Tune our hearts

I learned to play guitar as a seminarian nineteen years ago.  I was in my late twenties but looked like I was eighteen, and my pastoral theology professor, Charlie Cook, counseled me that most likely some parish would eventually hire me to be the youth minister.  “If you can’t strum three chords on a guitar, Mr. Thompson, you need to learn,” Charlie advised.  So I went to a music store and purchased the most inexpensive guitar I could find.  Each evening, I sat on the front stoop of our rental house in Austin, attempting to learn the muscle memory required to fret chords and maintain a rhythmic strum pattern.  At first it was difficult.  Neighbors kept stopping by the house to see if I was torturing a cat.  Eventually, though, I figured it out.  The transition from a G to a C to a D became fluid, and with great joy I learned to strum songs.  I never did become a youth minister, but playing guitar became a therapeutic and relaxing activity.  I was grateful that Charlie Cook spurred me to learn.

Years later, my daughter Eliza, who is much more musically talented than I am, taught herself to play the ukulele.  She and I would teach each other songs, and we’d spend glorious father-daughter time playing together.  But as often happens, life got in the way.  I now own a nice Taylor guitar, but it mostly sits in the corner of my bedroom unused.  Last week, when I had a rare moment to spare, I picked it up.  I was so out of practice that as I fretted chords, my fingers ached and my hand cramped.  When I took my guitar into Eliza’s room, and we began to play in tandem, Eliza said, “Daddy, you’re way out of tune.”  So I was.  Our music was dissonant, and I hadn’t played in so long I couldn’t even hear how flat I was until I attempted to meld my music with Eliza’s. Only after I carefully re-tuned my guitar did our music resonate and harmonize.

Barkley and Eliza playing guitar

Switching gears for a moment, here we are at the beginning of another semester, a new program year of Cathedral ministry.  It’s gotten me thinking about beginnings—origins—especially about how God begins, how God creates.  There are different theological ideas about God’s creative act.  One prevailing notion is that God is like a sculptor or a painter, and the cosmos is God’s canvass or lump of clay.  On one level I like that.  I have seen painters and sculptors work, and I have witnessed the passion and love with which they make their brush strokes and mold the clay into something beautiful.  There is a relationship between the artist and the art which does bear some analogy, I think, to God’s relationship with us.  But even so, there is also a separation between artist and medium in these instances.  If Rodin walks away from the Thinker, there the sculpture still is.  The connection between them was real, but it was also transitory, and in a concrete way they were never part of one another.

The great medieval theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart offers a different model for God and creation.[i]  Eckhart says a much closer analogy is that of singer and song.  The song is never apart from the one who sings it. It is made of the very breath exhaled from the singer’s lungs, and the vibration of the singer’s own vocal chords.  The song comes from the diaphragm, from within the very center of the singer.  It is literally, rather than metaphorically, part of her, and always so.  The moment the singer stops singing, the song is gone.  The song has no existence apart from the singer’s continued singing.  It is always of her, emanating from her, and only because of the continuing movement of her breath does it endure.

That, friends, is the closest explanation we’ll ever hear to our relationship with God.  God is not a Deist sculptor who molds the clay of the world and walks away.  God is the singer whose Spirit—which in both Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek is the same word as breath—becomes, in each and every moment, the song that is creation.  If God ever for a moment quit singing, we would cease to be.  Blessedly, God’s song goes on.  The world, including us, emanates from God.

breath of god

Ekhart takes his model of creation an important step further.  We, as human beings created in God’s very image, are rightly to be reflective of God’s song, to be the echo chamber of God, the steel drum that sings the song of creation back to God.  That is our purpose and role in the world, and to do it—to reverberate with God’s own song—we need to be in tune.

For many of us, the summer has held other attentions.  Our thoughts may have strayed from grace and God, and God’s song may have become faint background music.  Like the muscle memory in my guitar-fretting hand, we may have lost some of the soul memory that comes with regular fidelity to worship, prayer, and one another.  In the observance of our faith, we may be out of practice and out of tune.  How do we re-tune our hearts to God’s song?

