Since mid-March, I’ve had a number of people come to me with the lament that they find it difficult to be happy in the midst of the world’s goings-on. They share with me sadness at being physically distant from friends and loved ones, disappointment that long-laid plans and important schedules are upended, and anxiety about the future of their livelihood and even health. In the face of it all, they say, happiness is hard to maintain.

Sadness, disappointment, and anxiety are entirely appropriate emotional responses to our present world, and either alone or in combination they can, indeed, crowd out happiness. That said, I’ve long believed that happiness is a superficial and fleeting emotion in any case, and often happiness is a palliative that serves to mask rather than alleviate those other emotional responses. Happiness is not unlike the laughing gas one receives at the dentist’s office. It may momentarily take one’s mind off the pain, but it wears off quickly. Please don’t misunderstand; I love to be happy, but I don’t put a lot of stock in happiness’ sustainability.

Much more sustaining and sustainable than happiness is joy. Joy is so different from happiness that I would not even call joy an emotion. I would call joy, rather, a posture of the soul. Happiness and sorrow are mutually exclusive, but joy and sorrow are not. I have encountered many grieving families, for instance, whose pain and sorrow at the death of their loved one exists alongside a robust joy for the life they shared. Indeed, I have encountered the same juxtaposition in dying people themselves, who are sad that their mortal lives are nearing an end and overwhelmingly, almost uncontainedly joyous with gratitude for the life they’ve lived.

Whereas happiness is superficial and fleeting, joy finds its deep and abiding source in God. Joy characterized the life of Jesus. In the Gospels, Jesus shows anger, sorrow, and even irritation and impatience, but he is always also joyful. Joy is the awareness that God’s world is, and has been since the first day of creation, good. Joy is the recognition that, no matter what may transpire today, God’s gift of grace — that we are created and accepted by a love that nothing can diminish — is constant. In these days, it is, indeed, difficult to maintain happiness; but even in the midst of sorrow, disappointment, and anxiety, we can be joyful. Indeed, joy can buoy us through such challenging emotions. Joy sees us through whatever today or tomorrow will bring.

Louis Armstrong’s classic “What a Wonderful World” is, for me, the popular song that best epitomizes joy. I hope the video above this meditation helps you connect to your joy today. Blessings to you, friends; take joy in the sure knowledge of God’s love!

Lord of the Flies

Mid-century, a group of pre-adolescent boys are stranded on a desert island in the Pacific, with no adults to supervise them.  They live there for months, and in that time their true natures, unbound by enculturation or social conditioning, emerge.  They reveal what it really means to be human, and the revelation is startling.

You remember the Lord of the Flies, right?  You remember the struggle between the leadership of Ralph and Jack, one seeking vainly to construct a society that reflects the one the boys have lost; the other encouraging the law of the jungle.  You remember Simon, the epitome of reason and innocence, beaten to death by the mob.  You remember Piggy, the weak one among the strong, crushed by a boulder rolled off the cliff by a bigger boy.  You remember the desperate need to keep the signal fire lit, while the boys insist instead on whooping and hollering in front of the Lord of the Flies, until ironically, the entire island is accidentally engulfed in flames.

Lord of the Flies' still a terrifying favorite - Los Angeles Times

For almost seventy years, William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies has been on required student reading lists across the world.  My parents read it.  I read it.  My children have read it.  Its sober assessment of human nature serves as both existential exploration and societal caution.  It is the narrative confirmation of philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ dictum that in our state of nature what is inevitable is bellum omnium contra omnes, or “war of all against all.”  Left to its own devices, human life, Hobbes famously says, is “nasty, brutish, and short.”[i]  William Golding stresses that the Lord of the Flies lives within each of us, just waiting to crawl to the surface and pit me against you, and you against one another.  And he ends his novel with a moment more subtly  terrifying than anything the boys have done, when the crisply tailored, rescuing naval officer expresses his disgust at the condition in which he finds the children, but then looks out at his own warship resting on the waves and realizes that the boys are merely a reflection of the world writ large.

