Poppies

The scene opens with the Wicked Witch of the West cackling to her flying monkey.  She gazes over a crystal ball, and she says, “Now, my beauty, something with poison in it, I think.  Poison in it!  But attractive to the eye and soothing to the smell. Poppies!  Poppies will put them to sleep.”

"Poison! But attractive to the eye and soothing to the smell."

“Poison! But attractive to the eye and soothing to the smell.”

The camera then zooms into the crystal ball to reveal a field of luscious red poppies that extends all the way to the Emerald City.  At the edge of the field, Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion have seen the great city, and they are anxious to arrive at this home of all their hopes.  But first they must move through the field of poppies, the Wicked Witch’s poison.  As they wade through the field, Dorothy and the others begin to get drowsy.  And before you know it, the poppies overcome brains, and heart, and courage, and loyalty all.  Despite their best efforts, and despite the Emerald City glowing and pulsating just before them, the heroes fall fast asleep.

Some children love The Wizard of Oz.  I did not.  The film always terrified me.  And my fear wasn’t of the witch, or the flying monkeys, or the talking trees with their claw-like branches.  Well, yes it was.  I was scared to death of all those things.  But mostly I was afraid of the poppies.  I was afraid of the poison that was attractive to the eye and soothing to the smell, that could lull me into an unyielding sleep.

Sleep from which we cannot awaken is dangerous.  It leaves us vulnerable.  Trapped in such a sleep, the world passes us by.  We mistake confused and darkened dreams for reality.    Such sleep is like a living death in which we misunderstand everything.

In the Letter to the Ephesians this morning, St. Paul speaks to the Christians in Ephesus as if they are Dorothy’s band of friends in the poppy field.  Paul seeks to jar the Ephesians from their stupor.  The light of Christ now illumines them, he explains.  The darkness of the night is unreal.  “For once you were in darkness,” Paul says, “but now in the Lord you are light.  Live as children of light…Sleepers, wake!  Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Paul speaks, of course, in metaphor.  He isn’t expositing in front of a congregation of nappers (though every preacher spies a literal napper in the pews every now and again).  Paul is talking about those who are spiritually asleep.  What would that look like?  John’s Gospel gives us an idea today, in a story that interweaves the closely related biblical themes of sleep and blindness.

The man born blind: "This detail is important in order to impress upon us that this man has not fallen spiritually asleep."

The man born blind: “This detail is important in order to impress upon us that this man has not fallen spiritually asleep.”

Walking along his way on the Sabbath, Jesus meets a man who has been blind since birth.  This detail is important in order to impress upon us that this man has not fallen spiritually asleep.  Others ask whether his blindness is punishment for sin, but we are told his blindness is not the result of any poison attractive to the eye and soothing to the smell by which he has been seduced.  The man was, simply put, born blind.  His is merely a physical quirk of fate.  Upon meeting the blind man, Jesus creates a poultice of mud, spreads it on the man’s eyes, and instructs the blind man to wash in the healing waters of the pool of Siloam.  The man returns able to see.  Light supplants darkness.  His eyes have opened!  And to the gathered crowd Jesus offers the somewhat cryptic words, “I am the light of the world.”

This is where the story becomes comical.  Some Pharisees wander up and see a group of people ooh-ing and ah-ing around the once-blind man.  “What’s going on?” they ask.  The crowd explains that this man, born blind, can now see due to the gracious action of Jesus. What would we expect the Pharisees’ reaction to this miracle to be?  Wonder?  Amazement?  Incredulity?  Any of these emotions would be apt.   But no.  The only response the Pharisees give is this, “This man who heals cannot be of God, because he’s not observing the Sabbath.”

It is as if when arriving at the Grand Canyon, we complain of the view.  Or when gazing for the first time on our newborn child, we are disappointed that he doesn’t have more hair.  Or standing face-to-face with God, we ask him for pocket change.  The Pharisees have before their eyes evidence of God’s abundant grace, given freely to one in lifelong need, and they focus on the rules of the Sabbath.  They are the ones who are blind.  They are the ones who are asleep to the reality confronting them.

