Second Trombone

From the sixth through the eighth grade, I was second chair trombone in the Paragould Junior High School band, and I was all-in.  I practiced every night.  At first, I practiced in the dining room.  After the first night, I was asked to move to the study…and close the door.  By the second week, I had been banished to my parents’ bedroom at the very back of the house.  Apparently, not everyone embraces the beauty of second trombone.  More about that to come (I promise).

Did you know that there are three creation stories in the Old Testament?  Many Christians are aware of the first two.  They appear in the first and second chapters of Genesis.  EfM graduates and other Episcopalians who regularly study the bible are aware that these are two separate accounts, from two different and unrelated strands of the Jewish tradition.  The first is a hymn (not a science text, by the way), which tells of God’s wondrous creation in a series of stanzas that chart the creation by days.  At the end of each stanza, as a kind of refrain, the Genesis 1 hymns says, “And God saw that it was good.”  The Genesis 1 creation story is grand, bombastic, and cosmic in scope, like a Wagner opera.

The second creation story, in Genesis 2, is much more localized and down to earth.  It is in this second story that we find the Garden of Eden.  It is in this second story that God appears as an anthropomorphized character, walking in the garden in the cool of the day.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden
In Genesis 1 & 2, human beings are the centerpiece of creation.

There is one shared theme for both of these stories: At the culmination of creation, whether grand or intimate, God creates humanity.  Genesis 1 says that, on the final, ultimate day of creation, “God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  And God grants humankind dominion over all the rest of creation.  In Genesis 2, God creates Adam and Eve and as the inhabitants of Paradise.  In both accounts, the creation story turns out to be a story about, and for, people.  We are the denouement of God’s creative acts, the center of things, those for whom all the rest is made.  To return to where I began today, in the Genesis creation stories we are first chair violin in the orchestra, or if you prefer, lead guitar in the world’s rock band.

It is rare that even biblically-literate Christians are aware of the Old Testament’s third creation story, but it is there, and it may even be more ancient that the stories in Genesis.  It is found in Job 38-41, and we read its beginning verses today.  To catch us up to speed, Job has been inflicted with every manner of distress and disease.  His life has fallen completely apart; his friends claim that he must be at fault (though he knows differently); and he has demanded that God appear and answer for his malady.  In Job 38, God obliges.

In the ensuing chapters, God combines the cosmic scope of Genesis 1 with the intimacy of Genesis 2, as God recounts the creation for Job via a series of pointed questions.  Today we heard the cosmic part: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding.  Who determined its measurements—surely you know!  Or who stretched the line upon it?  On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?  Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you?  Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, “Here we are”?

Reformed Commentary on Job: Chapter 38 – Orthodox Christian Theology
William Blake’s depiction of Job 38

A few verses later, God will extol all of God’s beautiful, majestic, tender, and awkward creatures.  God mentions the lion, deer, the hawk, the horse, the lion, monsters of the deep, and even the ridiculous-looking and acting ostrich as each invaluable and precious.  As God speaks, Job undoubtedly awaits the culmination of God’s peroration, a mention of humanity—Job himself—as the apex and center of creation.  But the mention never comes.  God finishes speaking with no final, culminating day of creation; no Garden of Eden; no mention of humanity at all.

The implication is clear, and Job gets it.  After God has finished speaking, Job replies, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I repent in dust and ashes.”[i]  Whether or not we grasp the implication, and whether or not we can accept it, is the question. 

We have each and all spent a lifetime, and before us humanity has spent eons, both consciously and unconsciously embracing the Genesis creation stories.  We believe that we—humanity as a whole and each of us individually—is at the center of things.  We believe that we are the apex of creation, that we are the main characters in the story, that our joys and accomplishments deserve accolades and that our pains and sorrows deserve the sympathy of the world.  Collectively, this self-regard imperils the natural and social nexus of our world.  Individually, it often strains our relationships to the breaking point and leads to very many of our disappointments in life.

This is certainly the understanding of James and John, the “sons of thunder,” in today’s Gospel.  They believe that they are at the center of things and that they deserve to be at the very center of the story Jesus is writing.  Their only dispute is which of the two of them is the greatest, which one will play lead guitar in the “Jesus saves the world” grand tour.  Everyone and everything else is peripheral.

