“You’re not going to believe this, but you have cancer.”

“You’re not going to believe this, but you have cancer.”  In retrospect, these may not have been the urologist’s exact words when he called me on February 5, but it is accurate that his surprise was as genuine as mine.  Fewer than 3% of men diagnosed with prostate cancer are younger than fifty.[i]  I am forty-eight years old.  Forty-eight year-old men almost never get prostate cancer.  Unless there is a family history of prostate cancer, men usually don’t even begin having their PSA checked until age fifty.  I only began having my PSA checked in my mid-forties because, in an odd coincidence, I have a close friend and colleague who was diagnosed with prostate cancer when in his forties.

PSA is “prostate specific antigen,” a chemical produced in the male body only by prostate cells.  High PSA levels are the best indication of the presence of prostate cancer.  The standard threshold measurement for elevated PSA is 4.0, but that’s misleading.  That threshold is set for older men.  For men under age 60, the threshold for elevated PSA is 2.5.[ii]  The average PSA for a man in his forties is .7.  In 2017, my PSA was 1.94.  In 2018, it had risen to 2.4.  Last November, it was 3.41.  That steady increase over time alerted my primary care physician, who referred me to a urologist.  The urologist ordered an MRI, followed by a needle biopsy.  At every step, because of my age and lack of a known family history of prostate cancer, both physicians repeatedly said, “We’ll do this next test, but don’t worry. Men in their forties don’t get prostate cancer.  It’s an older man’s disease.”  Thus, the urologist’s surprise on February 5, when he received the biopsy results.

Gleason Score - Prostate Conditions

Prostate tumors are graded with a “Gleason score,” which describes the nature of the cancer cells.  The more irregular the cells, the higher the Gleason score.  Said differently, the higher the Gleason score, the more advanced and aggressive the cancer.  Pre-cancerous cells are graded 1 or 2.  Cancer cells are graded 3-5.  Tumors receive two grades: one for the primary cells present and another for any secondary cancer cells present.  The final Gleason score is the sum of these two numbers.  If the primary cells are 3 and the secondary cells are 4, the tumor’s Gleason score is 3+4=7.  The lowest (and therefore “best”) score a prostate tumor can receive is Gleason 6 (3+3).  My needle biopsy suggested that I had a small, fully-contained Gleason 6 tumor in the peripheral zone of my prostate.  There was inconclusive evidence that there might be an additional tumor elsewhere.  The urologist’s counsel was that, though I could pursue immediate treatment if I wanted to, I could also follow an “active surveillance” protocol, in which I’d have regular and periodic PSA tests, MRIs, and biopsies to see if the tumor grew or became more aggressive.  He said I might not need treatment for another 2-5 years.

I am blessed to live in Houston, so I sought a second opinion at MD Anderson, one of the world’s best cancer centers.  I met with both a urological surgeon (Dr. John Davis) and a radiation oncologist (Dr. Seungtaek Choi).  Based upon the MRI and biopsy I’d had previously, the MD Anderson physicians, too, offered me the options of immediate treatment or active surveillance.  The decision was up to me.  On March 16, I decided to move forward with a radical prostatectomy, in which a surgeon removes the entire prostate gland, some surrounding tissue, and the seminal vesicles.  The six weeks between diagnosis and the decision to have surgery were, beyond doubt, the darkest of my life.  Ignorance, uncertainty and indecision are demons that taunt and lurk around the edges of a health crisis, and all three demons plagued me in those days.  As soon as I made the decision to have surgery, the shadows dispelled, and my anxiety washed away.  The change in my demeanor was pronounced and immediate.

I needed to get through Easter before having surgery (I’m a priest, after all), and the earliest post-Easter date available on Dr. Davis’ surgical calendar was April 26.  On that morning, I checked into MD Anderson, and Dr. Davis performed a Da Vinci robotic prostatectomy, making six incisions in my abdomen.  (Eliza says I’ll look super cool at the beach, like I’ve survived a knife fight.)

Reality Check: Should People with Cancer Avoid Robotic Surgery? | Memorial  Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
Da Vinci robotic surgery is space-age stuff.

For two weeks after surgery, I recovered slowly but with the felt assurance that surgery had removed a small and contained tumor, and I could now put the entire experience in the rearview mirror.  Then, on May 11, I received the post-surgical pathology report, which upended me all over again.  The small Gleason 6 tumor was, indeed, contained and successfully removed, but it turned out a much larger, Gleason 7 (3+4) tumor had been hiding in the interior of my prostate.  This second tumor had not shown up on the MRI.  The second tumor had escaped the prostate capsule and invaded the neck of my bladder.  At that cut, Dr. Davis got an unclean margin.  (This was not in any way his error.  The cancer at that spot was microscopic.)

It took a day for me to reach Dr. Davis, and several days beyond that to visit with Dr. Choi, the radiation oncologist.  Those intermediate hours were a return to anxiety and shadow, but the explanation and commentary the physicians were able to offer on the pathology report provided comfort.  The character of the Gleason 7 tumor classified it as pT3a, which means the cancer had spread outside the prostate gland but had not reached lymph nodes or seminal vesicles.  The not-great news is that such a cancer has about a 40% chance of recurrence within ten years.  The very good news is that the fifteen-year survival rate for such cancer is still above 95%.  And if the cancer ever does recur, Dr. Choi is confident that radiation and hormone therapy can keep it in check.

This past Monday, June 7, I had my 6-week post-operative PSA check at MD Anderson.  My PSA level was <.1, which means negligible.  That’s exactly what one hopes for after a prostatectomy.  On Monday evening, I told Jill that it had been the 4th best day of my life, ranking after my two kids’ birthdays and my wedding day.

I have recovered well from surgery.  I have returned to the gym, and thanks to Dr. Davis’ world-class skills I have been spared the physiological difficulties sometimes associated with life after prostate surgery.  I’m still exhausted at the end of each day, but even that is getting better.

MD Anderson Cited For Patient Care, Safety Problems – Houston Public Media

I have learned practical lessons from the experience of the past several months.  It is very good that I began having my PSA checked in my mid-forties.  Though standard protocol is to wait until age fifty, I encourage men otherwise.  PSA is simply an add-on test to regular annual blood work.  Even if you have to pay a bit out of pocket, ask your physician to include it.  It is very good that my primary care physician paid attention to the elevation of and trend in my PSA.  It is very good that I followed up with a urologist.  And in my case, it is very good that I pursued surgery when I did.  Immediate treatment will not be the best decision for every man, but given the pT3a tumor, I shudder to think what condition I’d be in if I’d waited.  The ultimate practical lesson is that we must each be advocates for our own health.  Even the best physicians work with limited knowledge and diagnostic evidence.  Standing up for oneself, listening to one’s gut, weighing the best evidence and advice, and making an educated decision are all crucial to one’s health and well-being.

I have also learned existential and spiritual lessons from this experience.  I am a different person than I was on February 5.  Some days, the urologist’s exclamation, “You’re not going to believe this, but you have cancer,” continues to ring true.  Occasionally, it seems as if these past few months I’ve watched my life from the outside, as if viewing a movie about someone else.  That I was a cancer patient, and that I am a cancer survivor, feels foreign and strange.

Most days, however, it feels all-too-intimate.  And I am glad for that.  I wish I hadn’t had prostate cancer, but paradoxically, I’m also glad I had it.  It is making me a better priest.  Empathy for those who receive frightening and potentially life-threatening diagnoses is no longer hypothetical.  It is visceral and real.

I’ve also recognized as I never had before the importance of friends.  The Celts speak of anamchara—soul friends—and in these months I’ve had several.  Jill proved, again and again and again, to be the best life partner a human being could hope for (and far better than I deserve).  My parents carried enough concern for me that I could set my self-concern down occasionally.  The Rev. Morgan Allen, one of my closest friends in ministry and life, was available to me even when I didn’t realize I needed him.  Julie Janos, my friend for thirty years and a courageous breast cancer survivor, talked me off the ledge and gave me clear perspective when my own was distorted.  Parishioner and friend Bobby Tudor, a prostate cancer survivor himself, did the same.  Parishioner Dr. Eric Strom, an MD Anderson physician who saves lives daily, helped me navigate the labyrinthine MD Anderson system.  The Cathedral wardens and parishioners, as well as Bishop Andy Doyle, ministered to me as the Body of Christ.  Not for a moment did I walk alone.