In times of relative contentment and calm, Lord of the Flies is interesting.  In times days like those in which we are living, it is ominous.  We, like the naval officer at the novel’s end, best not pause for even a moment’s reflection, lest we recognize that the Lord of the Flies has welled to the surface in many of us and certainly in our world.  We are living in tenuous times, in which our public health is imperiled, some of our actions seem to question our sisterhood and brotherhood as children of the same God, our impulse to politicize anything and everything overrides everything else.  We are beating Simon to a pulp.  We are crushing Piggy with the rock.  Or, to shift analogies, we are Abraham raising the knife above grace and goodness and care for one another.  All that is left is the question whether we will bring the knife down.

I will say this as starkly as I know how: We can have but one lord.  The Lord of the Flies may increasingly reign these days, but for you and for me, we claim each day of our lives a different lord.  We claim Jesus.  And what does he claim for us?  In the Gospel this very day, Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

The words of our Lord, our only Lord, are words of welcome, and grace, and care for the vulnerable.  They are words of a Lord who will not share the dais or the smallest chamber of our hearts with the Lord of the Flies.  They are the words of a Lord who has not a moment’s patience with our tribalism, or our politics, or our brutish impulse to put ourselves before our sisters and brothers.  It is the Lord of the Flies or the Lord Christ, one or the other.  The choice is binary, and it must be made.

Ah, but you see, God’s world is full of surprises.  Mid-century, a group of pre-adolescent boys are stranded on a desert island in the Pacific, with no adults to supervise them.  They live there for months, and in that time their true natures, unbound by enculturation or social conditioning, emerge.  They reveal what it really means to be human, and the revelation is startling.

These words, with which I began today’s sermon, it turns out do not refer to William Golding’s novel.  They refers to no fiction whatever, but rather to an actual, real-life event that began in June of 1965.[ii]  A group of six schoolboys on the island of Tonga decided to play hooky from their Catholic boarding school.  The boys were diverse.  Some were light-skined, fair-haired English; others were dark-skinned, native Tongans.  Some were full pay; others were scholarship boys.    They “borrowed” a fisherman’s boat, packed two sacks of bananas and a few coconuts, and set off to sea.  Eight days later, with their bananas gone, small sail shredded by the wind, and no water, the boys’ little boat washed up on a deserted island called Ata.  There they would spend the next fifteen months before being rescued by fishing captain Peter Warner.  A decade after William Golding penned his hypothetical thesis on human nature, a real-life test case was set in motion.

And what happened?  What feral, brutish hell did Captain Warner discover when he dropped anchor at Ata Island?  How many of the boys had suffered the fate of Piggy and Simon at the hands of Jack?

What Captain Warner found on Ata was a communal food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store water, and a recreation yard with a make-shift badminton court.  As reported by journalist Rutger Bregman, the boys explained to Captain Warner that early on they’d “agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer. [One boy] fashioned a makeshift guitar from a piece of driftwood, half a coconut shell and six steel wires salvaged from their wrecked boat…and played it to help lift their spirits.”

The boys discovered on the island natural blessings, including wild bananas and wild chickens, and they shared them with one another.

Most remarkably of all, one of the boys fell off a cliff and broke his leg, becoming a dangerous burden to the others.  In the fictional Lord of the Flies, the fate of the injured boy, weak and useless, would have been swift. In real life, the other boys splinted his leg with sticks and nursed him back to health.  When the boys were discovered by Captain Warner, the leg had healed so well that it didn’t even have to be reset.

And, for fifteen long months the boys faithfully kept a signal fire perpetually lit, recognizing that it would be the instrument of their rescue and perhaps that the flame represented much more than that.

Wonder of wonders.  When put to the test, William Golding’s savage dystopia did not come to life.  The Lord of the Flies did not emerge in the soul.  What emerged among the boys of Ata Island was the Lord of heaven and earth, sustaining one another with prayer, and song, and the blessings of shared life with one another.

Mr Peter Warner, third from left, with his crew in 1968, including the survivors from ‘Ata.

Captain Peter Warner and the boys of Ata, years after their rescue

We live by the narrative we choose.  We live for the lord we choose.  Rutger Bregman ends his account by saying, “It’s time we told a different kind of story.  The real Lord of the Flies [on Ata] is a tale of friendship and loyalty; one that illustrates how much stronger we are if we can lean on each other.”  I would add that it reveals that our authentic and true human nature is not what the myopic William Golding claimed.  (It turns out he didn’t like children anyway.)  Human nature is formed, as Holy Scripture tells us, in the very image of the God who is love.  Our true nature is one of welcome, grace, and care.  Our true nature desires to follow the Lord Christ.  That is Good News.