But the creation story in Job tells us that none of this is true.  The creation story in Job tells us that we are not at the center of things.  God loves us, yes.  In God’s eyes we are incredibly precious.  We matter.  But not more than the deer, or the hawk, or the ostrich, or the earth.  We are not first chair violin, virtuosos for whom all else stops when we begin to play.  Perhaps we are, instead, second chair trombone. 

Mahler 2nd symphony brass choral Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, D. Gatti -  YouTube

Second chair trombone matters.  If it were removed from the Arkansas fight song, you’d notice its lack.  It is a complementary component of the whole, part of a symphony of music that lifts and carries God’s song forward.  In a way, second trombone is a much harder part to play.  Rather than setting the pace and driving the melody, the second trombone must recede at times, only to bellow forth at just the right moment in support of the whole song.  Second trombone must be especially attentive to the other instruments, so as not to overpower or underperform.  And, second trombone must reconcile with the fact that, alone, its part makes no sense.  Second trombone is not in the center.  It is not the most valuable, but it is essential.

This recognition is the cup from which Jesus asks James and John to drink today.  It is hard elixir, the toughest medicine to swallow.  But drink it, they ultimately will.  They will give up the presumption of their elevated self-importance and becomes apostles of the Gospel, serving and sacrificing for it, and speaking its Word of Truth rather than getting in its way.

Will we?  Can we?  Can we, with Job, acknowledge that we have always assumed a human-centric and self-centered world, when in fact we are not the be all and end all?  Can we give up the adolescent dream of playing lead guitar and instead play second trombone?  In this stewardship season, as we are each called to support the ministry of this place with our time, our talent, and (now especially) our treasure, can we recast Genesis 1’s badly-translated “human dominion of the earth” as, instead, “human stewardship,” giving up the starring roles for lives of service to God, whose creation is so wonderful as to be beyond our understanding?           God does love us, just as God love all of God’s creation.  If we can embody a little less Genesis and a little more Job, then the dissonance of our lives will become harmony, and we will play our part in the symphony of God’s song.


[i] Job 42:3 & 6

The world is in your hands

I am a lover of myths, both ancient and new.  As anyone who has attended many of my classes knows, and as those about to participate in the Anglican Way series will learn, myths are not false stories, but rather stories that express truths so deep that normal declarative or didactic speech simply cannot convey them.  J.R.R. Tolkien, the brilliant author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings wove myths as profound as any ever crafted.  A devout Christian, Tolkien expresses a divinely-permeated world, Middle Earth, that includes various categories of sentient creatures such as elves and human beings.  In some ways, Tolkien’s elves are greater than people.  They are immortal, and they have strength that humans do not share.  But in other ways, the elves are less than women and men.  Their emotional lives are less complex.  They are not as fully-formed.  And most importantly, they are receding.  By the end of Tolkien’s grand tale, the elves will leave Middle Earth, and the stewardship of the world is left to people.  The world is theirs to do with as they will, for good or ill.

10 Best Lord Of The Rings (Middle-earth) Swordsmen (Ranked)
Elves and humans in the film adaptation of LOTR

I’m always reminded of myth generally and Lord of the Rings specifically when I read the beginning of the Letter to the Hebrews.  Like the best myths, there is mystery surrounding the Letter to the Hebrews.  For starters, it’s not a letter at all.  It’s something more like, but not quite like, a sermon.  Second, no one knows who wrote it.  Over the millennia various scholars have claimed authorship for various saints, but all that is pure conjecture.  The letter (or whatever it is) begins like the best myths: “Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors…”  It is as if Hebrews emerged from the mists, full of power and truth.

And, Hebrews talks a lot about angels and humans in a manner that is reminiscent of those elves and people in Tolkien.  As Tolkien clearly loves those elves, Hebrews is preoccupied with angels.  The author is clearly fascinated by them.  Angels are, he says, creatures close to God and of great power.  But angels are also simple creatures.  They having nothing at all to with redemption, either the need for it or the receipt of it.  And so, they are in one way more than human but, in another, less.  Hebrews says, of human beings—of us, “You [God] have made them only a little lower than the angels [and] you have crowned them [human beings] with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet.”

Every time I read it, that last line stops me in my tracks.  The mysterious author goes on to add, “In subjecting all things to [human beings], God left nothing [in creation] outside their control.”  That is awesome and profound.  It should make us pause, and shudder at least a little bit.  Not to the angels, those heavenly creatures of power and glory, but to us, with our creativity, beauty, hope, and joy—but also with our brokenness, pettiness, destructiveness, and sometimes myopic vision—God has left the stewardship of God’s world.