The Pharisees attempt to debunk Jesus.  They twice interrogate the once-blind man.  He, whose eyes are open, who is awake, says only “What I know is that I was blind and now I see…You say you don’t know where Jesus comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.”

The Pharisees leave the scene, still sleepwalking in a confused and darkened dream.

The Pharisees leave the scene, still sleepwalking in a confused and darkened dream.

Having no luck with the healed man, the Pharisees then accost Jesus himself.  Jesus talks to them also about blindness and sight, and they—these leaders in the community—scoff at him, asking, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”  They leave the scene, still sleepwalking in a confused and darkened dream.

I pray we are not Pharisees.  I don’t believe that we are.  As portrayed in the Gospels, the Pharisees are willfully obstinate in their blindness.  Their spiritual sleep is so deep that they goose step through the world unwilling, and therefore unable, to see the grace of God in Jesus,  grace that also blooms with every flower, is spoken in every kind word, and is furthered by every act of love.

For us, I hope, spiritual sleep is not so deep and extreme.  I think our sleep is more like what Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion experience in that field of poppies.  Before Dorothy and her friends enter that field, they see the gleaming Emerald City.  It is a thing of wonder and beauty to them.  They recognize it as that thing that can make them whole and see them home.

Just so in our lives, at times we recognize the God of our hopes in our joys and kindnesses.  We know, deep down, that the world is not inert.  We see that it is pregnant with grace, and in that vision the breath catches in our throats.   Our hearts leap in our chests.  We know it.  We’ve seen it.  Even if the last glimpse was years ago, it’s why we’re here in this place, week after week. Oz-dorothy asleep

In The Wizard of Oz, though, the poppies surround Dorothy and the others.  Their poison, attractive to the eye and soothing to the smell, lulls the friends into a stupor.  Their drowsy eyes no longer see the gleaming city, and they are lulled to sleep.  Just so, we are surrounded by little poisons, attractive to the eye and soothing to the smell, and sometimes we succumb.  What are the poppies in our field?

Well, first, there are persuasive voices, both religious and secular, who claim the world is not infused with love and grace, that at its core is judgment, or division, or nothing.

There is glittering money and material things that fool us into believing they are what will satisfy our longing, if only we had a little bit more of them.

There is entertainment—popular music especially—that coarsens our sense of beauty, and denies human dignity, and thus debases our souls.

There is ambition.  There is social status.  Each of these things is a poppy in the field into which we rush headlong.  We quickly find ourselves spiritually dulled, as the poisons overcome our brain, heart, courage, and loyalty all. Before we fully realize it, we are asleep, blind to God’s very grace all around us.

In The Wizard of Oz, though, Dorothy and the others are awakened when Glenda the Good Witch—an angel, surely—sends light snow to fall upon them.  It quickens the heroes.  It rouses them from their slumber and opens their eyes.  The snow itself is a small measure of grace, and it demonstrates how powerful grace is to overcome the direst obstacle.  The snow is a small thing that awakens the friends to the big thing, the Emerald City that is so much greater in beauty than the poppies.

"The snow is a small thing that awakens the friends to the big thing."

“The snow is a small thing that awakens the friends to the big thing.”

The snow is simple thing, like an arc of polished, carved wood, or the glimmer of an altar candle, or a hand extended at the Peace, or a morsel of bread and sip of wine.  But it is all that is required to wake us up, when deep down the blind want to see.

For the remainder of this Lent, let’s purge our lives of the poisons and throw off the stupor.  Then the shadows will be dispelled, and we will again see that the world is infused with grace, everywhere.  And the light who illumines it is the Christ for whom it is made, in whom our hope resides.  Let the breath catch in your throat.  Let your heart rise in your chest.  The morning light is shining.  Sleepers, wake!