But we have told ourselves the other story about ourselves for so long that it has taken on a kind of shadow truth.  We perversely cling to it—to our tribalism, our politics, our power, our “me first” thinking—with a kind of dogged pride.  In order to exorcise the Lord of the Flies we must sacrifice that pride, instead of sacrificing our love on an angry altar.

Our human nature is God-given and God-formed.  William Golding’s novel is not true; the boys of Ata are.  We are created to follow the Way of love of the Lord Jesus.  When we sacrifice our pride; when we uplift and live into our true nature; when we follow the Way of Jesus, then bonds of grace and community form and strengthen, and our world, that may at first seems like a deserted island cut off from hope, becomes, in the light of love, paradise.


[i] From Hobbes’ Leviathan.


I Break so that I may Reveal

As a kid, I loved dinosaurs. To this day, the rhinoceros is my favorite animal at the zoo, because he looks to me like a Triceratops. Every week in grade school, I would insist my mother take me to the Greene County Library to check out the over-sized dinosaur books, with glossy artist renderings of BrontosaurusDiplodocus, and Tyrannosaurus rex. These were not with the children’s books but rather found in the grown-up section, and as I read them I felt like a real paleontologist. Somewhere along the way, I learned the motto of the Paleontological Society. In Latin, it is Frango ut patefaciam.  In English, that translates to “I break so that I may reveal.”

New Dino, Cousin of Triceratops, Discovered | Discover Magazine

I hadn’t thought about that motto for years, but lately it has sprung to mind unbidden. Within the past three months, so much of the world has broken. And the breaking has revealed a lot. Cracked open, we have seen where our weaknesses are, with regard to both our public health and our economic models. The breaking open of the veneer of racial harmony has revealed that we still have so much work to do to render this a land experienced by all as life-giving, sustaining, and free. The continued breaking open of our political divide (How much more can it break?!) reveals that, for a long time, neighbors and friends have viewed our county and its challenges very differently from one another.

And, we see more when the view zooms down to the up-close-and-personal. I don’t know about you, but in some ways the past three months have just about broken me. On a personal level, as these months have gone on, as life has shifted once, twice, ten times, the little cracks and yawning chasms have revealed some things about me of which I’d been, at best, dimly aware. How about you? Have you caught yourself responding to situations in ways that surprised you? Have you heard your own voice and barely recognized who was speaking? Have you experienced an undifferentiated anxiety that has a murky source and no constructive destination? Has your breaking revealed things to you about yourself?

The spiritual question is, of course, “What do we make of this, and what might God do with it?” The Gospels remind us that Jesus, too, was broken. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ confidence was shaken as he anxiously sweated like drops of blood. Jesus himself experienced the desolation of abandonment as he cried from the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”  As St. Paul adds in 1 Corinthians 11, when Jesus implemented the Last Supper, he told the disciples always to break the bread — which we still do to this day — as a reminder that Jesus himself was broken.

The paleontologists’ motto is “I break so that I may reveal.”  Jesus’ own breaking revealed his fragile humanity, but as Peter Abelard first reminded us eight hundred years ago, Jesus’ breaking also and most importantly revealed the fathomless depths of God’s love. By his willingness to undergo the Passion — not in the absence of doubt and anxiety, but in the very face of them — Jesus the Incarnate God revealed that God will go to any lengths, suffer any violence, endure anything for love of us. There is nothing we can experience or encounter in this world absent the God whose love for us birthed the very world.

Most importantly, this is what our present breaking reveals anew for us, whether it is the breaking of the world or our own individual cracks. When we are solid, behind bastion walls and ramparts, it is easy to pretend that we have no need of God, that our own strength can sustain us. When things begin to break, we quickly realize that our walls are as fragile as eggshells. Our breaking reveals our need for God, for a love more subtle than any virus and greater than any strife: a love that picks up pieces and knits them into something new.