Toni Morrison: 9 Essential Books, Works by Nobel Laureate - Rolling Stone
Toni Morrison

This reminds me of the story Toni Morrison shared when she accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993[i]  It is another profoundly true myth.  Here it is:         

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind. Wise…  [She] lives alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.

One day the [blind] woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her, and one of them says, ‘Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.’

She does not answer, and the question is repeated. ‘Is the bird I am holding living or dead?’

Still she doesn’t answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. She only knows their motive.  The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter.

Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. ‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.’

Her answer can be taken to mean: if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.”

Do we understand this myth, this story?  Not to the angels, but to us God has entrusted God’s whole world.  Whether the world lives or dies depends entirely upon how we hold it.  There are those who would encourage us to believe the world is there for our use and amusement, that it is in our right to smother it for a laugh, or a dollar, or in order to fulfill our own ego needs.  Those people are wrong.  It is not in our right, but it is in our power.  It is equally in our power—and it is our responsibility—to help the world and its people flourish, fly, and sing, to release the world from the potentially deadly grip in which we hold it. 

Boy Holding Earth In His Hands by UltraHDenis_new | VideoHive

And so, we ask: What will make the difference?  What will determine whether we smother the world or help it to flourish and fly?  I believe with all my soul, as the author of Hebrews also believes and contends, that the answer is the Church, and increasingly so. 

Daily, the world is more and more atomized.  Daily, the barometer of what is acceptable and true is only what I believe benefits me or my tribe.  Not so, says Hebrews.  You see, the Church exists as a witness to the world of a different vision.  We here, who Hebrews says are only just below the angels, are being redeemed and sanctified through Jesus, who is, as we read today, “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”  In Jesus, God becomes one of us so that, through Jesus, we might understand how to steward God’s world.  In the Church, as nowhere else in the world, we find ourselves empowered to release God’s world to flourish.  Later in Hebrews the author pointedly says that the Church exists to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.”[ii]  Think about that:  Where else in the whole world do we learn that this is the way to live?  How is the world to breathe and fly if we don’t learn it?  That is why the Church matters now more than ever.  The scholar and preacher Fred Craddock calls it “tenacious faithfulness.”[iii]

We have entered into the stewardship season at Christ Church.  We are in the midst of our Every Member Canvass.  2022 promises to be the Cathedral’s most financially challenging year in decades, due to revenue lost to the pandemic.  The world is in our hands, and before that, the Cathedral is in our hands.  In order to be tenaciously faithful in 2022—in order to provoke one another to love and good deeds—we must support the ministry of this place, and that includes financial support, ideally with a pledge.  Your vestry and I have all made our pledges for the coming year.  I hope you will join us.

Not to the angels, but to us God has entrusted the stewardship of God’s world.  We are empowered by the Jesus who is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”  At this moment, we are blind to what will ultimately be, but we know this with certainty: the future of the world, and of this place, is in our hands.  It is in our hands. 


[i] https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1993/morrison/lecture/

[ii] Hebrews 10:24

[iii] “Hebrews.”  The New Interpreter’s Bible.  Vol. XII, pg. 13.

The Ideal Woman

The Wednesday Men’s Bible Study has been reading the book of Proverbs this fall.  It is a fascinating book in numerous ways.  Among them, Proverbs sets up a dichotomy between a “bad woman,” who embodies vice and a “good woman” who is described by a man to his son in the passage we heard read today.  While the lector was reading it, I tried to peek through the latticework of the pulpit to see the reactions on women’s faces.

Chapter 31 is the culmination of Proverbs.  The wife it describes can be read as the anthropomorphized embodiment of wisdom or as the actual, literal spouse a wise man should seek.  There is much in the description of this wife that can alternately affirm or madden, depending upon one’s point of view.

On the one hand, Proverbs’ ideal wife supports her husband.  Proverbs says, “She does [her husband] good, and not harm, all the days of her life.”

This ideal woman is also a consummate homemaker.  Proverbs adds, “She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household…She looks well to the ways of her household…her children rise up and call her happy.”

 On the other hand, Proverbs acknowledges the ideal woman as a person of business and commerce.  The writer says, “She considers a field and buys it…She perceives that her merchandise is profitable…She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes.”