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A Few Thoughts on “Noah”

Noah posterA few immediate thoughts on “Noah”… As biblical movies go, this accomplished what most do not: genuine dramatic tension. It’s difficult to engender such tension when the narrative outcome is so well known and when the characters have become two dimensional through millennia of repeated telling.

The complaint I’ve read of the film’s script is that it plays fast and loose with the biblical story. Numerous critics decry the fallen angels who assist Noah as well as Noah’s recounting of Genesis 1 to his family.

First, the fallen angels: They actually exist in Genesis 6 as the Nephilim. The cryptic name is likely related to the Hebrew “to fall,” and in ancient tradition they were considered to be angelic figures come to live on earth among humans. If director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) had simply referred to the fallen angels as Nephilim, many folks likely wouldn’t have gotten upset. In the film, the fallen angels first protect the descendants of Cain and then help Noah build the ark. Neither of those things happens in the Genesis narrative specifically, but in the case of the latter, in Genesis 4 God certainly does declare God’s protection on Cain, so the narrative leap is not egregious (in my opinion).

Looks like rain...

Looks like rain…

Second, the recounting of Genesis 1: I really liked the way the film juxtaposed the truth of the Genesis creation hymn with a modern scientific understanding of cosmology, geology, and evolutionary biology. Rightly understood, there is no conflict between the two, though I imagine Creationists won’t like the juxtaposition.

(Spoiler alert) The one major beef I have with the script is the king who is Cain’s descendant sneaking onto the ark. The plot addition was superfluous. It added nothing of great interest; the dramatic tension of Noah’s spiritual/psychological conflict did not depend upon it; and it felt like an afterthought.

A lesser complaint is the particular portrayal of vegetarianism in the early part of the film.  Aronofsky sets up the false dichotomy that humans are either vegetarians or else brutal and thankless killers of anything that moves.  He suggests that after the flood Noah’s family will continue to be vegetarians, while in the biblical narrative part of God’s post-flood covenant with Noah is that “every moving thing that lives shall be food for you.” (Genesis 9:3)  In an earlier blog (http://wp.me/siiDY-hunter) I’ve discussed my thoughts on the ethics of being a carnivore (and hunter).  I won’t rehash them here.  For a good discussion of the ways carnivorous living can connect one more honestly and fully to the earth’s life cycles, see this essay by my friend (and religion professor) Jill Carroll:

http://www.humansandnature.org/hunting—jill-carroll-response-103.php

When I posted this review on Facebook, a clergy friend asked about the portrayal of all the characters as caucasian.  It’s true that Aronofsky’s film does have the feel of a Northern European epic.  The scenery all seems a bit too Scottish Highlands.  That said, I was pleased that the movie didn’t fall into the historical tendency to portray the “mark of Cain” as dark skin.  Noah was white, but the human beings who had ruined God’s good earth were white as well.

I would recommend against taking children under thirteen to see the movie, due to the way the film portrays Noah’s psychological conflict.  There is also a scene in which Noah elects to leave behind a young girl, who is then trampled by the oncoming horde of people struggling to get on the ark.  It was difficult to watch.

 

 

That you may be a blessing

1839 was a year for the ages.[i]  On the world stage that year, the Treaty of London constituted Belgium as an independent kingdom.  Guatemala established itself as a republic.  The first opium war erupted in China.  Closer to home, the Cherokee Nation formed, and courageous Africans captives seized the slave ship Amistad.

The first ever baseball game was played in Cooperstown, NY, in 2839

The first ever baseball game was played in Cooperstown, NY, in 1839

In the realm of science and technology, the first glass plate photograph was taken.  Charles Darwin was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Science.  William Otis (cousin of Elisha Otis, inventor of the elevator) patented the first steam shovel, making earth excavation infinitely easier.

In Cooperstown, New York, American leisure was forever changed in 1839, when the first-ever pitcher climbed the first-ever mound to throw the first-ever pitch in the first-ever baseball game.

