible reveal anything at all to us, they surely reveal that our lives are stories in the making.  And that realization should beg for us the question: What story are we writing with our lives?

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What dialogue have you written for yourself to speak?  Does it build up or tear down?  In what scenes have you appeared, and for what purpose?  What causes have you supported as side stories and to what ends?  What is the motivation behind your decisions in business, in relationships, in family?  And, have you considered the final act, the final scene toward which the story of your life is moving?  What fulfillment, what denouement, do you ultimately seek?    How do you want the final page to read, and what do you want its impact to be on those who see and hear it?

To ask and answer these questions with stark honesty can by terrifying, because the plotline we have thus far written may render us as vacuous and superficial as Jay Gatsby, as bitter and lost as Ms. Havisham, or as dark and cold-blooded as Michael Corleone.  Not all meaning is good, and if this is your story, or if it is mine, then the song we sing on the final page may not be Simeon’s song of joyous release. We will be fretful with regret and remorse at the realization of the lives we’ve squandered.  Simeon’s peace, and the peace of the University of Wisconsin patients, will not likely be found as the curtains begin to close.

But blessedly, our stories are not yet finished.  They are yet being written, even as we gather here this day.  The plot can always turn.  The central narrative thread can always be rewoven.  What makes the difference?

We see the difference in the Gospel this morning, in Simeon but also in Mary and Joseph.  The story of their lives is still beginning, but their narrative already includes dedicating their lives, and their son, to God and the good purposes of God.  This day they set the context for all the scenes that will follow, by walking with babe in arms up the southern steps to the Temple mount.

And Simeon, at the other end of his book, with only a few pages left to turn, has maintained his fidelity to a storyline in which his relationship with God is central.  Simeon’s devotion to God has been manifest throughout through his hope in the coming of God’s Messiah, his hope that God would, finally and in God’s good time, make all things right and new.  Such hope at the center of one’s story guards against superficiality, cynicism, bitterness, and betrayal.  It keeps the thread of one’s narrative from becoming tangled into knots that twist us and the world around us in pain.  And because Simeon has been true to his story, the deep peace we all seek is his.

Even as I speak these words, my story is being written.  Even as you hear them, your story is being written.  When the next page turns, we can change the plot and weave a storyline with God.  As on Simeon, as on Mary and Joseph, the Holy Spirit rests upon us.  Our purposes for in this world can be God’s purposes.  We can speak dialogue marked by charity.  We can work, and play, and build relationships on grace. Our meaning can be found in God’s goodness.  And at story’s end, we can say, “Lord, let your servants go in peace, for our eyes have seen the Savior, and we are free.”

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[i] https://www.dailycardinal.com/article/2018/02/personal-storytelling-helps-terminally-ill-patients-find-peace

Of Stardust and Jesus

This past week my alma mater, The University of Chicago, announced the astounding news that it has recovered and analyzed stardust from a meteorite that crash landed in Australia fifty years ago.[i]  The stardust has a history worthy of a Hollywood epic.  Five billion years ago—Five billion!  That’s older than our own sun—a star exploded and cast forth the dust into the far reaches of a universe still being born.  It was an active time in the cosmos, scientists believe, when stars came to be, and shuddered, and died with much greater frequency than they do today.  The whole universe was bursting like the night sky on the Fourth of July, and Australian stardust chronicles the story even now.

The story amazed me.  It underscores the incomprehensible vastness of the cosmos, in age, in size, and, quite possibly, in meaning.  The story also reminded me of Eucharistic Prayer C, which we say at 9 a.m. at Christ Church during the season of Epiphany.  “At your command,” Eucharistic Prayer C says, “all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses…”  And that sentence ends, “…and this fragile earth, our island home.”

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Five billion year old mote of stardust

You see, Prayer C is designed to accentuate our smallness in the grand cosmic sweep, the near-nothingness that we are from a God’s-eye perspective.  Prayer C reminds us of our fragility and our contingency in a universe of black holes, quasars, and stardust older than the sun.  It calls into question all of our little human goals and purposes and whimsically smiles from a billion years ago at our pretensions to importance.

Prayer C does all of these things, but it in its next breath it adds, almost as if in confused wonder, “From the primal elements you brought forth the human race and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill.”  The prayer takes this turn as if to quote the scripture and ask of God, “How have I found such favor in your eyes that you take notice of me?”[ii]  The God in whose hands the mighty stars are playthings turns God’s attention to the insignificant third rock from a tiny sun, a split second ago in cosmic time, and creates us, who are so small and yet have within each one of us a conscious universe all its own.