Cathedral parishioners know that I have a serious interest in the wisdom books Ecclesiastes and Job.  Tethered to the Gospels, I believe these books convey the most important theology in the Bible.  Ecclesiastes, Job, and Jesus teach us to engage the world fully—and to love completely—but also to be non-attached.  With Gospel non-attachment, our recognition of the fragility and transience of life leads not to anxiety and fear, but to deep and abiding gratitude and joy.  When we learn not to cling, we begin to live.  This knowledge was academic for me prior to February 5.  I now know it in my soul.

My PSA will be tested again in July and then, because of the pT3a larger tumor, every three months for five years.  I am someone who craves resolution, and another lesson cancer is teaching me is to learn to live with something that, by definition, will never resolve (or, will only resolve—as do all things—when I go to meet my maker).  My cousin Dinky Spears, who is battling cancer herself, taught me not to call the tumor “my cancer.”  Cancer is something to expunge, not own.  I agree with Dinky.  That said, this has been, and on some level will continue to be, my cancer journey.  As with all spiritual journeys, it is as much about the path we take and those with whom we travel as it is about the destination.  For the path and the companions, I am eternally grateful.

The day after surgery

[i] https://www.verywellhealth.com/prostate-cancer-causes-risk-factors-2782036

[ii] https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/prostate-cancer/prostate-cancer-age-specific-screening-guidelines#:~:text=For%20men%20in%20their%2040s,1.0%20and%201.5%20ng%2Fml.

Grief: Helping one another get to the other side

She was known by parents as the “Drill Sergeant,” and she was the swimming instructor of last resort for kids who made quick and defeating work of the more cheerful and easy-going local swim teachers.  People said she could teach anyone to swim.  A wooden fence surrounded her pool, and parents had to say goodbye to their kids at the gate.  No observing swimming lessons.  You dropped your kid off, and by summer’s end, comes what may, little Johnny or Susie could—and did—swim.  Except Eliza.  After the second or third lesson, the backyard gate opened, and the Drill Sergeant nudged my child toward me.  “I can’t teach her,” the Drill Sergeant exasperatedly said, “She’s on her own.”  With that, the gate shut, and Eliza looked up at me with defeated eyes.

With no other good options, I began my brief career as a swim instructor.  Eliza and I would head to the pool at the Y, and with excruciating slowness and mind-numbing repetition, we would start at one side of the swimming pool, I would back away from her one foot at a time, and she would dog paddle with abandon to reach me until we made it to the other side.  Every time—every time—I let go of her, the expression on her face became a mixture of confusion and fear, as if, no matter how many times we’d done this before, it was a surprise to her to be untethered in the deep.  Every time she reached me after a few seconds of flailing, the relieved grin on her face and the relaxation of her brow made my heart melt.  And somehow, by summer’s end, Eliza could finally swim.

No photo description available.
Eliza, around the time she learned to swim.

In Genesis today, we read the first half of the punchline of the story of the first man, the first woman, the fruit, and the serpent.  Before today’s reading, the serpent entices the man and the woman to eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and in the verse immediately prior to today’s passage, we are told that, upon tasting the fruit, “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.”

Today, God appears and begins to reveal to the man and woman the result of their decision to eat the fruit.  Christian theology has traditionally interpreted this as God’s punishment for disobedience, the “original sin” that plagues humanity to this day.  I have preached on that interpretation more than once.  Instead of that, today I share that the ancient rabbis sometimes read this passage differently, not as sin and God’s retribution for sin, but as the primeval story of the emergence of human consciousness. In that case it is, in other words, the account of our divergence from mere instinct and reactive living.  It is the story of Adam and Eve becoming human.

If Genesis 3 is a story not of original sin but of the dawn of human self-awareness, then the “curse” we begin to read about today is not punishment, but rather simply an explanation of what the experience of living entails for human beings, for creatures who have God-like consciousness but frail and mortal faculties and bodies to process and deal with that consciousness.  After eating the fruit, like God the man and the woman can remember the past and imagine the future.  They can hope, and dream, and plan.  But unlike God, they cannot ensure that any of their hopes will flourish.  The man and the woman will be stymied.  Their memory will include disappointment.  Their hope will be dashed.  Their joy will be preempted by sorrow.  This is the “curse” they unwittingly choose along with the forbidden fruit.  This is what God warned them against.  When they choose self-consciousness, with it comes the consciousness of loss.  In a word, the man and woman introduce into their lives, grief.

Grief is a quintessentially human experience.  That’s not to say that other animals don’t encounter grief.  Famously, elephants grieve their dead, but when we observe them doing so, we say that, to that extent at least, elephants seem quite human.  Grief is the crushing realization that everything in our lives, including our lives themselves and the lives of those we love, is transient.  Unlike God, we and our world are ephemeral–the realization of which crushes us–which is why in the primeval story God so wants to protect us from this knowledge. 

The Long Goodbye: Coping With Sadness And Grief Before A Loved One Dies |  Kaiser Health News

It is fitting that Genesis 3 is appointed for today, as we emerge from the COVID pandemic and begin to take stock of the past fifteen months, because like Adam and Eve opening their eyes in the garden, we have a dawning recognition of just what we have so recently lost.  We’ve lost small things: discrete holidays with loved ones and friends, a summer vacation.  We have lost momentous things: a graduation, a job.  We have lost precious things: loved ones to the virus, or to the ceaseless other ravages that continued while we were cloistered from one another.  And we have lost intangible things: Our blessed illusions of certainty about the future, our confidence that our carefully-constructed life plans will come to fruition, and even our faith in our competence to navigate the world.        

The recognition of all these losses cascades over us, young and old.  Psychologists call this deluge of loss cumulative grief, and it can drown us.  There is a limit to the human capacity to grieve.  And we have reached it.  We find ourselves unable to process all of our individual and collective loss, and we see the effects of our inability all around us.  Acts of random violence—explosions of frustration and powerlessness in the face of loss—are rampant on airplanes, against ambulance workers, in supermarkets, and elsewhere.[i]  Incidence of societal depression has tripled.[ii]  Stunningly, more than half of the young adult in the United States age 18-29 report chronic feelings of hopelessness, as they grapple with the loss of both their formative experiences in the past fifteen months and their plans for the future.[iii]  And in one broad study of a cross-section of the population, seventy-three percent say that their mental health has deteriorated.  Researchers call it “the pandemic within the pandemic.”[iv]  So, what are we to do?

Last week’s episode of the radio show This American Life was on grief, and one section, by producer Sean Cole, was on cumulative grief.  During the pandemic, Cole lost two parents, saw his serious relationship end, and endured the loss of that same girlfriend’s pregnancy.  He is the poster child for cumulative grief.  Cole, like so many, isn’t sure how his future will look.  But at the end of telling his story he does come to this conclusion, “I was asking myself why we were all even here, what is was all for.  I don’t have any faith or doctrine.  I’m not even secure enough of my understanding of the cosmos to be an atheist.  But I did come up with an answer.  It’s simple…The reason we’re all here, I think, is to get each other to the other side.”[v]

Sean Cole spent time at the bedside of two dying parents, and on one level he means we are to help one another approach actual, physical death.  But on another level, he is talking about all of our deaths, large and small…all of our losses, all of our griefs.  In Genesis 3, the dawn of consciousness nearly drowns the man and the woman in grief as it casts them from paradise, but it does not cast them from one another.  Even in their loss, they will walk forever through life together.  They will help one another get to the other side.   

When little Eliza was in that swimming pool, every time she became aware of the depth, no matter how often it happened, confusion and fear began to pull her under.  Only by reaching out her arms and knowing they’d be met by one who loved her was she able to stay afloat and eventually learn to swim.  That is an apt metaphor for our predicament.  The only way we can keep from drowning, the only way we can move through grief, inch by inch; the only way we can discover hope and encounter joy amidst loss; the only way we can get to the other side, is together.  And not as strangers, but as sisters, brothers, friends who trust.

Man Helping A Woman To Cross A Mountain River In The Pyrenees.. Stock  Photo, Picture And Royalty Free Image. Image 151089101.

I worry less these days about viruses and more about our societal willingness to castigate, and cancel, and demonize, and celebrate another’s mistake or error.  I worry that we, both left and right, have become increasingly puritanical and self-righteous, so quick to require a litmus test of language and belief.  These reactions, like the physical violence I described earlier, are another futile attempt to fend off grief by lashing out.  In the long run, they do not work.  I worry because each time we do these things—each time we narrow our communities and dismiss the other—we decrease the shoulders on whom our collective grief can rest.  We lose the hands that can reach out to us as our losses pull us under the waterline.  This is what Jesus is telling us in the Gospel today, as his own family and friends lash out at him.   

