The Burning Bush

Our first reading this morning opens with the 3rd chapter of Exodus, and, oddly, we’re missing a main character.  In the book of Genesis, the voice of God is heard in the first paragraph of the entire book.  God is an active character from the outset.  But here in Exodus, we’re already three chapters in, and we have yet to see or hear from God.  There’s been but one brief mention made of God near the end of chapter one.

Who we do meet is Moses, and he undoubtedly wonders about God’s absence as much as we do.  Moses has surely heard about the God of the Israelites from his biological mother, and he must lament that this God who was so close to his ancestors has not made himself known to Moses.

Moses certainly could have benefited from God’s presence.  He experiences the pressure of living a dual life, as the child of Hebrews being reared as a prince of Egypt in Pharaoh’s own household.  The pressure finally becomes too much when Moses witnesses an Egyptian man beating an Israelite.  Moses snaps, and he kills the Egyptian.  Afterwards he has to flee from the royal household and finds himself living in the wilderness of Sinai tending sheep.  In a life as complicated as Moses’, he could use God!  As he struggles, he must wonder why God is so palpably absent.

But then, on this particular day Moses is grazing sheep on the mountain, and something—a flicker of flame—catches the periphery of his vision.  He almost misses it, but for some reason he pauses.  Moses says, “I must turn aside and look.”  He reorients his sight and his attention, and when he does—and only then—the God who has seemed so very absent calls to him from a burning bush unconsumed by the fire enveloping it.  Moses is stunned, and in reverent acknowledgement of in whose presence he stands he reaches down and removes his shoes.  He is on holy ground.

Burning bush - Wikipedia

The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning says, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God: But only [for] he who sees, [who] takes off his shoes…”

I believe that, at least intellectually.  Holy Scripture from Genesis to John affirms that the Spirit of God breathes life into each and every thing and through the Word Incarnate are all things made.  But if it is so—if every common bush is afire with the presence of God—then why do we so often feel alone?  Why do our walks through life—our experiences of fortune and misfortune, our days as princes of Egypt and as wanderers in the wilderness—seem so often to pass in the absence rather than the presence of God?  Why especially these days?

The answer surely lies in the scope of our sight.  We wish for God’s presence, as Moses must have done throughout his days, but we wish for God to appear at our pace and in our direct line of vision.  Most of the time, even when we have greatest need of God, we walk through life with blinders on, unwilling to pause, to turn aside, to widen our vision and take in things at the periphery.  We wistfully wish for God, but we rarely take off our shoes and acknowledge the hallowed ground upon which we tread each day.  The burning bush shows us that only when we do so—only when we open our eyes more broadly and turn our attention—does God call out to us.

I wonder how many burning bushes Moses had passed by before that day on the mountain?  How many times in Egypt had his lush, princely living prevented him from pausing and turning aside?  And later, how many times in the wilderness had he been so defeated and deflated by the misfortune in his life that he could not lift his eyes to look around him?

It is difficult to know just why, on this day, Moses shifts his sight.  But what is clear is that once he does so he is unable any longer to see the world with such narrow vision.  In the course of their conversation at the burning bush, God offers Moses both promise and call, and the former makes possible Moses’ response to the latter.  “I will be with you,” God promises.  “When you confront Pharaoh; when you lead your people; when you continue to struggle with your lack of confidence and your fear (and you will continue to struggle), I will be with you.”

That is the promise, but there is more.  There is a calling forth.  God also says, “So come,” and he shares with Moses the life Moses must now live, now that God has entered into his vision.  Life can never again be that of the blind and carefree prince, but it will also never again be that of the despondent wanderer in the wilderness.  It is now a life like that of the burning bush itself: enveloped by the very fire of God, and yet strengthened, enlivened, and preserved by that fire and not consumed.

Here we are on Rally Day, and it is a Rally Day like no other.  On this date just last year, 700+ of us came together in person to pack 100,000 meals in the span of an afternoon.  Today, we still gather by the hundreds, but virtually and from our homes, physically distanced in an expression of care and love for one another as palpable as the impulse that guided our work on last year’s Rally Day, but it admittedly feels so different.  It would be so very easy to put on the blinders, to sleepwalk through these days, obsessing or willfully ignoring the news and imagining that God is absent.  But what might happen if we instead pause, turn, and reorient our attention and our sight?