In these days, it is worth remembering the lyrics of the great Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in

You are my other self

In April, just a few weeks into our COVID-19 new reality, world-recognized author, filmmaker and fellow Houstonian Lois Farfel Stark wrote an essay entitled, “Breakdown or Breakthrough: Changing the COVID Crisis to Opportunity.”  It is a profound piece of writing, and it is a living word, meaning that it has taken on additional meaning in the six weeks since Lois wrote it. In it, she says:

The name of the virus is a shortened form of Coronavirus Disease of 2019. Another way to read the word Covid is to notice that it combines Co, meaning together, and Vid, a root word meaning to see. This is a time of seeing together. Our connectivity is literally staring us in the face, even our masked faces.”

Covid 19 is highly infectious. You can catch it from anyone, whether they know they have it or not. It is invisible, just as the connections that bind us are invisible, but understood intuitively.

An early language of the Dagara tribe in Africa had no word for ‘you’. Their closest translation for the word ‘you’ was: ‘my other self’. That is as close as we can come to describing today’s situation. We are all potential infectors, potential helpers, potentially sick and potential scientists who can devise new cures. The very cure may be from antibodies in the blood of another who lived through it.

You are my other self.

Covid 19 is a virus. A virus does not replicate by itself. It needs a host.  Every human being, regardless of age, nationality, race, or belief system, can be a host. This is so fundamental it is easy to overlook. Our most common and connected truth is that we are human beings. We have the same bodies.

It is as if at the same moment, everyone on the globe realized we have a potentially fatal disease. To be reminded of our own mortality wakes us up. All of a sudden, we pay attention to time, to those around us, to the environment we are a part of, to the echo of every action we take, to life itself. That kind of awakening has never before been felt by all humans on Earth at the same time.

Only halfway through the year, 2020 is an experience of crisis layered upon crisis, coming to a head: medical, environmental, economic, racial.  There can be a tendency to allow our physical isolation to grant us permission to cocoon, to draw into ourselves as if in a cloistered monastery, walled away from the cares and needs of the world.  But I am always reminded of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, who became a hermit only so that he could more potently pray for the people.

That is to say, even in his physical isolation, Cuthbert was ardent and active for those he loved.  And who are we to love?  As Lois Stark reminds, us, our whole human family, who the coronavirus has, paradoxically, reminded us are our sisters and brothers.

St Cuthbert of Farne | Beshara Magazine

My encouragement to you is to spend some of our physically-distanced time apart in prayer, asking of God which of the layered crises of these days you are called to engage.  And then, engage!  Use the miraculous ways in which we are still connected, digital and otherwise, to speak, and act, and participate in the redemption of our world and the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.

Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday, when we were reminded that even in God there is no one alone.  God is relationship between the three persons of the Trinity, and each is the other.  Our lives truly mirror God’s.  You are my other self.  When you hurt, I hurt.  When you encounter joy, I cannot help but smile.  May we strive in all things for the redemption of one another.

Breathe: On George Floyd and the Trinity

We have now been a Cathedral family together, you and I, for a long time. I believe you know that I don’t prefer to preach sermons that can be construed, or misconstrued, as political. I abhor when I, or churches, are referred to with secular terms like “liberal” or “conservative.” I, and the other preachers I know, seek only to preach, and with feet of clay to live, the Gospel that defies such designations. Sometimes the world compels us to proclaim the Gospel when it isn’t comfortable to do so. I trust that you will hear the words I preach today as from someone who loves our Cathedral community and means it whenever we quote Psalm 46:5 and say that we seek to proclaim God in the midst of the city. This is also Trinity Sunday, and as such I’m beholden on this day to say something about the nature of that God. In other words, when we proclaim God in the midst of the city, just what God are we proclaiming? Our answer to that question makes all the difference.

I was downtown at the Cathedral this past Tuesday, when 60,000 people converged on downtown Houston to march in memory of George Floyd, who was murdered in Minneapolis on May 25 after allegedly spending a counterfeit $20 bill, by a policeman who asphyxiated him by pressing his knee into George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes. I’ve asked myself, why has this event sparked reaction and protest of such proportion compared to other incidents of unarmed Black men dying in custody or otherwise at the hand of white men?

The reason, I believe, is that George Floyd’s words (hearkening back to Eric Garner’s own dying words in 2014) gave universal voice. As he slowly suffocated, George Floyd said, “I can’t breathe.” A Black colleague shared with me this week that George Floyd’s dying words speak the felt truth of the daily Black experience in America: that anything that is theirs, or anything they might become, can be and is always at risk of being taken from them, as if liberty and even breath itself were merely on loan from a white majority.