In 1839, though, all of this would have seemed a world away from Houston, Texas, both in geographical distance and in time.  Houston was just two years old, having been incorporated on June 5, 1837.  After Sam Houston bested Santa Anna, entrepreneurial and marketing geniuses Augustus and John Kirby Allen purchased sixty-six hundred acres of soupy, bayou-bordering land and named it after the hero of San Jacinto, who had just been elected President of the Republic of Texas.  The Allens launched an impressive, if somewhat misleading, real estate marketing campaign, and in twenty-four months, what started as a bit of a boondoggle had emerged as a going burgh, a city on the make with two thousand residents.  To give you a sense of Houston’s geographic size at that time, the city began at the bayou north of us, and ended at Texas Avenue.  Where the Magnolia Hotel stands today was pasture.  There are reports of an early, poor member of Christ Church who lived way out from town where land was cheaper.  The location of his land is exactly where City Hall now stands.

The captured Santa Anna surrenders to the wounded Sam Houston after the Battle of San Jacinto

The captured Santa Anna surrenders to the wounded Sam Houston after the Battle of San Jacinto

In its earliest days, Houston attracted sophisticated people such as William Fairfax Gray, a blue-blooded Virginian who moved here with his family.  But an influx of sophisticated people does not render a city cosmopolitan overnight.  In 1838, Gray himself wrote a letter lamenting the brutality and heathen immorality of his new home.  “Dissolute and vicious habits are too general here,” he said.  “Those who do not fall into [them]…mourn over the privileges and social blessings they have left [behind] and eagerly look for the time when they shall be received here.”[ii]

Why did Houston have such a difficult time in those early days adopting godly, civilized ways of being?  William Fairfax Gray felt sure of the answer.  He said, “We have had several Presbyterian preachers here—several Methodist—occasionally Baptists—and one Roman Catholic…but not once have I heard an Episcopalian preach, or the Episcopal service read since I left New Orleans in February 1837!”[iii]

The time had come, it seems, for the Episcopal Church to arrive in young Houston.

_______________

“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’  So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.”

An early Christ Church Sunday school picnic

An early Christ Church Sunday school picnic

Leaving home with nothing but the assurance of God’s good grace for a land of promise that will become a great nation.  That is Abraham’s story.  It is the story that shifts Holy Scripture from being primarily about grand and cosmic things (the creation of the stars and heavens, the great flood, etc.) to focusing on the lives of individual people, their struggles, and their hopes.  Abraham hears the call to move to a new, unknown, and often dangerous place.  He does so in faith not that God will preserve him as an individual but that God will use him as an instrument, as the planted seed for something grand and glorious.

It is no secret that Texas loves the myth of itself, and there can be danger in drinking one’s own Kool-Aid.  But then again, we don’t celebrate our 175th birthday more than once, and in the case of Texas, much of the myth is true.  After all, the first man to answer the call to uproot and move from the United States to Texas was a fellow named Moses!

Moses Austin died before he could make the move from Missouri, but his son Stephen came with those we know as “the Old Three Hundred” families.  They settled East Texas, they scraped by, they endured threats of all kinds, they won their land in pitched battle, and they made a home that we, these generations later, are blessed to enjoy.

By 1838 Texas was a sovereign nation.  The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States began to feature Texas in its magazine as a potential mission field alongside West Africa, Constantinople, and China.[iv]  From Houston, William Fairfax Gray wrote to the Board of Missions begging for resources and for a missionary priest.  And by March 16, 1839, he would wait no longer.  Gray and twenty-seven other prominent men of Houston signed the charter establishing an Episcopal Church—at the time, the Episcopal Church—in Houston.  Though not yet in name, Christ Church was born.

The first CCC

The first church building on the corner of Texas and Fannin

Initial reports were good.  The National Intelligencer newspaper reported in 1839 on the “progress of morals” in Houston, and glowingly cited the recent organization of an Episcopal congregation.  Clearly, we were a good influence on all those rowdy Baptists and Presbyterians!