Moses entire life is different after the encounter on Sinai.  And he very nearly passes it by.  That day could have been like any other but that he pays attention and opens his eyes.  Moses comes down that mountain with vision broadened, with a promise and a call.  From then on he sees the world differently.  He follows God and is followed by God all the days of his life.  And it all begins when he pauses, turns aside, and takes off his shoes.

Sun breaking through the clouds wallpaper | Clouds, Cloud wallpaper,  Pictures of the sun

We can continue to walk straight ahead, without pause and with narrow vision.  We can live uncalled lives, never turning aside to see the presence of God, lives in which, as one scholar says, “there is no intrusion, disruption, or redefinition, no appearance or utterance of the Holy.”[1]  Or we can turn aside—allow an adjustment of vision—and hear God’s call.  We can see that we are never alone, and we can follow.

“Earths’ crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God.”  That’s a something around which can rally, together as Christ Church Cathedral, beginning on this very day.


[1] New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 2, pg. 719.

Do you believe in miracles?

My favorite story from the Gospels is found in Mark 4.  At the end of a long day teaching and healing, Jesus and the disciples board a small boat on the Sea of Galilee for a night crossing to the other side.  Jesus is exhausted, and he goes below deck to sleep.  A storm arises.  In the original Greek the language suggests tempest, a supernatural, malevolent storm.  The boat is buffeted so harshly that it takes on water and risks capsizing.  The terrified disciples rouse Jesus and ask him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  Jesus then says to the tempest, “Peace!  Be still!”  And the wind reverts to calm.  Jesus then asks the disciples, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”

This is one of innumerable examples of Jesus’ miracles throughout the Gospel.  Additionally, Jesus exorcises demons, cures the sick, and multiples food for those who hunger.  How are we supposed to take these miracles?  Are they magic tricks designed to awe and delight?  Are they proofs of Jesus’ divinity designed to convince and convert a skeptical audience?  I don’t think so.

Icons of Christ

If we reread virtually all of the healing miracles, for example, the people Jesus heals are not only suffering from biological or psychological ailments.  The sufferers are also, often as a result of their ailments, marginalized from the bonds of society.  They are cut off from relationships of protection and care, even from friends and family.  The possessed Gerasene who lives among the graves, the hemorrhaging woman, the leper: All of these are considered unclean, beneath, beyond the bounds of our empathy or care.  And through his healing acts, Jesus literally embraces them.  He breaks every societal taboo, walks across every line in the sand, risks every condemnation—indeed, dares others to condemn him—so he can demonstrate that the love of God we are to embody and express knows no limits.

Looking back to that storm in Mark 4, author Rachel Held Evans says in her book Inspired, “When Jesus rebukes the stormy sea, when he commands its fish and walks on its waves, he’s not just showing off; he’s making a statement about the God who reigns over even our most visceral, primal fears, the God who, in the words of the [prophet], ‘makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters’ (Isaiah 43:16).”

Evans goes on to offer, “The miracles of Jesus aren’t magic tricks designed to awe prospective converts…They are instructions, challenges.  They show us what to do and how to hope.”

In our world, that’s an especially important distinction to grasp.  We need hope, more than we’ve needed it in a long time.  These days, it is seductively easy to cast off those who are bothersome or seem dangerous, rather than embrace them.  It is easy to lapse into a paralysis of fear when so many storms (figurative and literal) buffet and almost capsize our lives.  If Jesus’ miracles are mainly parlor tricks, or else ancient suspensions of the laws of nature that only happened once upon a time, they are no good to us.  But if they are instructions for hope and for action, they reveal for us a still path through any storm.

10 Quick Tips to Improve Your Sleight of Hand

Are miracles magic tricks designed to awe and delight?  Are they proofs of Jesus’ divinity designed to convince and convert a skeptical audience?  I don’t think so.

How are we to respond when confronted with a person who is beyond the bounds?  Embrace her.  How are we to act when too many are in need and there seems not enough to go around?  Share with generosity of heart.  How are we to be when the storm seems intent on sinking us? Remember that beyond any storm is the peace of God in which we find our ground.  The catch-22 is that each of these miracles becomes true when we choose to live them.  The sick are healed; the hungry are fed; the wave-addled make it through to the calm, when we rise to the challenge of Christ’s miracles.