Beyond her vocation, whatever it may be, Proverbs says that, for the ideal woman, “Strength and dignity are her clothing…She opens her mouth with wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.”

In all, Proverbs offers a comprehensive depiction of a womanly ideal.  It praises women highly and in many varied ways.  And yet, there’s something about this last chapter of Proverbs that irritates.  Similarly, I daresay that, for some, hearing me talk about it has been irritating.  The source of that dual irritation is this: Whether or not Proverbs’ description of the ideal woman is well-rounded; whether or not it’s true; it is a description written from a man’s perspective.  Remember, both the speaker and the hearer in Proverbs are men.  It is irritating, because a man has dictated the ideal of, and for, a woman.  A man has defined what a woman should be.

Afghan women largely lack healthcare, education | The World from PRX

Women in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is in the news.  I will leave any comment on U.S. involvement in Afghanistan to those far more knowledgeable than me.  That is for the policymakers and politicians, not the preacher.  But I daresay we all agree that the reversion of Afghanistan to Taliban rule and the resulting plight of Afghan women is a horrifying tragedy.  Life for women under the Taliban is the radical extent of men defining what women can and cannot be, of circumscribing women’s existence by a man’s imagined ideal. 

The extreme example can illuminate, but it can also obscure all the more subtle ways that men continue to define women, that men create boxes of all kinds into which they attempt to neatly categorize and control women.  One need not look halfway across the world to see such attempts. 

It is a hallmark of postmodernity that we each create our own story, that rather than a metanarrative into which we are trapped, we can write our own script.  This realization is, with fits and starts, liberating people of all categories, in part, by blowing up the categories.  Women, perhaps most of all, are discarding the ideals men have for eons set for them and instead determining their own.  Despite vestigial attempts by men to define women, women are writing their own stories.  This is a good and Gospel thing.

My daughter dancing

Of course, for Christians of any kind, the writing of the story never merely asks and answers, “Who do I want to be?” but rather “Who does the God of grace and love want me to be?”  Blessedly for that, the very book of Proverbs with which we began offers a different, and contrasting, image of womanhood.  It is so radically different that some scholars over the centuries have mused whether it might have been written by a woman.  It is found way back in chapter eight, where wisdom is once again personified as a woman, but here, unbound by men’s preconceptions, she is free.  Halfway through that chapter, Lady Wisdom begins to speak in the first person, owning her own ideal.  Lady Wisdom says:

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
   the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
   at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
   when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
   before the hills, I was brought forth—
when God had not yet made earth and fields,
   or the world’s first bits of soil.
When God established the heavens, I was there,
   when God drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when God made firm the skies above,
   when God established the fountains of the deep,
when God assigned to the sea its limit,
   so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when God marked out the foundations of the earth,
   then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily God’s delight,
   rejoicing before God always,
rejoicing in God’s inhabited world
   and delighting in the human race.

Lady Wisdom here is so exalted that some theologians even equate her with the Holy Spirt, broadening our previously-limited conception of God to include the feminine.  Lady Wisdom is sheer freedom.  She is power.  She is co-creator.  She is, in God’s eyes and in her own, sheer delight.  And she is woman. 

This is an expansive ideal, an unlimited ideal, an ideal that finds it source not in man’s opinion but in God’s enlivening and overflowing love.  When I read it, as a man, it startles me; it admittedly discomfits me; it amazes me what God has in store for women.  And it also strikes me as just right.  I happen to be married to a woman smarter and better than I am, and I am blessed with a daughter who is brilliant, good, and fierce.  My daughter is also a dancer, and when she dances, it is like seeing wisdom in motion.  I am reminded daily (and sometimes pointedly by them!) that no one—and especially no man—is to tell them who they are, what they can do, or who they will be. 

She Was Equal To The Apostles — St. Basil the Great Greek Orthodox Church
Mary Magdalene proclaiming the Resurrection

Of course, elsewhere Holy Scripture puts actual human form on Lady Wisdom, when Eve discerns knowledge of good and evil while Adam dithers, when Esther saves her people from blindly bloodthirsty men, when Mary Magdalene proclaims the Resurrection to those eleven cowering male disciples.