But Abraham’s sojourn into Canaan was not without cost.  He suffered famine, family discord, loss of loved ones, and other threats.  And it was little different for our forebears here.  In the summer of 1839, yellow fever hit Houston.  More than ten percent of the population died: 240 out of 2,000 citizens.  By November, only four of Christ Church’s original vestrymen could be convened due to death and absence, and it looked as though the church might die before it even had a church building in which to worship.  Two years after that, the temporary missionary priest assigned to Houston reported to the Board of Missions that Christ Church had only fifteen communicants.  By the world’s accounting, the future was precarious.  It was not secure.  The initial promise could easily go unfulfilled.

But like Abraham, the future of Christ Church did not depend upon the ways of the world.  It depended upon the sure promise of God, and upon those, like William Fairfax Gray and legions after him, who would give the sum and substance of their lives in service to God’s promise.

The aftermath of the 1938 fire

The aftermath of the 1938 fire

As in the Abraham story, there were glimpses beyond the veil, God’s moments of grace and humor that offered assurance to the struggling parish.  The best known, of course, is the story of the longhorn steer.  Here is how Marguerite Johnston tells it:

“Some men were clearing ground, surveying and laying out plans on the lot at the corner of Texas Avenue and Fannin Street one day, when a cattleman on horseback rode along Texas Avenue, herding before him his cattle.  He paused and watched.  ‘What are you doing?’ he finally asked.

The men explained that they were getting ready to build a church.  The cattleman took his lariat from his saddle, roped a steer, pulled it in, and handed the rope to one of the churchmen.  ‘Here,’ he said, ‘Let me give you this as the first contribution toward your church.’”[v]

That steer, as many of you know, now proudly adorns the seal of the Diocese of Texas.

Over the course of generations, there were other threats: the Civil War; the 1893 partial collapse of the second church building that led to the construction of the church in which we now worship; the 1928 decision to remain downtown when other congregations fled to the suburbs, after which a beloved rector departed with acrimony and took many families with him to become the first rector of Palmer Church; the great 1938 Waddell’s Furniture Store fire that consumed our chancel and spared the rest of the church due only to the intrepid attention of a Roman Catholic fireman, who stayed awake all night dousing the rood screed with water to create a firebreak.

Through it all, though, the promise of God has been sure.  We have been blessed.  Perhaps, unlike Abraham’s descendents, we are not so numerous as the stars in the sky, but those twenty-eight men who signed that charter one hundred seventy-five years ago today indeed have become thousands upon thousands.  We are here today—thriving, growing, pointed toward the future—because they were here yesterday.  We are present here because they prayed, and struggled, and believed in a God who makes and keeps promises to God’s faithful people.

Christ Church Cathedral during its ivy-covered phase

Christ Church Cathedral during its ivy-covered phase

And now we are the vanguard.  There stands no one between us and the responsibility to carry on the promise.  In the Abraham story, Abraham is not blessed for his own sake or even for the sake of his family gathered around him.  He is blessed for the sake of those who are not his family and for the sake of those generations yet to come.  He is blessed, God says, so that he may be a blessing.  For another one hundred seventy-five years and beyond, we are called to be a blessing to the physically and spiritually hungry in this fair city.  We are called, from this corner of Texas and Fannin, unwaveringly with our voices and our hands, to share the grace of God in this land between bayous, in a future filled with hope.


[ii] A Happy Worldly Abode, 25.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid., 24.

[v] Ibid., 57.

A Future Filled With Hope

This month marks the 175th birthday of Christ Church Cathedral.  We kicked off our celebration on March 2, Texas Independence Day.  The celebratory dinner was held at the Rice Lofts Crystal Ballroom, on the same site as the Republic of Texas Capitol Building, in which the original organizers of Christ Church chartered the parish.  As the first organized house of worship in Houston, Christ Church was a “foreign mission” of the Episcopal Church in the United States!

My great Aunt Fairy Thompson and great Uncle John Hunter Thompson on their way to May Fete in the first decade of the 20th Century.