Dallas Willard says, “We don’t believe in something by merely saying we believe it or even when we believe we believe it.  We believe something when we act as if it were true.”  Rachel adds, “So perhaps a better question than ‘Do I believe in miracles’ is ‘Am I acting like I do?’” mark

Do you believe in miracles?  I do.  And if we live our lives in miraculous hope and action, we may just find that miracles still happen everyday.

The Jesus Fish

We can all agree on the central symbol of Christian faith, right? It is, of course, the cross, reminding us of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement for the sins of humankind. If someone asks a Christian what faith is all about, she can simply point to the cross.

But wait…What if I told you that the cross was not originally the central Christian symbol? In fact, it wasn’t. For the first few decades after Easter, the cross was too brutal a reminder of Jesus’ death, and it was still primarily associated with the execution of criminals. The physical symbol of the cross didn’t begin to become prevalent in Christian art and symbolism until a century later.

So what was the earliest central symbol of the Christian faith? It turns out it was the ichthys, the “Jesus fish” that we can see on so many car magnets and bumper stickers today. The ichthys was an acronym in Greek, with each letter representing a word. The whole acronym stood for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”

ICHTHYS - Spiritual Decal The Ichthys is a symbol consisting of ...

The simple drawing of the ichthys was made up of two curved lines that met to form the shape of a fish. In a time when it was at least socially unacceptable to follow Jesus and at worst an invitation for the Romans to abuse, Christians used the ichthys as a secret symbol. When two Christians met, one would draw the first line, and the other would complete the fish with the second line, letting both know that they could trust one another in their shared faith. The ruins of St. Peter’s house in Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, considered by most archaeologists to be authentic, has first-century fish symbols carved into its walls by some of the very first followers of Jesus.

What difference does this make, the cross vs. the fish? A lot. First of all, even when St. Paul and other early Christians do talk about the crucifixion they are not talking about substitutionary atonement, about Jesus as a stand-in for us, taking on God’s wrath for our sin. That theology wasn’t fully developed until a thousand years after Jesus. It’s certainly not in the Gospels. Paul is instead talking about God’s victory in Jesus over death, God’s defeat of the powers that would seek to hinder God’s good purposes and harm God’s children. In other words, the cross was only meaningful when tied to the empty tomb of Easter. If we’re going to keep the cross in the center, let’s at least remember that.

But we should also reclaim the ichthys, not as a pithy bumper sticker, but as a reminder of all those fishing stories of Jesus. Remember Luke 5, when the disciples fish all night but fail to catch anything at all. Then Jesus appears and encourages them. They throw their nets wide, and they gather so many fish the nets almost burst. Remember also the Feeding of the Five Thousand, when, with Jesus, the fish are multiplied and all the hungry are fed.

The associations of the cross and the ichthys couldn’t be more different. The meaning of the ichthys points not to violence, abuse, blood atonement, or despondency but to the ways in which, by the grace of God, all are gathered together in love, and all are nourished. That was the lived experience of the earliest Christians even in most difficult times.

In the difficult times in which we find ourselves, it seems to me this should be in the center of our attention. Though we are physically apart, the net of grace is cast over each one of us, drawing us to God in love and reminding us that we are in this together. God’s grace continues to nourish our souls. Finally, the ichthys reminds us that we are not only fish but fishermen. It is our role, like the disciples, always to cast the net of grace to those in need. So in this season, maybe set the cross just a little to the side and remember the Jesus fish. You’ll be in good company if you do.

A Crisis of “Othering”

In the fifteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus finds himself—for about the hundredth time—confronted by the Pharisees. First century Pharisees, like all Palestinian Jews in that day, are faced with a real problem: secular culture is challenging their religious lives. (Does that sound familiar?) For years the Romans have ruled Palestine, and for centuries before that, the Greeks were in charge. During all that time, Greek culture, with its idols, its materialism, and its tendency toward sexual license have filtered into Jewish life. Virtue is regarded as quaint. Vice is often redefined as freedom. What has traditionally been forbidden is now accepted without question. To the Pharisees, it feels as if their world is a ship slowly but surely filling with water.

The Pharisees in Jesus’ day respond with a vengeance by teaching a renewed religious identity as Jews. They encourage strict observance of personal purity and dietary laws. They also don attire that accentuates their Jewishness, wearing long, traditional robes and placing phylacteries—small leather boxes containing passages of scripture—on their foreheads and arms. They insist that the way to preserve Jewish life is to circle the wagons and keep outsiders and outside influences at bay.