For white people, at least this white person, George Floyd’s dying words—along with the look on the police officer’s face captured in photos—catches my breath with the realization that I can’t fathom what it is like to walk through the world that way. As I said in a blog post last weekend, “I am a Southern, white, heterosexual, cisgender male, which means that when making small daily decisions or large life-altering decisions I have never (literally never) had to pause and consider anything other than my hopes for my own actualization. Whether certain opportunities might be denied me; whether those in authority might treat me poorly; whether I might be profiled because I am somewhere I look out of place, [or whether my very breath is at risk]…I’ve never had to consider any of these things.”[i]

These two realities exist side-by-side in the United States. This was driven pointedly home this past week, by SMU professor Mark McCoy, who is white. The Dallas Morning News interviewed McCoy about a tweet in which the professor revealed that twenty years ago he’d been arrested for the same alleged crime as George Floyd. “George Floyd and I were both arrested for allegedly spending a counterfeit $20 bill,” McCoy tweeted, “For George Floyd, a man my age, with two kids, it was a death sentence. For me, it is a story I sometimes tell at parties. That, my friends, is White privilege.”[ii]

SMU professor's tweet about white privilege goes viral |

The God we proclaim is Trinitarian, and it is Trinity Sunday, but instead of an erudite treatise on the doctrine of the Trinity as such, I want to say a few brief words about each of the three persons who make up the one God. In the beginning, God the Father created; in each moment, God the Father creates. God looks upon the whole cosmos, the whole world, the whole human family, and says without degree or distinction, “It is good.” God raises up women and men and blesses them, but God does not bless any of us so that we may falsely understand ourselves to be worthier, or freer, or more deserving than others. God blesses us, as God first said to Abraham in the mists of prehistory—and I am quoting from Genesis 12:2 here—so that we may be a blessing. Those are, in fact, the very first words God ever says to Abraham. They are the words that launch the salvation story. They are the original lesson. Any of us who have anything at all in this world, if we believe in the Bible’s God, are blessed entirely and only so that we can be a blessing to others.

How do we do that? In order for us to know how, God had to come to us in the second person of the Trinity, God the Son. In Jesus, God shows us the way of love. It is not the way of triumphalism. It is not the way of dominating power. It is not the way of bravado. It is certainly not the way of ignoring, denying, or disregarding the needs of the other. If we believe that Jesus is God, then the only way for us to know how God loves, and how God calls us to love, is to look at Jesus. This is the basic Christian truth. And Jesus gives himself—his time, his voice, his power, his social capital, his life—for the lonely, the marginalized, and the voiceless. Jesus does not do so sometimes. He does not do so when it doesn’t hurt his own standing. He does not do so when there is no cost to acting. He does so always, all the way to the cross.

The Death of George Floyd in Minneapolis: What We Know So Far ...

George Floyd

Christ Church Cathedral is blessed, and I pray we always seek to be a blessing. I have known Jesus all my life, since I kept my denim-covered, red letter, Good News Bible on my bedstand as a kid. Like you, like all of us, I want to live like Jesus. I want to name my privilege, and wield it in order to render it obsolete. I want to help make the world a place where a policeman’s knee doesn’t press on George Floyd’s neck, and where the systems that allow and excuse that action are dismantled. I want, as St. Paul tells the Corinthians today, to “Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace.” But of my own I am weak, and I lack courage. And that is why we need the third person of the Trinity, God the Holy Spirit. Uninspired and un-empowered, we can only lament. We can mourn, and we can regret, but we cannot transform. With the Holy Spirit, the very creation which God called good from the beginning, for which Jesus died and rose again, for which 60,000 Houstonians marched this past Tuesday, can be fully restored.

The Holy Spirit in Old Testament Hebrew is ruach, in New Testament Greek is pneuma, in English is breath. In and through the Holy Spirit, we have strength and courage we otherwise lack. We can use our breath—the Holy Spirit within us—in service to finally remove the knee from George Floyd’s neck, so that all our sisters and brothers, who share within them the image of the Trinitarian God, can finally and forever breathe.