We, as the Church, can provide a different witness.  We can prevent one another from drowning in our grief.  We can—we must—extend our arms in love to the one who is flailing.  Because that is why we’re here, to help each other get to the other side. 


[i] https://www.npr.org/2021/05/28/1001385922/the-faa-has-seen-a-significantly-higher-number-of-unruly-passenger-reports-in-20; https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/b/more-10000-incidents-violence-aggression-and-assault-ambulance-staff-during-pandemic; https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/05/03/king-soopers-shooting-trauma-grocery-workers/

[ii] https://www.republicworld.com/lifestyle/health/pandemic-within-pandemic-covid-made-people-less-active-tripled-depression-says-study.html

[iii] https://www.cnbc.com/2021/05/10/51percent-of-young-americans-say-they-feel-down-depressed-or-hopeless.html

[iv] https://www.republicworld.com/lifestyle/health/pandemic-within-pandemic-covid-made-people-less-active-tripled-depression-says-study.html

[v] Cole, Sean, “When It Rains,” This American Life, episode 738, Act Two.

The Advocate

It’s my first day back, and I thought I’d start with a lawyer joke. (How many lawyers in the congregation? Raise your hands…)  There are so many good lawyer jokes.  I decided on this one: What’s the difference between a good lawyer and a great lawyer?  A good lawyer knows the law.  A great lawyer knows the judge!

My father, a retired attorney, doesn’t like lawyer jokes.  I thought he was too sensitive until I became a priest, and now I get it.  I don’t like priest jokes either.  Lawyer jokes tend to depict attorneys as self-serving, callous, or even malicious sharks, looking to take advantage of easy marks.  But no lawyer joke I’ve ever heard (even the not-too-biting ones) approximates my experience of my father’s law office in Paragould, Arkansas.  Growing up, I was at my dad’s law firm constantly, and in high school I served as his courier and file clerk.  In my father’s waiting room, I would encounter farmers anxious about their crops, the elderly and ill desperate to get their affairs in order, and (because my father was also the deputy prosecuting attorney) abused spouses fearful of the wrath of a husband who should be behind bars.  Often, the people sitting in my father’s waiting room were furtive, restless, and barely suppressing a flight response.  At the same time, they were overwhelmed and paralyzed.  They needed help.  That’s why they were there.  Life had confronted them with something they did not know how, and could not muster the strength, to handle: ruin, death, danger.  The people in my father’s waiting room needed an advocate.

My father as a young attorney in Paragould, delivering a speech.

In the Gospel today, the disciples are not unlike those people in dad’s office.  They are at the cusp of loss.  They can feel it.  The Upper Room in which they gather with Jesus feels as much like a bunker as a dining hall.  The ominous creep of ruin, death, and danger unnerves them.  Jesus has told them that he will soon be gone from them, and everything in the atmosphere gives them good reason to believe him.  Jesus has been their lodestar.  Before, they were fishermen, small business owners, IRS agents, political activists…but Jesus reshaped their lives entirely.  They gave up everything for this new venture that was, well, everything.  And now everything is about to be lost.  Jesus is leaving them, and they must face a ruinous world alone.  They need an advocate.

Advocate comes from the Latin advocare.  It means “to a call to one’s aid.”  When one cries out in need, an advocate responds.  When one is silenced, an advocate offers her voice.  When threats crowd in, an advocate places himself between the weak one and the danger, fending off the assault.  That is what an advocate is.  That is what an advocate does.

In the Gospel today, as Jesus prepares the disciples for what is to come, he knows their predicament even better than they do.  Jesus knows (as he says) that sorrow already fills their hearts, and that the real test hasn’t even yet come.  And Jesus knows that this motley crew is not up to the challenge they will face.  So Jesus promises the Twelve what they don’t yet even realize they need: He promises them an advocate.

The Advocate is the St. John’s name for the Holy Spirit.  In Greek it is Paraclete, which means exactly the same things as advocare, to call to one’s aid.  Jesus promises then, as Jesus promises now, that he will send the Holy Spirit to those who follow him.  And if we call that Spirit to our aid, the Spirit will come.  Holy Scripture even tells us what that looks like.  (You might even jot this down.)

First and foremost, when our circumstances leave us so fearful, anxious, and confused that we don’t even know how to pray, St. Paul tells us in Romans that the “Spirit helps us in our weakness, for when we do not know how to pray as we ought…the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for [us].”[i]

Second, in Acts today, when the Holy Spirit arrives on Pentecost, we see two things: When the fearful followers of Jesus are cowed into silence, the Spirit gives them powerful voice, to speak even in words and ways previously foreign to them.[ii]  And conversely, for the those whose impatience or anxiety impedes their hearing, the Holy Spirit opens their clogged ears and helps them listen.[iii] 

John McCafferty on Twitter: "As it's Pentecost Sunday today, here's El  Greco's depiction c. 1600 ( ©Museo Nacional del Prado)… "
“Pentecost,” by El Greco

Third, a bit later in John’s Gospel than today’s reading, when the resurrected Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit onto the Twelve, the Spirit commissions them to go into the world on Jesus’ behalf.[iv]  In that moment, they cease being disciples who sit passively and receive and become apostles sent forth and empowered to act.

This is also what the Holy Spirit does for us.  When the swirling world upends us, the Spirit articulates the deepest needs of our hearts to God.  When the cacophonous world silences us, the Spirit gives us ears to understand amidst confusion and tongues to speak through noise.  When the ominous world threatens us, the Spirit empowers us to walk with courage, confidence, and strength, where without the Spirit we would be lost.

My father is a very good lawyer.  I realized this when I was his courier.  I would visit the courthouse, the jail, the other attorneys’ offices, and it was apparent that everyone had great respect for my dad.  Beyond that, some of the other local lawyers held him in awe that bordered on trepidation.  They knew that when my father stepped into the courtroom, they had most likely met their match even before the judge banged his gavel.  They knew that when my father rose to speak, whoever sat at his table had a powerful friend. 

I saw my dad prosecute a case once.  One summer afternoon on my rounds, I slipped upstairs and sat in the back of the steamy courtroom, and very quickly I understood why so many revered my dad.  I would not have wanted to oppose him.  And if I were in need, I would have wanted him as my advocate.

So it is with the Holy Spirit of God.  It turns out that, by analogy, the lawyer joke with which I began this sermon holds true: What’s the difference between a good advocate and a great advocate?  A good one knows the law, but a great one knows the judge.  In the case of the Holy Spirit, this Advocate knows more than law, or, we might substitute, the ways of the world.  This Advocate knows the judge, the one on high.  This Advocate springs forth from the very heart of God.  The Holy Spirit is God, and thus there is no greater advocate.  With the Spirit at our table—praying for us when we know not how to pray, giving us ears to hear and tongues to speak, empowering us when the world would sap our strength—with the Spirit at our table, those who would stand against us will quake. The powers of this world will know that we are no easy mark.  With the Holy Spirit as our advocate, we ultimately cannot fail and will not lose.

As most of you know, the need for God’s Spirit has been clear and present to me these past few months.  My cancer diagnosis at age forty-eight shook me from complacent living and threatened to cast me into a dark place.  My surgery and recuperation have forced me to acknowledge my own human frailty like nothing had before.  My prospective journey of periodic tests to make sure the cancer is expunged requires that I, like every cancer patient, live with a lack of definite resolution that goes against my nature.  I have had to rely on the Holy Spirit and upon you, its apostles, more in these days than ever in my life.  I have needed the Spirit’s prayer, its voice, its discernment, and its empowerment.  And as always, the Spirit has been faithful.  I rejoice at being back among you. 


[i] Romans 8:26-27

[ii] Acts 2:4

[iii] Acts 2:6

[iv] John 20:21-22. The Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle makes this point in his book The Jesus Heist.

A Dual Life: Living with an Easter sensibility

In the Gospel today, the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples, but as with every other resurrection story in the gospels, the disciples have trouble recognizing him.  When confronted with the risen Lord, there is startlement, confusion, doubt, testing.  Mostly, there is the fatalistic inertia of what the disciples expect the world to present to them, and when the world before them breaks that mold, they don’t know how to respond or what to do.

How like them we are.  We are raised and formed to expect the world to be a certain way.  We believe in a regular, even pedantic world, in which all is mundane and/or explicable by processes that can be nailed down and defined.  If anything ever surprises us, the surprise only lasts until we have had a chance to figure it out or explain it away.  C.S. Lewis perhaps articulated our way of being in the world most aptly in his recasting of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.  I know quite well just what you are.  You are just revolving gases, forming into solid masses.”[i]  There is no wonder here.