In today’s Gospel we can infer from the words of Jesus something else to which the Pharisees are prone. Jesus says to those around him, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles…Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” Jesus is not in the habit of addressing nonexistent situations. In other words, along with their rigid and defensive religious observance, the Pharisees apparently have sharp tongues. Not only do they redouble their own religious observance as an alternative to the world; not only do they teach and counsel their followers that fidelity to the faith as they understand it draws one close to God; they also, with a sneer and a scoff, ridicule, malign, dismiss, and debase those who do not see the world as they do.

There is a sociological term for this: “othering.”[i] Othering occurs when structures and practices of one group define those not of one’s group as outsiders. To some extent, this is unavoidable. If I am not of your group, then I am by definition outside of it. But othering goes further than this. Othering defines difference as bad, unworthy, or dangerous.

Othering: A Leader's Kryptonite - P² LeaderlabP² Leaderlab

Othering is closely related to another sociological concept: “belonging.” Belonging is, of course, when affiliation with a group—family, faith community, sports team, you name it—grants people a sense of value, comfort and security of place. Of itself, belonging is good and even necessary. We each have a deep need for a place to stand. We need emotional, spiritual, and psychological homes just as much as we need a physical roof over our heads. Especially in times of distress—times like our own and times like those in which Jesus and the Pharisees live—belonging is a lifeline. I don’t know about you, but my family, my friendship circles, my belonging to the community of Christ Church Cathedral, have never been more important to my sense of self and my location in the world.

As necessary as belonging is, too often its light casts the dark shadow of othering. In a usual year, we see this fairly innocuously during football season, when fans of one team regard fans of another not as sporting opponents, but as demons belched forth from the bowels of hell. Othering perverts belonging into something totemic and tribal. When it occurs at the level of sports, we may most often be able to chuckle, but in other arenas of life it is devastating and deadly. Taken to its extreme, othering grants one group a sense of power and invincibility by doing violence to another group. At their roots, racism, religious warfare, and cultural marginalization are all expressions of othering. They occur when one group’s sense of belonging becomes predicated on defining others as, at best, less-than and, at worst, a threat to be isolated, suppressed, or even eliminated.

And here is the clincher that Jesus grasps and reminds us today, a reminder we would do well to heed: Words are the gasoline poured on the fire of othering. Our rhetoric is not incidental. Our words are not throwaway lines that dissolve into the ether. As Jesus says, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.” Our othering words breathe into the world our secret fears and insecurities as animus and venom towards those not like us. Those words validate and grant permission, both to ourselves and to those who hear us, to act out in the real world.

Jesus speaks two thousand years ago, but he might as well be talking to us today. Today, othering language rolls off tongues from the water cooler to the heights of power in Washington, D.C. It is an equal opportunity pursuit. Worst of all are the dehumanizing othering comments about people of different political persuasions, lifestyles, or religious faiths made by Christian leaders. From the mouths of pastors, sometimes even from the pulpit, come words that characterize and caricature those who are different as dangerous, immoral, and so devalued as to suggest that they aren’t even sisters and brothers in our fragile humanity.

The casualness with which we have allowed the blessing of our belonging to morph into the curse—and it is assuredly a curse—of othering those different from us is, I am convinced, the tragedy of this era. Where we think we are being casually clever or self-affirming, future generations will look back and see our othering of those different as short-sighted, emotionally immature, and wrong.

Back in the Gospel, the second half of today’s reading provides the poignant antidote to othering. Jesus is approached by someone who is triply other: a foreigner, a gentile, and one whose daughter is possessed by a demon. At first, Jesus himself, just after warning against the Pharisees, engages in exactly the othering he has warned against. He ignores the woman as though she is not worthy of his consideration, and when she persists Jesus tells the woman he has been sent to tend only to the group of his own belonging. Finally and shockingly, in his fatigue and exhaustion, Jesus literally dehumanizes her. But the woman speaks again, and this time Jesus sees in her need and vulnerability the light of God’s truth. The woman is not other. She belongs. Indeed, in God there is no other. All are beloved. All belong. All are within God’s embrace.

The Vicar of Wakefield:

The lesson is radical. The Pharisees’ response to the challenge of the surrounding culture—the response that rigidly defines belonging and circles the wagons to keep “the other” at bay—is not only wrong but leads to the breakdown of human bonds of empathy and understanding. It leads, as it has always led, to destruction. The faithful response, which Jesus himself learns and embraces today, is instead to open circles that are closed, to broaden the bounds of belonging, to recognize that, no matter what our differences—religious, ideological, racial, cultural, political—we are all God’s children.

