Each year on the Sunday after Trinity Sunday, I open my vesting closet with a smile and comb through all of my vestments until I reach a small hanger that holds a single and specific stole. The stole is green and embroidered on each end with a Celtic knot. It was a gift from St. John’s, Roanoke parishioners Walter and Sara Miller after we’d traveled with a parish group on pilgrimage to Ireland in 2011. It is my favorite stole, due to the givers, the gift, and the embroidery, which symbolizes—like Jesus’ metaphor of the vine in John 15—our interconnectedness with God and one another. I also like the stole because its annual reintroduction into my worship wardrobe marks the beginning of “ordinary time.”
The church year is divided into liturgical seasons, and each season has an important and particular theological and spiritual emphasis. The season of Advent is anticipatory. It readies us for the coming of Christ, both in remembrance of the Nativity and in preparation for Jesus’ return at the consummation of all things. The Christmas season is a twelve-day celebration of the Incarnation. The Epiphany season encourages us to walk through the world with eyes open to both the mundane and miraculous presence of God. Lent is the season of penitence, as we vulnerably and honestly examine our lives, expressing contrition for our errors and laboring to repair things we have damaged or neglected. The season of Easter is the fifty-day joyous exaltation of the Resurrection of Jesus, with its ultimate defeat of death and promise of eternal life for us all. The Easter season ends with the arrival of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, immediately after which we observe Trinity Sunday, the one day of the year in which we wrestle mightily with the doctrine of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
If you read the preceding paragraph with calendar in hand, you recognize that there is a long stretch of days, weeks, and months between Trinity Sunday and the First Sunday of Advent. This season has no name. Commonly, we refer to it as simply the “season after Pentecost.” In earlier eras of the church, it was also called “ordinary time.”
Ordinary time gained its name because its many weeks are merely marked with ordinal numbers (week 1, week 2, week 3, etc.). But as so often in ecclesiastical life, this season’s name took on an additional layer of meaning. With all the other seasons of the church year so pregnant with emphatic purpose, the long season of ordinary time grants us permission to be, well, ordinary. It is a blessed coincidence that ordinary time encompasses the summer months. Now, we can exhale, relax a bit, slow down, and simply be. In a sense, ordinary time is the sabbath time of the church year. It grants us the opportunity to enjoy one another with no motive other than that enjoyment. It allows us to pray to God as primarily a means to get to know God, rather than undertaking the more pointed prayer of the other seasons.
It would be a mistake to imagine ordinary time as a time to neglect our spiritual lives. It’s certainly not a time to check out of attending church! Rather, ordinary time is the season in which we can tend to these things for their own sake, without the sometimes-heavy weight that the other seasons carry. Ordinary time is a “light” season, we might say. For me, it provides time to focus on the meaning of that Celtic knot embroidered on my green stole: That we are one with Christ and one another, just as Jesus and the Father are one. Such reflection is especially important as we continue to emerge from the pandemic and reestablish our connections with one another. Ordinary time grants me the space to savor that reality and recharge my spiritual batteries. In that way, it is a gift…and it is anything but ordinary!
As a seminarian in Austin from 2000-2003, my friends and I would sometimes walk two blocks from the seminary for a cheap lunch at Red River Café. Another frequent diner during those days was UT quarterback Chris Simms. Simms would walk in and immediately command the place. He was tall and broad and had the look of someone carved into marble by the ancient Romans. Before college, Simms had been USA Today’s national high school offensive player of the year and heralded as the future of the Texas football program. More than anyone I’ve ever seen, he looked like a quarterback.
Of course, Chris Simms wasn’t the only quarterback at Texas in those days. For three years, Simms was locked in a battle with another Longhorn for Texas’ starting position. During Simms’ sophomore year, he and Major Applewhite, who was a year older, shared the QB position. As a junior, Simms won the starting QB spot from Applewhite outright. Applewhite spent the 2001 season as a backup.
While Applewhite kept the bench warm, Chris Simms catapulted the Longhorns to a #3 national ranking and the Big 12 championship game against Colorado. It appeared that all the prognostications about Simms, and the look he conveyed at Red River Café, were about to reach their denouement. But then everything fell apart. The Longhorns fell behind 29-10 before Simms left the game with a finger injury. It was then that the much smaller, ruddy, and supremely confident Applewhite came off the bench and led the Longhorns roaring back to within two points of victory. Texas lost that game, but Applewhite won the starting spot in Texas’s bowl game against Washington, and the 2001 Holiday Bowl turned out to be one of the most exciting football games I’ve ever seen. Both teams were bloodied and bruised, and the lead changed hands repeatedly. The Longhorns were losing with two minutes left in the game, but Major Applewhite was indomitable. In the end, he orchestrated a come-from-behind victory with only seconds remaining. It’s one of the greatest comebacks in Longhorn history.