The Gospel tells us today.  It gives us the scales to practice and the exercises to rehearse.  In this passage from Luke, the Pharisees, who are so out of tune with God that they cannot even hear the dissonance, indict Jesus for easing a suffering woman’s pain on the Sabbath.  In response, the notes of Jesus’ song are like a symphonic crescendo!  Acts of humanity, service, adoration, and grace are the very way we tune our hearts to God, Jesus says.  They are the steel drum reflection of God’s own song.  The reverberation of our acts of love participate in God’s creation of the world.  Through such acts, we are re-tuned, and our lives move in harmony with God.

In Robert Robinson’s beloved hymn, we sing:

Come thou fount of every blessing,

Tune my heart to sing thy grace!

Streams of mercy never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.

Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above.

Praise the mount! Oh, fix me on it,

Mount of God’s unchanging love.


Our hearts are retuned in the doing. By coming together with our fellow parishioners in worship, formation, and service; by standing and kneeling and approaching the altar rail; by the work of our hands by which the pain and hunger of suffering people is eased; we regain the soul memory of adoration for God.  We retune our hearts, so that they resonate with grace and our lives move in harmony with the God of love.

I am excited about all that will happen at the Cathedral this year, most especially what will happen immediately following this Holy Eucharist, as we pack 100,000 meals.  I’m limbering my soul, and I hope you will, too.  This fall at the Cathedral we’ll tune our hearts to sing God’s grace.  Together, we will reflect the song of God.


[i] Smith, Cyprian.  The Way of Paradox: Spiritual Life As Taught By Meister Eckhart, pp. 58-71.

What is faith?

Today’s epistle reading is from the Letter to the Hebrews, that most mysterious of New Testament books.  No one knows—has ever known—where it came from.  Neither Paul nor Peter nor John is its author.  The early church father, Origen, famously said eighteen hundred years ago, “Who wrote Hebrews?  Only God knows!”[i]  Throughout the centuries, some people have wished to kick Hebrews out of the bible altogether, but the richness of its content has always won out.  It is Hebrews that connects Jesus to the obscure Old Testament character Melchizedek.  It is Hebrews that mentions the great “cloud of witnesses.”  And, it is Hebrews that gives us our most succinct and, on the surface, clear definition of faith.

The author of Hebrews defines faith for us at the beginning of the chapter from which today’s reading comes.  He says faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Christians have often interpreted this to mean that faith is a dogged belief that things will turn out well, that we will eventually receive what we want and need, no matter how bad or unlikely circumstances may seem in the present.  If only we will believe hard enough; if only our faith remains stalwart and strong; if only we have enough faith, then our hopes will come true.  Today, perhaps more than ever before, a major strand of American Christianity, called “the Prosperity Gospel,” markets this definition of faith.  Does it sound familiar to you?

Image result for prosperity gospel

If only I have enough faith…

There is an admitted utility in this interpretation of Hebrews’ definition of faith.  It can provide the kind of spiritual muscle that helps us keep going when times are tough.  The brass ring of such faith—the lingering image of the thing we want or need that will eventually be ours, if only we have enough faith—always hangs out there, moving us forward in life.  But I have to tell you, these very pews this very day are filled, and the world outside these walls is filled, with people who don’t buy it.  If this is what faith is—the belief that sooner or later our ships will all come in, that every cancer will be cured, that every estranged relationship will heal, that the financial windfall will ultimately arrive, that the world will finally recognize our genius and shower us with accolades—if faith is doggedly hanging onto such belief through a forced and cracked smile, behind which lurks secret but crippling doubt (which we’d better not let anyone detect, or else our faith will falter and these good things won’t happen), then very many folks want nothing to do with faith.  Indeed, many have walked away from Christianity entirely because they have discovered this notion of faith to be a sham, escapism from the hard and sometimes unrelenting reality of life.

But is this what the Letter to the Hebrews means by faith?  Is faith the dogged belief that all our wishes will be fulfilled, regardless of evidence to the contrary?  It may help to look at the portion of the Letter to the Hebrews assigned today, where the mysterious author gives us a litany of exemplars of faith, those he calls the “great cloud of witnesses.”  Among the list, the author reminds us of Rahab, and Samson, and King David.  Their faith, we are told, was strongest of all, and so our definition of faith must be derived from the faith they embodied.  Who were they?