Our words have power to shape the boundaries of our world. Before we speak, before we applaud the words of another, we should search our hearts, from which our words proceed. And in our hearts we must find a place of belonging for the other so that what we speak does not defile ourselves and our world but graces all of God’s children.



Naming the Dragons

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is celebrated, and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series is beloved by adults and children alike, but my favorite fantasy story is Ursula Le Guin’s original Earthsea trilogy, published between 1968 and 1972.

Le Guin’s protagonist is the wizard Ged, of prodigious powers rivaling Tolkien’s Gandalf or, for that matter, J.K. Rowling’s Albus Dumbledore.  But unlike those aged wizards, Ged is a boy, and in the first book he must learn not only how to harness his power but also how to mature in life.

A Wizard of Earthsea (The Earthsea Cycle, Book 1): Ursula K. Le Guin

The most captivating thing about Le Guin’s mythos is how magic works.  For the most part, great spells are not cast and fire does not reign down from the heavens.  In Earthsea, at the dawn of time the Creator bestowed upon each thing in creation, even those yet to exist, a true name.  Over the eons, this ancient, true language was forgotten, and the true names of all things became unknown.  Except, that is, by the wizards.  All that magic is in the world of Earthsea is the knowledge of the ancient language, of the true names of things.

So, how does that play out?  As a young wizard, Ged is contracted to save the island of Pendor from a dragon who has ravaged the countryside.  When Ged finds and approaches the dragon, and after despatching her dragon children, he is cowed by her mammoth size and fearsome appearance.  She is as big as a mountain with teeth like sabers.  She is fearsome, and she threatens Ged, but the wizard regains his composure when he remembers his magic: Ged knows the dragons name.  Ged pauses and stills himself to recollect the true name of what he is facing.  He speaks it, “Yevaud,” and once he has named the dragon, she loses the power to hurt him.  She is still huge; her teeth are still razor sharp; she still breathes fire.  Indeed, her very presence still makes Ged shudder.  But she cannot hurt him, because he has named her truly.  He has seen her in her essence, and once he has done so he can stand.

Would you like some more power? No, I'm not hungry anymore ...

Ged facing Yevaud

I love Le Guin’s mythos because, like all good myths, it embodies universal truth.  In our real world, Le Guin’s lesson about naming truly does, indeed, have such power that it may seem like magic.  This is borne out in the Gospels as well.  Again and again, the demons fear Jesus because Jesus knows their names, and they know his.  Beneath the demons’ bluster and threat, both Jesus and the demons recognize the true power differential inherent in their true identities.  As soon as Jesus names the demons, they flee, impotent to do more damage.  And, Jesus grants his power of naming truly to his followers, first to the disciples and now even to us.

In times of stress and strain, daily anxieties and threats seems to grow from being dragonflies to mythical dragons as big as mountains.  The appearance of sharp teeth and fiery breath can paralyze us in our daily living.  But the Gospel is as true today as it was when Jesus walked the dusty roads of Palestine.  The key is to pause and still ourselves, to look the dragons in the eye and to name them.  And then, like Yevaud, the puffed-up dragons wilt.  The demons cower when we call them out.

Our stresses and strains will not magically go away—not even Ged could cast a spell to make the dragon vanish—but to name in truth what we are facing knocks the stresses and strains down to size.  It blunts their teeth to do us harm.  And, it is also worth naming the greatest truth of all: That with the God incarnate in Jesus we never face the dragons alone.

Angels: Why do they fly?

I was away for much of the month of July. We spent a couple of refreshing days on the Gulf coast, followed by a week cloistered at home. I read for several hours each day, which was heaven for me! Then Jill and I loaded up the car and drove cross country, responsibly mask-wearing and social distancing all along the way, to the mountains of Western North Carolina. I served one Sunday as the chaplain for All Saints Episcopal Church in Linville, North Carolina, but we mostly relaxed, enjoyed cool mountain air, and strenuously hiked.


Jill and I fell in love with the Appalachians and with day hiking during the years we lived in Roanoke, Virginia. I grew up in the delta of Eastern Arkansas, and we now live in lovely but flat Houston, so the rise of the ancient Blue Ridge holds a kind of grace for me. Whether hiking up to an overlook to gaze at an awesome vista or down to a waterfall to watch the powerful flow of eons over smoothed rock, for me the presence of God is palpable in that milieu.