When something happens to us that doesn’t fit the mold, when we have an encounter that truly and inherently slips our understanding and upends our expectations, we react with incredulity.  The confusion is usually too much for us, so we willfully ignore the rub and go on with our lives as though it never happened, like those followers of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels who ultimately find the inexplicability of Jesus too much to take and go back to their old lives.

8 #156 Resurrected Jesus appears to apostles ideas | jesus, resurrection,  painting

As we learn in today’s Gospel, Jesus will not have it so.  Resurrection has happened.  It will not be explained rationally or by the mundane, and its inexplicable reality confronts the Twelve.  And Jesus will not allow them to lapse back into their old way of seeing the world.  Jesus is insistent, displaying an urgency to the disciples rare in the Gospels.  That the disciples reckon with Easter, that they lean into it rather than furtively flee, is clearly of vital importance to him.  Why?  What difference does it make?

On Palm Sunday morning, as I was driving to the Cathedral, on NPR Krista Tippet replayed her 2016 interview with Irish poet Michael Longley.[ii]  Longley is known, along with Seamus Heaney, as a poet of “the Troubles,” the decades-long socio-religious conflict in Northern Ireland marked by terror and civilian casualty.  Even before the Troubles, Longley’s earliest formative memories are of his father, a trench warfare soldier in World War I, screaming through his nightmares in the middle of the night.  All that is to say, the subject matter of much of Longley’s poetry, like his life, is grim.  And yet, somehow through the grief and vexation of his verse, there is a luminescence to Longley’s poetry.  Somehow, he recognizes that there is, always, a dual reality at play in his encounters with the world: the mundane and something else

One of Longley’s most well-known poems is “the Ice-Cream Man,” about a local man who owned an ice cream shop and was murdered by a sectarian.  The man’s shop, loved by all, had featured twenty-one flavors of ice cream.  After the murder, Longley’s young daughter took a basket of wildflowers and laid them on the sidewalk outside the ice cream parlor.  What was to most passers-by unnoticeable, was to Longley a revelation.  In his poem, he begins by listing flavors of ice cream—Rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, peach—but then transitions to a seemingly endless list of wildflowers: “thyme, valerian, loosestrife, Meadowsweet, tway blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica… marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch…” The effect is that Longley finds a path from something ugly to something beautiful, or perhaps better said reveals the beautiful in the tragic, without for a moment letting go of grief.  He sees a dimension of grace where others see only the brute and prosaic layer of reality.

Michael Longley: Unionists 'should embrace' Irish language - BBC News
Poet Michael Longley

Various sources claim that Michael Longley is an atheist, and he calls himself a “sentimental disbeliever.”  But when pressed, Longley offers more nuance.  He says, “I do believe in the transcendental. I believe that poetry and art, without a transcendental element, doesn’t really exist for me…. [It] is all a transcendental experience for me. My heart stops when I discover an orchid…And then, when I hear a bird sing, it goes through me like an electric shock. These are the things that matter to me. And I would call that transcendental.”  Though a poet, one gets the sense that he means this literally and not only as metaphor.

And, despite his protestation that something more religiously organized is not for him, Longley also slips in the admission, “Once every four or five years, I take communion, and I believe in the poetry of it — the poetry of it.” 

What makes the difference?  How is it that the world is neither fatalistic nor merely inert stuff to Michael Longley?  How is it that a life lived in the very shadow of such pain, and grief, and terror finds itself repeatedly taken aback by beauty and wonder?  Longley explains it as the poetic sensibility.  He tells Krista Tippet, “I have this secret life no one knows about…For me, it’s quite an extraordinary gift to see something beautiful…[It’s] extraordinary. And it’s a way of having more than one life.” 

Intriguingly, Longley also borrows a phrase from Horace, and says he, and poets like him, are, in fact, “priests.”  The basic meaning of “priest” is, of course, to be a conduit of the divine, to communicate truth that otherwise risks being undetected, and where most see only death, Longley sees the buds of new life.  Where most see only grief and pain, he encounters nascent hope.  Where most see shadow and drab gray, for Longley the world shines with color.  Michael Longley sees a dimension of reality that most of us, most of the time, miss, and in response he cannot help but share that vision with the rest of us.

Longley lives, as he says, two lives at once.  The first is the life that recognizes fully and well the world’s tragedy and, even more often, the world’s numbing banality.  But the second life is the life that encounters, knows, and is a conduit of the beautiful, the poetic, and (dare we say it) the miraculous that exists side-by-side with—and in—the everyday.  Longley calls this “adoration.”  Speaking of his poetry, Krista Tippet calls it (despite Longley’s claim of disbelief) “religious in the best sense of the word.”

Michael Longley helps us understand Jesus’ insistence with the disciples today.  I would call Longley’s way of being in the world an Easter sensibility.  He has seen and recognized the miraculous in the mundane.  His eyes are open, and no matter how unrelentingly the world grinds, he will not shut them.  Jesus, as the Resurrected One, knows that this makes all the difference, for the disciples, for us, and for the fragile world in which we live.  Because Easter people—people who look upon the world and see a different dimension of reality, who see wonder, beauty, and the presence of the living God—cannot help but live differently as people of hope, and love, and grace.  That living, in turns, redeems the world, making Easter ever more a reality.

3,705 Celtic Knot Illustrations & Clip Art - iStock

At our Sunday evening Celtic Eucharist, The Well, we often end our worship with a post-Communion prayer from the Church of Ireland that embodies for me this Easter sensibility.  It asks that we remain awake, that we encounter the risen Christ, and that we live in response to that wonder.   We pray this:

“Strengthen for your service, Lord, these hands that holy things have taken; may these ears with have heard your Word be deaf to all clamor and dispute; may these tongues which have sung your praise be free from deceit; may these eyes which have seen the tokens of your love shine with the light of hope; and may these bodies which have been fed with your body be refreshed with the fullness of your life; glory to you forever. Amen.”


[i] I first heard this from the Very Rev. Herbert O’Driscoll, who attributed it to C.S. Lewis.  There are many versions of this ditty floating around the internet, attributed to various authors.

[ii] https://onbeing.org/programs/the-vitality-of-ordinary-things/

Of Easter and the Cosmic Symphony

I was five years old when the movie Star Wars was released in 1977.  My mother took my brother Robert and me to see it in the theater.  Immediately after the movie, we walked next door to TG&Y and purchased our first Star Wars action figures.  Robert got Luke Skywalker and C3P0.  I got Darth Vader and R2D2.  Thus began a childhood love affair with outer space.  For me, then, space was all about starships and laser beams and talking robots.  Space was full of excitement, colorful characters, and action. 

Imgur | Star wars poster, Star wars wallpaper, Star wars games

By the time I was in junior high school, my enthusiasm for outer space translated into two different trips to Space Camp at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where we ran mock space shuttle missions in incredibly life-like simulators.  Despite the fact that the shuttle mission I piloted burned up on reentry because we forgot to close the shuttle’s cargo bay doors, the experience felt a lot like Star Wars minus the ray guns.  It was hugely exciting.

My enthusiasm for outer space came to a screeching halt in the mid-1980s, however, with space shuttle mission STS-41-B.  On that mission, astronaut Bruce McCandless operated, for the first time ever, NASA’s Manned Maneuvering Unit: a jetpack.  Photos of McCandless in the jetpack appeared on magazine covers and newspapers across the globe, the first-ever human being to free-float in space, untethered to the shuttle or anything else.  Most thought it was great.  I thought it was terrible.  It is difficult adequately to describe the dread and anxiety I felt when I saw the photograph of McCandless alone against the black backdrop of space.  It was existential.  My excitement turned to horror, and the horror ran deep.  Immediately, for me, outer space was no longer about Jedi and wookies.  It was about the unearthly cold, human fragility, and the endless empty void.   I could no longer think about outer space without an ominous chill.

Bruce McCandless, the first astronaut to fly untethered in space, has died

In my teenage angst, my interest in space didn’t wane, it just transitioned into something morbid.  I became especially interested in black holes, as the denouement of space’s terror.  Even now, I don’t fully understand black holes.  The best description I’ve found comes from a reporter who describes black holes as “too much matter crammed into one place, [where] the cumulative force of gravity becomes overwhelming, and the place becomes an eternal trap.”[i]

What goes into a black hole never comes out.  And everything goes into a black hole: planets, suns, even something as ephemeral as light itself.  Light, life, the future, hope; it all ends in a black hole.  Black holes are the universe’s Good Friday.  Black holes are the cosmic tomb.