My great Aunt Fairy Thompson and great Uncle John Hunter Thompson on their way to May Fete in the first decade of the 20th Century.

My own family’s history is intertwined with that of the Cathedral.  When I moved to Houston thirteen months ago, my father bestowed upon me an old traveling suitcase that had belonged to my great Aunt Fairy Thompson.  Stuffed full of letters and photographs dating from the 1830s until the 1970s, the suitcase is the depository for the records of my family’s Texas roots.

Included in it is a tintype photo of my great, great, great, great grandfather Col. John Henry Moore and his wife Eliza (for whom my daughter is named).  Moore came to Texas as one of Stephen F. Austin’s “Old 300,” and Eliza did the same with her father, James Cummins.  Col. Moore commanded the Texians at the Battle of Gonzales on October 2, 1835, and he gave the land on which La Grange, Texas, was founded from his original league.

His daughter Tabitha married Ira Griffin Killough, a rancher also from Fayette County (and the ancestor for whom my son is named).  Fast forward two more generations, and you reach my grandfather, Robert Faires Thompson, and his older sister, my great Aunt Fairy.  By 1900 the family lived in Houston, where my great-grandfather John Hunter Thompson (who was from Bellville) ran the Guarantee Life Insurance Company and joined Christ Church.  Hanging on the wall in my office is a photograph of him sitting at his desk in downtown Houston, circa 1910.  Another photo from the same era shows Aunt Fairy as a child in a pony-drawn buggy, and inscribed on the back is “May Fete, Christ Episcopal Church.”

My grandfather moved to Arkansas as a young adult, but Aunt Fairy remained a member of Christ Church until her death in 1980.  She loved the Cathedral dearly.  In her later years, Aunt Fairy was poor as a church mouse, and yet her suitcase contains a June 1, 1973 letter from Dean Robert Gibson thanking her for her $100 contribution to the Cathedral Advance Funds Campaign.  $100 would have been a princely sum for her.

Deans Pittman McGehee, Walter Taylor, Joe Reynolds, and me

Deans Pittman McGehee, Walter Taylor, Joe Reynolds, and me

Unbelievably, Christ Church has been a beacon of Christ’s love and grace at the corner of Texas and Fannin for almost two centuries.  The Cathedral’s history parallels the history of Houston, and the parish membership roll has included many of the pivotal figures in the development of our city and state.  I am exceedingly pleased that it also includes my own family.

Dieter Ufer, whose father’s steady hands hammered the beautiful brass top of the Cathedral’s baptismal font, tells me he lovingly touches that brass each time he approaches the altar for Communion.  The font connects Dieter to his own family history.  Each Sunday when I enter the Cathedral, I similarly think of my grandfather, who was baptized in that font; my great grandparents, who were buried in Glenwood Cemetery from this church; and my great aunt, who gave to support Christ’s mission in this place when she scarcely had anything to give.  I am blessed to serve as the Dean of Christ Church and share in its blessed history.

At the dinner last Sunday, My predecessors as dean–Pittman McGehee, Walter Taylor, and Joe Reynolds–were present and participated in the program.  They each spoke of the past ways in which the Cathedral boldly championed the love of Christ in downtown Houston.  I then launched our Vision Action Plan, which will guide us as we seek to further God’s grace in the coming years.  The plan hearkens to a verse from Jeremiah and is entitled “A Future Filled With Hope.”  You can read it here:

http://www.christchurchcathedral.org/vision-action-plan/

Vision Action PlanA Future Filled With Hope focuses upon pastoral care, community, evangelism, worship, and spiritual formation.  It’s most ambitious undertaking is the establishment of a Spirituality Center that will feed souls in a manner analogous to the way the Beacon (Christ Church’s outstanding ministry to the Houston’s homeless) feeds bodies.  Our hope and plan is that the Spirituality Center will host labyrinth, icon-writing, centering prayer, and lecture on a host of topics ranging from Christian spiritual practices to interfaith understanding.