This time in the mountains, I was reminded of a comment a former parishioner once made to me. He said, “While hiking the Appalachian Trail, we would often encounter a rustic wooden sign on which was scrawled the motto of the trail: ‘Take only memories; leave only footprints.’ Those words taught us how to behave in the wilderness.”

This seems to me also to teach us how to live always in the world. Each of us is here only a little while, and we have the God-given power, especially in times of collective stress and strain such as the days in which we are living, to make our impact on the world positive and leave no scars through our actions, words, or passive neglect.

Don't Cut the Switchbacks - Hospice Matters

When I was researching the background of the Appalachian Trail motto, I came across a quote from a blogger who goes by Visar. She asks and answers, “Angels: Why do they fly? It’s because they travel lightly, not disturbing but beautifying their paths and the places they visit.” I love that. Psalm 8 says to God, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, that you care for them? You have made them but a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.” Surely, we can follow the lead of our cousins the angels and seek to add grace and beauty to the lives and places we visit.

Such living requires attention, commitment, and — most of all — a will to love before all else. Retired priest and my friend, the Rev. Tom Mustard, composed a blessing that he pronounces at the end of every Holy Eucharist. It sums up perfectly the spiritual practices necessary to live lightly and with grace in the world:

“Be careful as you go into God’s creation, for it does not belong to you. Be gentle with yourself and others, for we are the dwelling place of the Most High. Be alert and be silent, for God is a whisper. And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.”

Scylla and Charybdis

Between a rock and a hard place.  The devil and the deep blue sea.  In dire straits.  All of these sayings and others refer originally to Scylla and Charybdis, the mythical monsters who guarded either side of the narrow Strait of Messina between Sicily and the toe of Italy.  Charybdis was a churning whirlpool so powerful that any ship caught in its vortex was torn apart and sunk.  Scylla was a monster guarding the cliff on the opposite side of the strait, who would devour any sailors that drifted within her reach.  Scylla awaits on a rock.  Charybdis is a hard place.  Scylla is the devil.  Charybdis is the deep blue sea.  The straits are, indeed, dire.

Traveling between Scylla and Charybdis is a no-win situation.  There is no safe passage.  There is no way to shoot the strait without injury.  If you travel that way, you will be, at the very least, scarred.

Few monsters show up as frequently in the ancient myths as Scylla and Charybdis.  While searching for the golden fleece, Jason and the Argonauts must navigate them.  The great hero Hercules faces them.  Odysseus traverses the strait and sacrifices some of his men to Scylla in the process.  An eon later, Aeneas must brave the same stretch of water.  Anyone who is anyone in the ancient stories finds themselves, sooner or later, in these dire straits that cannot be escaped without injury.

Myths are not, as commonly said, false stories.  Rather, myths are the stories that convey to us the deepest existential truths.  The tales of Scylla and Charybdis, ubiquitous across ages and cultures in the ancient Mediterranean, relate to us the universal human experience.  There are those times when we approach a path that must be taken, when there is no alternate route, no other way around, and when any movement forward is bound to lead to pain, loss, and injury.  We, like Jason, Odysseus, and Aeneas, find ourselves between Scylla and Charybdis.  In those moments, what are we to do?


Scylla and Charybdis - TV Tropes

Scylla and Charybdis: The original devil and the deep blue sea

The Old Testament reading today is such a moment for Jacob, who has spent a lifetime nimbly evading such existential traps.  But now Jacob has reached a place from which there is no escape.  He flees from his Uncle Laban, who is hot on his trail with violent intentions.  He travels toward his brother Esau, from whom through trickery and conniving Jacob stole Esau’s inheritance and blessing.  When they departed years ago, Esau had declared his intention to murder Jacob.  And now, to escape Laban Jacob is headed back toward Esau.  There is no other way to go.  Both options are almost certainly injurious if not deadly.  Add Jacob to Hercules and Odysseus on that list of ancient characters.  This is Scylla and Charybdis.  A rock and a hard place.