The friends and followers of Jesus experienced their own transition from enthusiasm to horror these past few days, except unlike my childhood terror, theirs was not hypothetical but very real.  It must have been thrilling to follow Jesus, to see his inexplicable power, to believe in him as a leader, a teacher, a savior who would usher in a different, better world.  This must have been true right until that moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the illusion of safety and security with Jesus was shed in an instant.  The next morning revealed Jesus alone and untethered from everything that might protect and preserve him, like that astronaut floating in the void.  Except Jesus wasn’t entirely untethered.  He was firmly affixed to a crossbeam of wood, designed to torture and humiliate him while terrorizing those who loved him.  In every way, it was effective.  Can you imagine the juxtaposition of such horror on the heels of such hope?

And then, all of it—the enthusiasm, the hope, the very light that was Jesus which so briefly but brightly illumined the disciples’ world, is finally swallowed by the tomb.  As with a black hole, it is over.  Nothing is left.  And the disciples are left alone and numb in the void. 

I suspect this year we may have some inkling, some minor conception at least, of that feeling.  Last year at this time the coronavirus pandemic was still so new that there was a kind of morbid, frantic excitement to it:  What did it mean?  How long might it last?  How can we fight or debate with those who view it differently than we do?  Then the horror set in, as people we knew got sick and died, as the death toll exceeded the number of Americans killed in World War II, and as the health crisis became an economic crisis threatening our livelihoods and an education crisis threatening to leave a generation of kids behind.  The past year has been like an endless Passion Week, stretched taut over three hundred sixty-five days.  This Easter we are exhausted; we are numb; and for very many of us all our energy has been swallowed as if into a black hole, as if into a tomb. 

Dark matter could be made of black holes from the beginning of time | Live  Science

My fascination with black holes never entirely waned, and a few years ago I read an article about a startling discovery at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO.  It turns out Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves a century ago, but since then they remained merely theoretical.  No one had ever actually detected them.  That is, until 2015, when LIGO’s antenna, more than two miles in length, picked up a faint chirp from across the void.  In-depth analysis concluded that the chirp was gravitational waves, which were the result of two black holes colliding, a billion years ago, millions of galaxies from the Milky Way.  Not one black hole, but two, and when they smashed into one another, as the article’s author put it, “a few last quivers of energy escaped.”[ii]

You see, though everything ends in a black hole, when these two black holes collided—these cosmic tombs—they also, paradoxically, produced something new.  Gravitational waves pushed outward, just averting the maw of the black holes’ event horizon—escaping the tomb—and coursed through the cosmos.  What’s more, when the waves reached the LIGO antenna on earth and that chirp was finely processed, it was discovered to sound like a run on a piano keyboard, from low A to middle C.  LIGO scientists went on to say that “different celestial sources emit their own sorts of gravitational waves…The binary neutron stars are like piccolos.  Isolated spinning pulsars…‘ding’ like a triangle, and black holes fill in the string section, running form double bass on up, depending upon their mass.”  Which means that, quite literally, all around us, as gravitational waves pulse, the universe is singing “like a cosmic orchestra.[iii]

It is as if the cosmos is telling us, as if God is telling us, that even the black hole—the tomb—does not have the last word.  Even the crushing finality of death itself is not the end.  From the heart of the void, the universe sings!  But we Christians have known that all along.  In our burial liturgy, we say, “Yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!”[iv]

We know this because of this very day.  We know this because Mary Magdalene, and Peter, and John rush to the graveyard to find the tomb empty.  We know this because Jesus Christ, the embodiment of their hope and ours, and the incarnation of God, has emerged from the black hole as the universe’s song. 

On this Easter day, we have resumed our own singing in this space.  We are reminded—our hope is restored—that no virus, no crisis, no terror, no tomb has the last word in our lives.  The last word always and ever comes from the God who creates the cosmos, the God born and resurrected in Jesus.  In our faith, as in this past year, we have moved from naïve excitement, through anxiety and fear and numbness, to this very moment when we first detect, like LIGO’s antenna, something transformed and new.  At first it is but a chirp, but the waves will continue for all who have ears to hear.  They will crescendo from all sources and sides, until our joy resounds like a cosmic symphony and we echo the song of our risen Lord. 


[i] Quoted by the Rev. Ann Benton Fraser in an Easter sermon at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, San Antonio, April 21, 2019.

[ii] https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/gravitational-waves-exist-heres-how-scientists-finally-found-them

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Book of Common Prayer, p. 499.

Love without conditions

Some will know that my favorite movie is Bart Freundlich’s 1997 Indie film The Myth of Fingerprints.  In the film, Daphne and Warren are in broken relationship due to a horrible incident that happened four years prior.  Daphne and Warren have been apart for that length of time, but in a scene halfway through the movie they meet in the middle of a frozen lake.  In that snowy expanse, they drop to their knees facing one another as if in prayer.  At one point, they lean in forehead-to-forehead.  They engage the past, and after soul-searching, Daphne finally says to Warren, “There came a point like a year ago, I guess.  I was lying on my bed, and I thought of you, and I realized I didn’t think about that night.  I just thought about you, and how you loved me.  How you always told me, and I always believed you.”

        The Myth of Fingerprints is one of those movies in which the cinematography tells its own story and practically every line of dialogue is a sermon.  The scene between Daphne and Warren is arresting.  Try to picture it in your imagination.  In the middle of the frozen lakebed, the two of them could be alone in all creation.  There is nothing at all around them, nothing to separate them from the presence of one another.  Each word one says to the other lands in the fullness of attention.  And when Daphne recollects the character of Warren’s love, it is an epiphany to her and to him.

The Myth of Fingerprints - Wikipedia

        In John’s Gospel today, Jesus gives to the faithful the most challenging and cryptic of all his teaching.  One might say he ceases to be the rabbi and becomes the mystic.  Alluding first to his own coming Passion, Jesus then says to his disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

        Often, we imagine that Jesus means his followers must be willing to lose their lives in service to others, and in conviction of the Gospel.  This is undoubtedly true, but read in the sweeping context of John’s Gospel, Jesus surely means more than that.  He means something even deeper and more profound than being “all in” with regard to the things we must faithfully do in the world.  Jesus is talking here, as he has earlier spoken in John’s Gospel to Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, and countless others, of how we must be.  Even more to the point, he speaks of how we must be in relation to God

        Before we can begin to understand that, we must, with open-eyed honesty, look at the way our relationships—virtually any and all relationships—function in the world.  This is not easy, but it is necessary.  More than anything else, we live in a world that is transactional.  Ayn Rand, loathed or loved depending upon one’s perspective, said, “The principle of trade is the…principle for all human relationships, personal and social, private and public, spiritual and material.”[i]  We may not like that sentiment, but we must acknowledge its accuracy. 

It is obvious that our casual interactions are transactional.  We engage in friendly banter with a store clerk, but the basis of the relationship, as both know, is ultimately the exchange of money for goods.  The same is true with every service provider in our lives: banker, attorney, physician.  We would not remain in these relationships if they did not meet our needs in a beneficial way.  They are transactional.

Ayn Rand | Biography, Books, & Facts | Britannica
Ayn Rand

This holds equally true in those relational webs in which the transactional nature is more creatively masked.  I am in a breakfast club, for example, and though (in a non-pandemic world) we enjoy conversation over bacon and eggs, there is a deeper, underlying purpose of professional networking in our meetings.  (Even I scope the room to see if any newcomer might be looking for a church home!)  Similarly, in an earlier phase of my life I was an active member of the Kiwanis Club.  That organization purports service-to-others as its reason for being—and we did much good for the local community—but trust me when I say that each member both expected and received a very real if intangible professional return for being a Kiwanian.

        But surely, we may protest, our familial and friend relationships are different.  Surely they are not transactional.  Not so fast.  As you may have already discerned, “transactional” is merely another word for “conditional,” and therapists’ calendars are kept booked to the margins by those who wake up and realize the myriad ways in which our closest relationships have all been predicated on conditions.  A parent’s love is withheld unless a child (sometimes an adult child) meets certain expectations that often have to do more with the parents own emotional insecurities and needs.  Marriages end when one spouse is left unfulfilled by the other.  Friends betray or fade away when the friendship takes more than it gives.  In all these cases and innumerable others, love is conditional.  It is transactional.  And when the transaction no longer works in our favor, we are left severely disappointed if not emotionally damaged.

        Ayn Rand claims that this dynamic is operative in our spiritual lives as well, and she is correct, for surely this is also how we approach God.  We seek God in our need, and when life fails us, we reproach God for failing us, too.  We subconsciously imagine God as the cosmic parent, or the supernatural fix-it man.  Our relationship with God is transactional.  We may claim that our hearts desire unconditional love, but we consistently levy God with conditions. 