Dean Richardson, Bishop Kellogg, and Bishop Hines

Dean Richardson, Bishop Kellogg, and Bishop Hines

Our 175th anniversary celebrations continue throughout the month of March–and all year, really.  This Friday evening, March 7, we will host the opening reception for our retrospective photographic exhibit in the gallery of Reynolds Hall.  The photos are already hanging.  My favorite was taken fifty years ago at the Cathedral’s 125th birthday dinner.  It shows Bishop (and former Christ Church Rector) John Hines, Bishop (and the 1st Dean of Christ Church Cathedral) Hamilton Kellogg and Dean (and future Bishop) Milton Richardson.  They stare out at me, and I gaze back at them.  I cherish their legacy, and look forward to the Cathedral’s future filled with hope.

Shhh!

Shh!  Do you hear that?  Listen carefully for a moment.

I enter the Cathedral sometimes during the week, when no one else is here.  I do so for the silence.  It envelopes.  It protects.  There is a reason that many Christian traditions refer to the entire space of the church building—chancel and nave—as the “sanctuary.”  Its sacred space provides a place of womb-like safety from the outside world.

Granted, on Sunday mornings it is rarely absolutely quiet in the Cathedral, nor should we expect it to me.  The rustle of leaflets, the creaking of pews, the murmur of children—and adults, for that matter—are all the natural sounds of gathered worship.  But think of the things we don’t hear, God willing: cell phones, the ping of an email inbox, talking heads on blaring televisions, the general stridency that marks our world.

It is that, I think, from which this space protects us.  It protects us, and provides a respite, from a world inundated by noise.

If you’ll excuse the tendency toward the oxymoronic, in our world noise is no longer merely auditory.  The noise with which we are inundated is multi-sensory.  It is a visual, tactile, and auditory cacophony, constantly bombarding our lives, leading to attention deficits in our children and anxiety in our adults.   Noise unsettles and distracts.  Noise throws us off kilter.  It serves first as an impediment, and sometimes as a willful excuse, that prevents us from stilling ourselves. Noise

It is a revealing exercise to ask yourself how much time you spend in stillness and silence, without sound, or visual stimulation, or the hubbub of the street.  “I haven’t time for that,” we say, “There is too much to see, to hear, to absorb.  If I don’t check the internet, or turn on the television, or have talk radio on in the car, I might miss the truth.”

And yet, more noise does not equal nearer proximity to the truth.  Our truth is ever and only God, and God is rarely found in the noise of our lives.  This is conveyed both in our tradition and in others.  In 1 Kings, the Prophet Elijah looks for God in vain in the earthquake, the fire, and the mighty wind, only to discover God in “the sound of sheer silence.”  In the great Hindu epic Bhagavad Gita, the hero Arjuna recognizes God in the noisy bombast of the world, but God reveals to Arjuna that God is also “the taste in water,” the most subtle of all things, the thing we miss entirely if we’re unwilling to stop and dwell in stillness and silence.

"I am the taste in water."

“I am the taste in water.”

In Exodus today, Moses climbs Mount Sinai to receive God’s law.  There are fireworks, to be sure.  We are told that “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain.”  But when it comes time for God to speak and for Moses to hear, when the time comes for truth to be shared, something else happens entirely.

The rabbis tell us that the first Hebrew letter in the Ten Commandments is aleph, and aleph is a silent letter.  The rabbis say that to Moses, God first spoke silence.  God stilled the creation, and only in the pregnant stillness did God offer words.[i]

The same is true in the Gospel, which today is the glorious story of the Transfiguration.  Like Moses, the disciples climb the mountain to be in the presence of God.  This time it is God Incarnate in the person of Jesus.  Like Moses, the disciples are first mesmerized by the display they see.  The scruffy Jesus who ascends with them becomes something altogether different on the mountaintop.  It is as if in the thin air, with less atmosphere to obscure Jesus’ nature, the veil that separates his humanity from his divinity becomes transparent.  Jesus’ face shines like the sun, and his clothing is rendered dazzling white.  Standing with him, the disciples can make out two other men, long dead.  The first is Moses, and the second is Elijah, both of whom I mentioned earlier as among the select few to whom God has revealed himself directly.