Rahab was a prostitute in the ancient city of Jericho.  Rahab is remembered because, when Joshua led the Israelites against Jericho, she protected his spies and was thus spared when Joshua conquered the city.  Even so, when we last hear of Rahab, as she and her family are being incorporated into the Israelite camp, she is still referred to as “Rahab the prostitute.”[ii]  Her location changes, but essentially her life does not.

Samson, who may be more familiar to us from our childhood Sunday school, was the judge of Israel who had the strength of Hercules.  But Samson was bewitched by Delilah, who cut his hair and thus sapped his mighty power.  Samson prayed to God, but the outcome of his prayer was an act that resulted in Samson’s own death along with the death of his enemies, as the temple of Dagon crashed down upon them all.



And King David, on the one hand the paragon of faith, was also a man plagued from beginning to end with as much tragedy as triumph.  One of his children died in infancy, while his favorite son Absalom was killed attempting to overthrow his father.  The image we have of David at the end of his life is of a pitiful man covered in blankets who cannot get warm, with palace intrigue swirling around him until the very moment of his death.

In other words, the models of faith Hebrews provides to us today are not people whose faith was defined by a dogged belief that everything would be o.k. in the end, and for none of them was everything o.k. in the end.  Throughout their lives and right up until their deaths, they knew doubt, confusion, betrayal, hurt, regret.  They were, in other words, a whole lot like us, with all of our flaws and disappointments.  And so, faith must be something different.  When Hebrews tells us that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen,” what else might it mean?

For Rahab, Samson, and David faith was not the strained and nervous hope that everything would come up roses.  They and the other exemplars of faith the Letter to the Hebrews cites—and who Hebrews acknowledges were mocked, imprisoned, and tormented—were far too realistic for that.  Faith was, instead, the decision to walk through the world, whether or not the world provided positive outcomes, with God.  That is what rendered these different from other people.  That is how they “won strength out of weakness.”  That is how they faced challenge and endured hardship and failure, not because they believed God would bring all good things to them, but because they knew that God was with them even when the good didn’t prevail.  That’s a very different understanding of faith.

So, here it is: Faith is not wishful thinking.  It is not the dogged belief that everything will turn out well in the end.  Rather, faith is the perspective that sees the world, despite immediate evidence to the contrary, as infused by the presence of God.  Faith is, then, truly a binary choice: We either encounter the world as dead, inert, unenlivened—at best apathetic toward our lives or at worst brutishly assaultive of us—or we encounter the world as God saw it at the creation: as good, and as pervaded by God’s very presence and grace.   And so, one cannot have more faith or less faith.  It is like that elementary school drawing where from one angle one sees a young woman and from the other one sees an old woman.  The only difference in what we see is the shift in our own perspective.  So it is with faith.  We either encounter a world saturated with God, or not.

Image result for picture of old woman and young woman in same picture

“The only difference in what we see is the shift in our own perspective.  So it is with faith.”

I sometimes encourage parishioners to engage in an imaginative exercise.  Every time you go outside, imagine that it is a misty day, and that the mist has the sheen of silver and gold.  That mist is the milieu through which you walk, and move, and breathe.  And that mist is God.  Do this faithfully for a month, and the effort of imagination will no longer be required.  You will see previously unnoticed evidence of grace.  You will see beauty in people and things you did not see before.   Your hope will cease resting in specific outcomes and instead find its conviction in the lived realization that we are never apart from the God who creates us in love.  God is above, below, surrounding, and within.  Always.

Faith is knowing that the world is God-infused and encountering it that way.  It doesn’t mean all good will happen, but it does change the character of everything.  The Red Sea becomes a path to life rather than certain death.  Walls, like those of Jericho mentioned by Hebrews today, become things to take down rather than build up.  And in our own lives, the classrooms teachers and students are about to reenter, the lawyer’s courtroom, homeless shelters, businesses, hospitals, homes…all become crucibles of hope because all rest in God.  In faith, we walk through them differently.  In faith, we see the people who populate them differently.

Through faith we win strength out of weakness, because God is with us and in us, as near as the air we breathe.  Have faith, friends.


[i] https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/who-wrote-the-book-of-hebrews

[ii] Joshua 6:17