        All that is to say, Ayn Rand correctly diagnoses us.  But her prescription—to embrace and double-down on transactional love—is all wrong.  Obviously, in our secular, economic lives, our very real needs and the reality of supply and demand mean that conditional relationships are unavoidable.  And, it is important for me to say, by their nature there is nothing wrong with them.  But in our relationships of family and friends, and especially in our relationship with God, nothing is more insidiously damaging than conditional love.  This manner of relationship, in which we transfer the dynamics of our economic lives into our intimacy of our closest relationships, is, in fact, what Jesus tells us today must die.  Nothing less than the radical shedding of this way of being in the world can save us.  In fact, in John’s Gospel “eternal life,” rather than referring to some future heaven, is the way of being in which love is received and given unconditionally and for its own sake.  And in order to gain that life, we must lose the old one.

        How?  How can we be jolted out of our old existence and opened to something so radically new?  Perhaps by hearing again the voice of God through the prophet Jeremiah, but this time in light of what Jesus has told us.  Today, God says of God’s people, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

        Lest it be opaque, God here is throwing out all transactions in our relationship with God.  There are no external laws, no quid pro quo, no conditions.  Can we even begin to fathom what such a relationship with God would be like?  Can we imagine a life in which we do not need to plead with God in our weakness, or bargain with God in our anxiety, because God’s love for us is already present and boundless?  Can we imagine a life in which all of this is written on our hearts and thus known to us as intimately as our own names?  What a blessed relief it would be.  It staggers the imagination and boggles the mind.

        God’s greatest desire is that we, like Daphne and Warren kneeling toward one another on the frozen lake, alone together in all the world, will emerge from our troubled and vexed past lives.  We will enter a new, eternal life in which we are fully present to God as God is always fully present to us, in which we come to understand that there is nothing we can do or fail to do that will diminish God’s healing, comforting, empowering, and enduring love for us.  God’s greatest desire is that we will say, like Daphne, “There came a time when I thought of you, and I realized I didn’t think about the old life.  I just thought about you, and how you loved me.  How you always told me, and I always believed you.”

        When we embrace eternal life and a love without conditions, we lean toward God, like those two figures knelt in the snow, until our lives and the very life of God make contact.  When that happens, the love of God permeates us, and no matter what the stresses and struggles in our world, we find that in the love of God we are whole.

Who is Howard Thurman? | Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground
Howard Thurman

        At the very end of his autobiography, the great Howard Thurman says this best.  He describes the eternal life that is found now in God’s unconditional love when he says, “Failure may remain failure in the context of all our strivings, hatred may continue to be hatred in the social and political arena of the common life, tragedy may continue to yield its anguish and pain, spreading havoc in the tight circle of our private lives, the dead weight of guilt may not shift its position to make life even for a brief moment more comfortable and endurable, for any of us–all this may be true. Nevertheless, in all these things there is a secret door which leads into the central place, where the Creator of life and the God of the human heart are one and the same…It is here that the meaning of the hunger of the heart is unified. The Head and the Heart at last inseparable; they are lost in wonder in the One.”[ii]


[i] https://cezjah.medium.com/all-relationships-are-transactional-but-the-connection-ought-to-be-more-important-than-the-228a28d5ea00

[ii] Thurman, Howard.  With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman, pg. 269.

What does it mean to “take up the cross”?

From about the age of ten until I was old enough to drive, my New Year’s Eve tradition, with either my brothers or friends, was to stay up late and watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Yes, I can recite the lines with you, whether it be the Knights Who Say “Ni”, the Black Knight, brave Sir Robin, or Tim the Enchanter, who warns of the killer rabbit with “nasty, big, pointy teeth.”  But my favorite scene is when the cohort of monks processes through a squalid medieval village, chanting, “Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem,” which translates, “Pious Lord Jesus, grant them rest.”  The Python troop’s spin on the Dies Irae is, of course, to have the monks, with each line, whack themselves in the forehead with a board.

Monty Python captures in two minutes of film what is perhaps the prevailing view of Christianity from the actual Middle Ages until today.  Whatever else our religion is, our subconscious assumptions about it include a heavy weight, self-flagellation, and an undercurrent of foreboding or even doom.  Sooner or later, Christianity seems to be about whacking ourselves about the head with a board. 

Monty Python and the Holy Grail - Wikipedia

We can surely understand why this is so, and the rationale comes from the red-letter words of Jesus himself.  This very day, immediately after Peter has acknowledged that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus explains to the disciples that he, “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.”  And then Jesus counsels those who would follow him that they must, “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

That appears to seal it.  Christianity involves sacrifice, and pain, and suffering.  While taking up the cross may be, for us, a metaphor, its associations are unavoidably ugly.  That’s why, I think, so often behind the smile of the most ardent Christian one finds a note of apprehension and unease.  We worry that if we aren’t carrying the cross we are being unfaithful, but if we do carry the cross our lives will be consigned to difficulty and pain.  Sooner or later, we sense that it’s all about whacking ourselves in the head with a board.  What are we to do?

First let me say that such an interpretation of Christianity, whether overt or subliminal, has been the root of much pervasive abuse over millennia.  For example, until very recently in many churches (and still today in some), when a physically or psychologically abused spouse would confide in her priest or pastor, she was liable to receive the response that, as a faithful and submissive wife, her husband’s anger was her cross to bear.   People of color were taught that their social location was their immutable cross to bear and that faith required them to bear it without complaint.  LGBTQ Christians similarly have been told that repressing their sexuality is akin to taking up their cross.  Innumerable others shouldering grief, or pain, or disappointment–including illness or loss of loved ones to untimely death–have been told that their suffering is from God, to be borne as a cross and that the heavier the cross the greater their faith. 

With every iota of authority that I can muster as a priest of the Church, hear me say that these interpretations are wrong.  The Church has done egregious and long-lasting harm in perpetuating them.  It is bad theology that says God will ask us to suffer for suffering’s sake.  It is bad theology that says we must passively endure terrible things as part of our walk with Christ.  It is bad theology that secretly thinks God wants us to bash our heads with boards.

How else, then, might we conceive of bearing the cross?  How might we redeem this commandment from Jesus that we claim is the source of all redemption?

File:Circle of Titian Christ Carrying the Cross.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

For that, we travel back in time millennia before Jesus, to the covenant God made with Abram.  In Genesis 17 today, God renews that covenant.  The covenant was first made five chapters earlier, in Genesis 12, and there in the covenant—the original promise from God—God explains why Abram is worthy of entering into this special relationship with God at all.  “I will bless you,” God says to Abram, “so that you will be a blessing.”

When God reaffirms this covenant five chapters later, in Genesis 17, God renames Abram, “Abraham.”  And Abraham is not the only one who receives a new name from God.  His wife, Sarai, is also renamed “Sarah.”  The change in her name is subtle but equally important.  It is a grammatical change only, altering the form of her name from what had been the possessive.  In other words, her old name had implied inward focus and concern only with what was hers.  Her new name—Sarah—looks outward, toward and into the world that she and Abraham are called to bless.[i]

Make no mistake: In these two chapters—Genesis 12 and 17—God is saying to Abraham and Sarah the same thing Jesus says to the disciples.  In the Gospel, Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.”  In Genesis, God says, “I bless you so that you will be a blessing.”  They are the same thing, and yet the language in Genesis sheds entirely different light on the command in Mark. 

Whatever it may mean to bear the cross of Christ as faithful disciples, it must always be a means by which the world is blessed.  If there is a litmus test by which we can judge whether the burden laid upon us is part of our walk of faith, or whether it is laid upon us by God, then that is it, and it is worth saying again: Whatever it may mean to bear the cross of Christ as faithful disciples, it must always be a means by which the world is blessed.  Bearing the cross of Christ may include suffering at times—indeed, it will—but only if that suffering is a blessing to someone.  Bearing the cross may bring challenge; it may lead to difficult decisions; it may sometimes disrupt relationships; and it will definitely require us to confront powerful forces that can do us harm; but it will only ask such things of us if doing so facilitates God’s blessing upon the world. 

Blessed to be a Blessing — Salt + Light Hawaii

Jesus indicts Peter today because Peter here (and not for the first time) has no interest in being a blessing.  He will later learn and change, and he will become a blessing to many (including in his own suffering), but at this point in the narrative, Peter is completely self-absorbed by what being a follower of Jesus can do for Peter.  And Jesus knows that faith, and our walk of faith, whether in time of ease or difficulty, whether in comfort or suffering, always begins with the question, “How can I be a blessing today?  How can I bless those I love?  How can I bless the stranger?  How can I bless God’s good earth?”  