Peter, who, like us, tends to believe that more noise must equal more truth, immediately begins moving around furtively and speaking at the top of his lungs.  “Let me build dwellings for you!” he says, “Let me add my two cents and get in on the action and move stuff around so it looks like we’re accomplishing something!”

"In the stillness of that presence, the disciples recognize that truth and justice find their home only in and through the love of God."

“In the stillness of that presence, the disciples recognize that truth and justice find their home only in and through the love of God.”

And again, God speaks aleph.  “Be silent and still,” says God, “Listen.”

Why is this?  The best explanation comes from an unlikely and obscure source.  U.S. President James A. Garfield, arguably our most intelligent chief executive after Jefferson, and one whose life and term in office were tragically cut short by an assassin’s bullet in 1881, offers this: “There are times in the history of men and nations, when they stand so near the veil that separates mortals and immortals, time from eternity, and men [and women] from their God, that they can almost hear their breathings and feel the pulsations of the heart of the infinite.”[ii]

We intuit the world differently when we are silent and still.  We hear things otherwise missed.  We see through the porous veil between the hard materiality of the world and the enlivening divine energy that permeates it.  And most importantly, we sense what it might mean for our hearts to beat in rhythm with God.

For Peter, James, and John, when they center themselves, they can see what it means for God Incarnate, Moses, and Elijah to be together on the Mount of Transfiguration.  Moses, the recipient of God’s law, represents truth.  Elijah the prophet represents God’s justice.  And both of these cleave to—they disappear into—Jesus, who is the embodiment of God’s very love.  In the stillness of that presence, the disciples recognize that truth and justice find their home only in and through the love of God.  Eventually, they and the others who follow Jesus will find that place where their hearts are in sync with his.  They’ll conform their entire lives to that rhythm.  And that transformation begins this day, when they pause in the stillness and silence.

James Garfield speaks of men and nations; he could easily have substituted “church.”  We, too, as individual Christians and as the gathered Body of Christ, yearn to find completeness, to be contented in our lives, to know God’s deepest desire for us and to follow it.  But too often we do our searching like Peter on that mountaintop.  We begin to make noise, to move and bluster and bombard our senses with visual and auditory filler, and the predictable result is usually heightened anxiety, confusion, discontent, and fear.

James A. Garfield, arguably our most intelligent chief executive after Jefferson

James A. Garfield, arguably our most intelligent chief executive after Jefferson

And yet, we know in the marrow of us how necessary the silence is.  We Episcopalians may intuit this more deeply than others.  We elect to worship in a manner that begins with aleph.  We step out of the world and initiate our communion with God in the silence of this sacred space, and we center ourselves in prayer before we commence the sounds of our praise.  Throughout our Eucharist, there are pregnant moments of stillness and silence, and it is in these moments that God is most likely to provide God’s clarifying word, to instill in us God’s deep peace.

The Cathedral is that respite, that sanctuary from the world’s noise.  Its silence has enveloped and protected those seeking God’s truth for one hundred seventy-five years this very month.  It has been a place in which God’s truth and God’s justice have been proclaimed.  It is a place in which these and all things have been interpreted through the lens of God’s love in Christ.

As the world outside these doors gets noisier and noisier, the necessity of the Cathedral only increases. Again, today, God speaks to us first in the stillness and silence.  Again, today, God commends to us his Son, whose love saves us, and lures us, and makes us whole.  This can be the day we hear our hearts begin to beat to the divine rhythm, and when we find that pulse, we can take it from here with us.  This can be the day we walk down the mountain and back into the world transformed by the aleph of God.

Shh!  Do you hear that?  Listen carefully.Christ Church Cathedral


[i] This nugget was given me by Lauren Winner, who spoke the Diocese of Texas clergy conference in October 2013.

[ii] From Candice Millard’s fantastic book Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President.