In today’s Gospel passage this mind-bending contrast is made explicit in the very person of Jesus.  The first disciples Jesus calls say of Jesus, “We have found the Messiah.”  To us, two thousand years later, these words may have little impact, but to the fishermen of first century Galilee they were as big and astounding as the news of billion-year-old stardust found in Australia.  The term “messiah” connoted the appearance of God’s anointed, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in a thousand years.  It meant the return of King David, who embodied all the hopes of Israel.  And this messiah was named Jesus, Yeshua, Joshua, which we may have forgotten, but Andrew and Peter had not, was the one in Israel’s history who came after Moses; the new Moses; the one who, like Moses, would redeem God’s people.  In other words, Andrew the fisherman declares today that Jesus the Messiah is the one whose impact will be like the cosmic fireworks that marked the dawn of time.  This is the biggest news, of the greatest power.  Jesus the Messiah will change everything.[iii]

But twice in today’s Gospel, John the Baptist, who is the very first to recognize Jesus for who he is, does not call Jesus messiah or Moses.  John calls Jesus “the lamb of God,” and lambs have no power.  They are born and exist only to be sacrificed on the altar.  They are the definition of insignificance.  And so, we encounter the contrast in Jesus himself.  How can he be both the Moses-Messiah and the lamb, so big and so small, so powerful and so powerless?  What sense does that make?  We’ll come back to that.

I’m fascinated by cosmology, by the stories quasars and stardust can tell us.  But I’m even more fascinated by the quantum world, that realm so tiny that atoms are as big as solar systems.  Renowned Cambridge theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne, who is also an Anglican priest, argues that God actively works not through the biggest and grandest things but through the smallest.  God works, Polkinghorne believes, in the sub-atomic, quantum, interstitial spaces where randomness and freedom are the only law.  There, in the tiny, most insignificant places, God nudges, and reality moves.[iv]

That brings us back to the Gospel.  Jesus is the Messiah, the new Moses who will redeem all people, but the way his power works will frustrate his disciples, his enemies, and us.  “Show us your power,” we all say, “light up the sky like a starburst.”  But Jesus exercises his power as the lamb.  Like God, Jesus works in and through the smallest, interstitial spaces.  Again and again in his ministry, Jesus speaks a word of grace to the one in need.  He embraces the one who is untouchable.  He pauses for the one the world passes by.  Today, to the one seeking meaning, he says simply, “Come and see.”  And when it becomes necessary to do so, Jesus sacrifices himself on the altar of the world’s violence, as a testament to God’s love that will not participate in that violence.  None of these things looks to us like power.  They are each so very small.  And yet, Jesus nudges, and the world moves.  He transformed—he transforms—the world.

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What does all of this mean for us?  It means, first of all, that we should—we must—acknowledge our own smallness in the face of reality.  We have for so long failed to do so, and in our willful insistence that we are the biggest, most important thing around we have damaged relationships, and the earth, and ourselves almost beyond repair.  We have engaged in violent thoughts, and words, and sometimes actions all in the subconscious effort to substantiate the claim of our own centrality and importance.  As we pray to God in Eucharistic Prayer C, “We turned against you, and betrayed your trust; and we turned against one another.”  The world can’t take anymore.  It is time to listen to the Prayer Book about our fragility and our true place in the cosmic scheme of things.

But it is equally important to hear what the Prayer Book and Jesus also say about our role and our purpose.  Small as we are, God takes notice of us, and that is a profound thing.  God grants us with memory, reason, and skill, but not so that we can try to exercise the gravitational pull of a sun.  God grants us these powers so that we exercise them like the lamb, in kindness, in care, and in love, especially for those who, like those touched by Jesus, are in the greatest need.

In Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, the great and powerful of Middle Earth vie over who will wield the One Ring of power.  Wizards, elves, and warriors each believe that their own importance and power make them the best suited.  But ultimately, only Frodo the Hobbit, who is the smallest and least powerful of all, the one others barely notice, can safely carry the ring.  Frodo can do so because he alone understands his place in the world and the role he is called to play.  Only Frodo does not want the ring, and thus his powerlessness becomes power, and goodness prevails.

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Only Frodo can carry the ring

As lambs who follow the Lamb, we can nudge in the interstitial space, and the world will move.  That is how God works, and that’s how God can work through us.  If we all nudge together, we might just tilt the world on its very axis and transform it by God’s grace.  Come and see!

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[i] https://news.uchicago.edu/story/uchicago-field-museum-scientists-discover-oldest-material-earth-7-billion-year-old-stardust

[ii] Ruth 2:10

[iii] I’m grateful to the Rev. Winne Varghese on this point, for a sermon she preached at Trinity Church-Wall Street on August 4, 2019: https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/video/sunday-9am-sermon-rev-winnie-varghese-0

[iv] https://onbeing.org/programs/john-polkinghorne-quarks-and-creation/