The miraculous thing is, when we understand bearing the cross in this way, rather than as some foreboding and myopic walk of doom, we begin to experience intuitively what faith really is.  When we bless, we become agents of grace and of God’s own gracious will.  That Christian smile ceases to crack like a thin veneer and instead becomes an authentic expression of who we are and who we strive to be in the world.  In other words, somewhere in the midst of our cross-bearing—somewhere in the mix of faithfully following God and pursuing grace—we find joy.  Joy can reside alongside challenge, or sorrow, or pain, and joy’s presence redeems all these others.  Joy renders them ultimately transient, whereas joy is permanent.  This is what it means to lose one’s life for the sake of the Gospel and thereby regain it.

As we walk through this Lenten season, I pray we will be willing to bear the cross of Christ, in the deep knowledge that what is asked of us is that we be a blessing in our doings large and small, so that in us all the world will be blessed. 


[i] https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/the-meaning-of-the-hebrew-names/

Jesus and the Tempest

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“Jesus calms the storm,” by Gustav Dore

One of my favorite Gospel passages is Mark 4:35-41, in which Jesus and the disciples are traveling across the Sea of Galilee at night. A supernatural storm arises and begins to capsize their boat. The disciples are terrified, but Jesus sleeps serenely through the storm. In the disciples’ fear and anxiety, they awaken Jesus, who then stills the storm and asks the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have so little faith?” Often this passage is taught and preached as if Jesus means by his questions, “Didn’t you know God wouldn’t let our boat capsize?” But Jesus means no such thing. He doesn’t promise that everything will turn out just fine, or that the boat will keep an even keel. Jesus lives in the gritty, real world, and he knows that sometimes storms upend our lives. What Jesus means to convey to the disciples is that, even when the storms sink us, God is with us. That is how he can sleep in peace while the tempest rages.

God abides with us in love when we sail and when we sink. God shares our joy and bears our sorrow. Faith is the recognition and trust that there is no fathom we must endure without God. I have thought of this passage and this promise repeatedly this week as, for so many of us, brief periods of light and warmth have been surrounded by long stretches of cold and darkness. There is no storm in this life greater than the God who creates the heavens and the earth. There is no darkness in this world that can overcome God’s light. It is my prayer that God’s ever-presence with each of us be felt palpably in these days. We are, each and all, loved beyond measure, and, as we support one another every way we can, I pray that warmth of heart sustain us until warmth of hearth returns.

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Love comes down

Right out of college I worked in the admissions office for Hendrix College, my beloved alma mater.  Twenty-two years old, with a newly-minted Bachelor of Arts, I was a proud advocate for liberal arts education in a new J. Crew suit and power tie with a Half-Windsor knot.  Frankly, I was a little full of myself.  One autumn afternoon, I drove into the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas for a college fair at Fayetteville High School.  I set up my table and neatly arranged my brochures.  Soon, a young man with greasy hair and a black rock concert t-shirt stopped by and asked, “Y’all got comic book drawing at your college?   I want to draw for Marvel Comics.”

“Well,” I offered, entering the admissions marketing zone, “Hendrix has a superb art department.  And, you could earn a double-major in business in case you ever want to move into management.”

The young man looked at me as if I were an alien from another planet.  “Just want to draw comics,” he said again.  “Y’all got that?”

Suddenly, an idea sprang to my mind, a hook.  I had him.  “Well, no,” I carried on, “but a liberal arts degree is much more well-rounded.  If all you do is learn to draw comic books, and Marvel Comics goes out of business, what will you do then?”

The kid cocked his head and with a smirk I’ll never forget responded, “I guess I’ll stand behind a table and hand out college pamphlets.”

Believe it or not, that was not my worst experience that day.  In those days, Interstate 540 hadn’t yet been built, and the state highway down the mountain from Fayetteville was twisting, narrow and treacherous, with one side hugging the mountain and the other dropping off into abyss.  By the time the college fair ended and I headed toward home, dusk had settled, and with it came a thick fog.  At the top of the mountain, everything was clear and starry sky, but I could see, just a few hundred yards below, that the world was swallowed in dense and soupy darkness.

I began my descent, and before long my arms ached and my neck was stiff with tension.  I was scared.  And then, as if from nowhere, I came upon the taillights of an eighteen-wheeler piercing through the fog.  Light shining out of darkness.  They might as well have been Jesus himself beckoning me to follow, and follow I did.  The trucker had clearly run this mountain innumerable times before, in all weather conditions.  He knew each turn intuitively, and no cloud was going to prevent his progress.  I kept my eyes trained on those lights through the fog, and eventually they led me down the mountain and into the valley.

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Old Hwy 71

Today we celebrate that feast of the church most embraced by our culture, the Feast of St. Valentine.  As I whisked through Walgreen’s this past week, looking at aisles of syrupy pre-packaged greeting cards and cellophane-wrapped, heart-shaped boxes of candy, I paused to consider exactly what it is Valentine’s Day celebrates.

The answer is simple and comes quickly.  The notable thing about Valentine’s Day is its brazen exaltation of love: romantic love, intoxicating love, mountaintop love.  And the reason Valentine’s Day is so commercially successful is that such love is not restricted to any niche market.  We all crave it.  Junior high students and octogenarians are equally vulnerable to cupid, as are people of any gender, ethnicity or orientation.  “I love her,” we say with stars in our eyes, and we mean exactly the stuff of Hallmark cards.

          And, it is an idea that is absolutely, completely, and entirely absent in Holy Scripture.  The kind of love extolled by Valentine’s Day is so foreign to the heart of Christian faith that the Roman Catholic Church ended its observance of the Feast of St. Valentine fifty years ago.  Surely, scripture knows love.  St. Paul affirms love as the greatest spiritual gift, the one without which no other gift has meaning.  St. John tells us not that God is power nor that God is justice, but that God is love.  But that love is different in kind from Valentine’s Day; it is virtually the opposite of the cellophane love sold at Walgreens.

Today’s Gospel passage comes exactly in the middle of Mark.  It is the hinge of Mark’s story, the spine of his book.  It is the Transfiguration, and everything else Mark tells us is oriented to it.  The first eight chapters of Mark lead up to it, and the latter eight chapters follow from it.  Consequently, this brief passage is key to our understanding of who Jesus is and who we are called to be.  This story also gives us the true definition of love, and we are fortunate it appears on our calendar immediately after the alternative definition offered to us by Valentine’s Day outside these walls.

Peter, James and John follow Jesus up the mountain, and once at the top Jesus is transformed in their eyes.  They see him as he is, not the ragged and mud-splattered man who walks the roads of Galilee, but the Son of God, Incarnate Deity, the very completion of every promise God has ever made to humanity.  And they are star-struck.

“I love him,” the disciples likely spontaneously say.  It is, after all, the mountaintop experience!  It is, on a cosmic scale, the Hallmark moment.  Were the disciples Shakespeare, they’d compose sonnets.  Were they Hershey they’d whip up boxes of candy. 

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Mural in the church on Mount Tabor, traditional site of the Transfiguration.

The disciples say they want to stay atop the mountain, basking in their bedazzlement in the presence of this one they adore.  But almost as soon as they’ve said so, clouds begin to descend.  They are blinded by soupy fog, and when they begin to see, Jesus is ragged and mud-splattered again.  He looks, well, ordinary.

Uh oh.  We know that experience.  It’s the day after Valentine’s Day, the day after the allure wears off, the day when the Hallmark card gets used as scratch paper for the grocery list.  It’s the day when sickness befalls, or financial pressures crowd, or arguments outweigh sentiments of joy.  It’s the day the clear and starry sky is swallowed by the clouds.  This is where Valentine love proves to be no more substantial than cellophane.  And, this is where, Jesus teaches us, real love begins.

You see, in his first act after revealing the fullness of his nature, Jesus walks down the mountain into the fog.  For the rest of Mark’s Gospel he will march steadily toward Jerusalem, where he will receive the blows and taunts and pain of a confused and hurting people.  He won’t walk way.  He won’t quit.  He won’t find excuses.  And he surely won’t debase real and true love by staying safe above the clouds.  He walks down the mountain, and the next time he ascends any hill he will have a heavy wooden cross on his back. 

Starting today, Jesus shows Peter, James, and John—he shows us—what real love does, how real love acts, what real love looks like.  And this is not only the love between lovers, but between parents and children, friends, and, it’s worth saying, fellow Christians.  Fleming Rutledge says, “Love comes down…Love is grateful for the experience on the mountaintop, but knows that it cannot stay there.  Love persists when glory has faded, when the romance has fled, when the curtain has been dropped on the stage set.  Love never gives up.”       