On the evening before the day he will meet Esau, as he approaches the River Jabbok, Jacob sends his family and servants away from him, so that he is all alone in the wilderness.  In the silent darkness, with nothing around to distract Jacob, the reality of his circumstances weighs on him like a shroud.  He becomes frenetic and fitful in his apprehension and anxiety (do you know that feeling?) such that his state becomes personified in an actual person who launches into him from the darkness.  Imagine that wrestling match.  In the wilderness, Jacob wrestles with his own past and the decisions he has made that have brought him to this point.  He wrestles with the loss he knows is almost certain to come no matter what he does in the morning.  He wrestles with both his public persona, the him people see, and his private self, who he alone knows.  And in all of that, he wrestles with God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.

Now, you may be a lot more even keeled in rock-and-hard-place moments than I am.  You may be more confident, or better equipped, or less complicit in the making of messes in the first place.  For me, though, I get this story.  I understand Jacob’s sense that the whirlpool may suck him down on one side and the monster may devour him on the other.  And I intuitively attune to Jacob’s desperate cry as he clings to God for dear life, when he says to God, “I won’t let go of you until you bless me!”

When all comforts are stripped away; when the silence and darkness remove any existential shelter; when every option promises to bring loss, what else is there to cling to but God?  Where else is hope to be found than in God’s blessing?

And God grants what Jacob asks for, but it isn’t like any blessing Jacob could conceive.  It isn’t the blessing Jacob wants.  God grants Jacob a new name—Israel—which means “struggles with God.”  God says to Jacob, “Your existence in this world, your very being, is to wrestle.  You have misunderstood and asked for the wrong things.  You are not ‘Jacob the Trickster’ or ‘Jacob the Affable’ or ‘Jacob who escapes trouble like magic’ or ‘Jacob for whom life always works out.’  You are the One who Struggles.  That is your identity.  But you are not alone.  I, God, have made you Israel.  I am with you in the struggle.”

And God changes Jacob’s material circumstances in exactly one way: God injures Jacob!  Jacob walks away from this strangest of blessings with a limp that will remain with him until the end of his days.  When the sun rises, this is the only thing that has changed.  Uncle Laban still pursues.  Brother Esau still awaits.  God has provided no escape route.  But where Jacob was paralyzed between Scylla and Charybdis, Israel has new strength, limp and all, to run the gauntlet.

The story of Jacob at the Jabbok is one of my favorites in scripture.  (Indeed, it is one of the selections I’ve chosen to be read at my own funeral.)  It is the truest of all passages, denying cheap and easy readings of scripture that claim untrue things about us and about God.  Here, in these days of global pandemic, civil unrest, political malfeasance, and economic meltdown, we may experience life as a repeated series of Scylla and Charybdis.  Again and again, it may be that none of our options comes without loss.  That is real.  But between that rock and hard place, we are not alone.  No matter how bleak the wilderness, God is with us.  Whatever the struggle, and for however long it lasts, God is with us.  Whether Laban catches up to us or Esau’s murderous memory remains hot, God is with us.  No matter what, we never struggle alone.  That is what propels me forward.  That is what gives me hope that runs deeper than any anxiety.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel Painting by Alexander Louis Leloir

Jacob wrestling with God, by Alexander Louis Leloir

There is a coda to the myth of Scylla and Charybdis.  Before Charybdis became a swirling vortex and Scylla became a six-headed monster, both were normal human beings.[i]  Circumstances transformed them into their monstrous selves.  They became Scylla and Charybdis.

We need to wrestle with that, too.  Even when we do seek to cling to God, in a world such as ours it seems there are two prevailing religious errors we can make.  The first is to lean on feel-good spiritual pablum: easy, comfortable words that pretend the wilderness is really a garden and that our challenges will evaporate in the morning light.  That kind of Pollyanna spiritual pablum is Charybdis, a vortex that only ultimately makes matters worse by willful denial and ignorance.  The other common religious response is a spiritual militancy that scapegoats “the other,” whoever that may be, as the source of our troubles.  Spiritual militancy is Scylla, a many-headed monster that more and more these days maims and sacrifices human relationships.

We preserve ourselves from becoming Scylla and Charybdis, from becoming those who cleave to either Pollyanna or militant faith, also by remembering Jacob’s story and knowing that we, too, are created to wrestle with the God who calls us to live, in a world of real and un-ignorable challenge, lives of sacrificial love and commitment to grace, even and especially when that life puts us between a rock and a hard place.  It sometimes hurts to live this life, but the world needs us to do so now more than ever.  We are invited to take on the injuries that may come from our dedication to that God and to recognize, and embrace as Jacob embraced God, that the struggle is itself the blessing.


[i] In Scylla’s case, actually a nymph.