Do I tell this story to pander to a room full of UT fans? Heavens, no. I know full well when I broach the Chris Simms-Major Applewhite debate that I am as likely to anger half the room as placate the other half. I tell the story because, just as Chris Simms looked every bit the part of the ideal quarterback—big, athletic, attractive, commanding—Major Applewhite did not. Former Longhorn teammate Rod Babers describes Applewhite by saying, “He just wasn’t an athlete. Have you seen Major Applewhite? Have you seen his body?…The pudgy…dude who was wide-waisted with the freckles and the helmet too big.”[i] And yet, Applewhite repeatedly won the big games in the face of any odds. Babers goes on to say, “This is the guy going out there [week after week] and carving people up with a spoon.”[ii]
I don’t know if it’s because Chris Simms looked like Adonis and towered three inches over Major Applewhite, or if it’s because Major Applewhite was himself of ruddy complexion and outsized confidence like the biblical David, but something about their story has always reminded me a bit of King Saul and David, as they’re about to face Goliath.
That’s the story we read today from 1 Samuel. And like the 2001 Holiday Bowl, what a story! Where we pick up the reading, the Philistines have gathered before King Saul’s army, and they have presented their champion, Goliath, for battle. Goliath, the bible tells us is “six cubits and a span,” more than nine feet tall. Whether we take that literally or not, the point is that Goliath terrified and awed the Israelites.
King Saul himself was a Chris Simms-like character. Scripture describes Saul by saying, “There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.”[iii] Even so, Saul quakes at the sight of Goliath. Rod Babers’ comments about Chris Simms in big games are apt for King Saul. Babers says “He added…pressure onto himself in terms of how he had to perform, and he [often] imploded and collapsed.”
And that’s when ruddy, undersized, underestimated David takes the field, so to speak. With a confidence born of faith in God and himself, David says to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of Goliath; I’ll go and fight with this Philistine.”
In our Sunday school, storybook memories, David marches out, spins his sling, and fells Goliath with a stone. But something else happens first, something crucial and often overlooked. Before David leaves Saul’s tent, but after Saul and the gathered champions have agreed to let David fight, Saul hoists upon David the collective, conventional wisdom about how to win, how to succeed, how to persevere in the face of this challenge. Concretely, Saul clothes David in Saul’s armor.
It presents a comical image, David weighed down in armor that swallows him and a sword he cannot lift. All those around him insist that these are things he needs to protect him and prevail. But David responds, “I can’t walk in this stuff. Take it off!” And he’s right. In this passing verse, David reveals the basis of his wisdom, his confidence, his wily assurance of his own success. David knows what Saul does not, what the so-called champions do not, what even Goliath does not: David knows that—no matter how strong, protective, and impressive it may appear—it is foolish to go to battle in someone else’s armor. And so, David strips down to the clothing he knows and the tools he trusts, and only then steps out and conquers Goliath.
What a lesson for us. Whether one is eight, eighteen, or eighty, we all live in a world that is constantly telling us, in innumerable ways, what figurative armor we must wear to prevail in life. Culturally, emotionally, familially, politically, and, yes, sartorially, we are told what we must do in order to be beautiful in our bodies, successful in our work, fulfilled in our relationships, happy in our world. And we know, deep down, that often the armor we’re told to wear does not fit us. We put on the armor others commend to us, and we cannot move. Rather than protect us or facilitate our flourishing, it weighs us down stifles us, and obscures who we truly are. It is inauthentic. It is not ours, and donning armor that doesn’t fit is not never the recipe for flourishing.[iv]
Of course, today in our culture, the most common knee-jerk antidote for shedding the armor imposed upon us is to claim that we should wear whatever we choose, that we be entirely self-authenticating. But that is detrimental in the opposite way: Rather of denying who we are in favor of others’ images of who we should be, we instead indulge the self in ways that forget that we bear responsibility for one another, that we, like the Israelites in the tent, are all in this together.
So, how can we know, as David did, what armor to wear? How can we put on what fits usq before facing the great challenge of life? David won’t wear Saul’s armor, but neither does David build his own on a whim. David is a shepherd. He has spent his life in the wilderness, communing with God. He has fought lions and bears, protecting the weak committed to his care. And thus, when the time comes to face his great challenge, David adorns himself with the clothing and tools that have served him faithfully as he has lived faithfully in service. It is that tunic and that sling that naturally fit and allow him to move with strength and grace, that turn the small ruddy boy into the confident champion.
That’s key for us as well. We live in communion with God. We have been taught to love fiercely, and protectively of those who are weak. We have been clothed in grace. When the giants parade before us, taunting and threatening, this is our armor, not hoisted upon us by others and not the product of our own self-desire, but given by God. When we wear this armor and no other—though, like David, we may not look the part of the champion—we need fear no one, and no giant need be fearsome. We move forward into life unconstricted, and challenges ultimately give way, because we are clothed with the grace of God that is all the armor we will ever need. Amen.
[iv] This is true of churches, too, by the way. I use this overlooked verse of scripture when I conduct vestry retreats for other parishes, because often when churches are fearful and anxious about congregational decline they begin desperately trying to be more like some other church down the road that seems to be going gangbusters. Congregations will put on some other congregation’s armor; they’ll mimic someone else’s music, or worship, or program; but they soon discover that, figuratively speaking, they can’t move. They are paralyzed, trapped in an identity that is not theirs.
“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.
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.)
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. Dr. Davis removed the large tumor along with my prostate, but where the tumor was cut from the bladder neck, he 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.