Many of us have been on the receiving end of cellophane love that abandons us when the clouds descend.  We have been hurt by lovers and friends and the church. 

Many of us also, ashamedly, have extended such pitiful, sorry love.  We have loved on the mountaintop but failed to love in the valleys.  We have given up and walked away and left those we professed to love lost in the fog and darkness. 

And we have been Peter, James and John, misunderstanding that Jesus—that love—only first dazzles in order to provide the light we need to see us safely through the clouds and down the mountain.

Today, blessedly, we are reminded that, no matter who has failed us in this life and no matter when and how often we have failed, Jesus does walk down the mountain.  Jesus does enter into the cloud and into the hurting heart.  Jesus does provide light out of darkness, and if we cling to his light we can navigate the most twisting, narrow and treacherous roads.  Just as importantly, pointing to his light we can truly love each other and make sure we all know the way.

The clouds will descend, people of God.  They always do.  They descend in our lives and they descend in our world, as we’ve been so potently reminded this past year.  But don’t fear.  Jesus isn’t staying on top of the mountain.  His light is on the way down to where we are, into the depths of broken promises, loves lost, and sorrows deep.  He travels to where love is most needed, and his love is solid and sure.  Love comes down and meets us.  Thanks be to God. 

The broken world waits

         The 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is woefully underrated and almost forgotten sixteen years after its release, which is a pointed irony if you know anything about the movie.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind stars Oscar winner Kate Winslet as Clementine and Jim Carrey, who is surprisingly good in serious roles, as Joel.  As the film begins, Joel wakes up foggy-headed and skips work, and, seemingly on a whim, takes a train to Montauk, the last stop on the very tip of Long Island.  In a manner the film conveys almost palpably, Joel knows dimly that something is amiss.  He has forgotten something.  The forgotten something is important and momentous, and it lures him forward to Montauk’s obscure and remote geography, but he cannot recall what it is.  Joel is off-balance and adrift, with neither keel nor mooring.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) - IMDb

Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the Torah, serves as the Torah’s retelling and renewal.  Deuteronomy is an extended speech as from the mouth of Moses, recounting to the Israelites their relationship with God and explaining what it means to live completely dedicated to that relationship.  Right in the middle of Deuteronomy, Moses describes the four offices necessary to shepherd the Israelites.  The first of these is the judge, whose job is to administer the law and mete out justice fairly.  The second is the king, who both keeps order and is a symbol of the ideals of the people.  The third is the priest, who leads worship, makes sacrifices, and serves as pastor to the people in need.  These three roles are, perhaps, self-evident.  For any people, they are each indispensable.  Without the judge, the world would be arbitrary.  Without the king, the world would be chaotic.  Without the priest, the world would lack succor. 

The fourth office is that of the prophet, deemed by God to be as important as judge, king, and priest.  It is about the role of prophet that we read in Deuteronomy today.  The prophet’s essential role in the life of a people may be less obvious than the other three offices.  Indeed, in ancient Israel, though there were court prophets like Nathan who sat at King David’s side, the prophets were usually outsiders—think Hosea, Amos, Jeremiah—who the king and people would preferred to have been rid of.  The prophets were nuisances and gadflies who repeatedly questioned the kings’ decisions and the people’s way of life. 

What is a prophet?  Unfortunately, today we too often associate the term with fortunetelling or future-predicting.  The whacky and malleable predictions of Nostradamus are called prophecies.  Certain sects within Christianity seek to read the bible as code book of opaque future-oriented “prophecies” waiting to be deciphered.  But neither of these notions gets anywhere close to what the bible means by prophet or prophecy.  Please give them up.  (I have a short list of gross misconceptions I hope to help people shed over the course of my ordained career, and this is near the top.)

Jeremiah - Wikipedia
The Prophet Jeremiah, by Michelangelo

So, what are prophets, really?  They are those who tell the truth.  That is the beginning and end of prophecy.  In scripture, at times it seems that prophets are harbinger of doom.  But why is that?  It is because the prophet has the courage, and the commission from God, to tell the people the truth about their actions, their commitments, their plans, and the consequences of all three.  When those plans are hell-bound toward destruction, then the prophet’s truth-telling comes across as bad news.  But it isn’t the prophet’s intention to convey doom and gloom.  Some of the most soaring and hopeful passages in scripture also come from the prophets.  Think of Isaiah’s vision of the wolf and the lamb, or of the heavenly banquet.  Or, consider Martin Luther King, Jr.—a true modern prophet—and his vision of the beloved community. 

Prophets tell the truth.  God’s truth.  And what is that?  The truth is that the world we live in most of the time, in which we make our decisions, and choose our paths, and react and respond to others, is an illusion.  It is not what God intends—it flows not from the heart of God—and thus it is not real.  We recognize that dimly.  The illusion and artificiality of the world through which we walk is why we, like the main characters in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, carry with us a dull but ambient anxiety.  It is why we are so often, but without any clear object, confused.  It is why we take note that things seem to be broken, but we cannot pinpoint why, or exactly how, or how to repair them. 

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In the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it turns out that both Joel and Clementine have earlier paid a company called Lacuna to erase their memories.  Joel and Clementine had originally met in Montauk and fallen in love, but love is hard.  It is work, and self-giving, and acknowledgement of wrong, and sacrifice.  Clementine’s and Joel’s relationship became so strained that they each chose to cancel love, to banish its presence and even memory from their lives, to live as amnesiacs.  They scrubbed their minds clean, believing that a spotless mind would be eternal sunshine.

What the main characters quickly learn, however, is that such willful amnesia results not in light but in confusion, anxiety, and a discomfiture that is gnawing and ever-present.  Letting go of love seems at first to be the simpler and easier route, but that proves to be desperately wrong.  Such willful ignorance casts a shadow that is a pall over everything.  Without love, the world is false and confused.  Without love, sunshine is merely an illusion.

I doubt that it is a coincidence that the filmmaker named his main character Joel.  Joel is, after all, another of the bible’s prophets, another of its truth-tellers.  In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, despite the supposed erasure of his memory, Joel can’t shake the feeling that the world through which he now walks is broken.  Something has been forgotten, and it must be remembered.  In Joel’s confusion, he lumbers and careens through shadows where he thought there’d be sunshine.  He won’t the abide the falsity, the amnesia, the brokenness, the sorrow, and even in his confusion he doggedly seeks the truth.  Until, miracle of miracles, he rediscovers and speaks it.  Joel and Clementine find one another again in Montauk.  They commit to live in light of the truth and do the hard work of love.

We Remember | 4ThoughtMedia | WorshipHouse Media

There is a moment in the Eucharistic liturgy called the anamnesis.  “An-amnesis.”  It means the contrary of amnesia.  It means to remember.  The words are different in each Eucharistic Prayer, but the anamnesis always comes after the priest has rehearsed the story of Jesus and his friends in the Upper Room.  Suddenly, as if waking from a dream or shedding an illusion, the whole gathered people say, “We remember his death!  We proclaim his resurrection!  We await his coming in glory!”

We remember.  That is the first step in prophecy.  To be prophets all, we must awaken from our confusion and our willful forgetfulness of God’s intention for the world.  We must recognize that we, consciously or subconsciously, have sometimes decided to abandon love, for ourselves, for our intimates, of those who are different from us in the world.  We have come up with all sorts of rationales for why life will be easier, simpler, spotless, and sunshine without love.  We have convinced ourselves and lapsed into amnesia for who God truly is and what God intends for the world.  We must remember.  We must remember that God is love and calls us to love.  The very word “re-member” means to knit back together that which has been frayed and separated.  Remembering is the first step.

And then, as the prophet does, we must speak the truth.  We must tell it both to ourselves and to the world, recognizing that, depending upon the depth of our forgetfulness, the truth may seem like bad news before it is revealed to be Good News.  Awakening and remembering will require that we become different.  Love is hard, not easy.  Love is work, and self-giving, and acknowledgement of wrong and passive complicity in wrong, and sacrifice. But love is also light.  It is the ever and only truth.  And speaking that truth is the way we awaken others to it, the way the world begins to shed its amnesia and knit its frayed edges back together.

The author and poet L.R. Knost understands that light is to be found in the recollection of love rather than in forgetting.  She articulates our calling to the office of prophet in these days:

“Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world.

All things break. And all things can be mended.

Not with time, as they say, but with intention.

So go.

Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally.

The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.”