So it is today.  So long as there are men and a broken world, I suppose men will seek to define and control women.  But just as there is no controlling God’s Holy Spirit, there is no controlling those who stand beside God as God’s master workers, who are daily God’s delight.  I, for one, would not begin to try.

The Lines We Draw

I love satellite photos of the earth.  I love to see them in daylight and dark, and to attempt to identify points on the earth that I recognize and have visited.  It’s not easy, because from orbit the land masses flow together.  Mountains and river are discernible, but what is not present in satellite photos—unlike on the maps we draw—are lines

Amazing Earth: Satellite Images from 2019 | NASA

The world map is covered and crisscrossed with lines, arbitrarily dividing that which, from a bird’s-eye point of view, is one whole. Sometimes the line-drawing on the map is the result of conquest, of one people encroaching upon and overwhelming the living space of another.  Other times, as in the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, line-drawing is the result of a few men behind closed doors creating new nation states and making often arbitrary but always seismically life-altering decisions for millions of people.  The blithe arrogance of those decisions made in 1919 at Versailles is mind-blowing, and the world is still reeling with the consequences today, both in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe.

The map is not the only place in which we draw lines.  We also draw lines in the proverbial sand, akin to the legendary line William Travis drew at the Alamo.  Lines in the sand are artificial, fabricated “Rubicons,” that declare “No retreat, no surrender.” Perhaps there are rare, actual battles in which such lines are unavoidable, but most often in life such lines create unnecessary division that is sometimes impossible to repair.

Hanukkah: Our Line in the Sand | Andres Spokoiny | The Blogs

Irish author Kerri ní Dochartaigh writes, “We are a race that has long sought to break things up, to divide, to separate, to draw lines between things that otherwise have remained as one.”  Dochartaigh was born in Derry, Northern Ireland, and she knows of what she speaks.  Dochartaigh was raised in the midst of “the Troubles,” with one Catholic parent and one Protestant parent, and her formative years were marked by national, religious, ideological, and family division.  She carries in her body and in her psyche the wounds and scars of all those lines. 

Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s writing is a cautionary tale for our own lives, in our own day.  In our society, the lines that divide are drawn in increasingly bold strokes.  Our tone is increasingly unnuanced, binary, strident, and mutually incriminating.  Our tribal identifiers are wielded as barriers to distinguish “us” from “them.”  In her Celtic way, Dochartaigh muses an antidote: “I think so much in these troubled days, about what it might mean to live as the birds do, as the moths and butterflies, as we once did ourselves maybe: free from border and barrier—in a place where the veil is so thin that we are reminded what it means to really be here—in this glorious world.”

Canongate signs Kerri Ní Dochartaigh debut after six-way auction
Kerri ní Dochartaigh

Dochartaigh’s words read almost like a Gospel saying of Jesus, and Jesus would surely agree with her sentiment.  Living in God’s “glorious world” is a gift, and we are called to be stewards of the earth and our relationships with one another.  From God’s vantage point, there are no lines.  The human impulse immediately to circumscribe what is ours and of us—drawing all those lines—may be the sin from which we need the most redemption. 

As witnesses to the world, what might it look like for us to “live as the birds do,” to cross over the lines of suspicion and resentment that seem so indelible in our world but that are, in fact, illusions?  What would it mean for us to step through—boldly and in faith—the thresholds that claim to separate us, and through our movement declare God’s truth that we are one people, one world, that flows forth from the One God who creates in love?  If we have the courage to do so, then, with God’s help, the lines will begin to blur, and we will begin to see the world as God does: as one blessed creation.

An X-Rated sermon…almost

It’s Rally Day, and whether you are here in person or joining worship on livestream nearby or from afar, this is the day we hope you will, well, rally and renew your engagement with the life and ministry of the Cathedral.  There is a particular kind of pressure on the preacher for Rally Day.  The preacher wants to wake up the congregation from its drowsy summer slumber.  The preacher wants to provide a spiritual jolt.  So here goes…

Last week the Family Thompson finally watched every single movie or television show offered on Netflix, HBOMax, and Amazon Prime.  (That’s only a slight exaggeration.)  So, we did the only thing a family can do in this lingering pandemic: We subscribed to Hulu.  Suddenly, a whole new list of cinematic offerings is before us.  And one of the first things to pop up on the Hulu feed was a new documentary on the history of nudity in film, entitled “Skin.”  (Ah! Suddenly the summer somnolence is fading.  Did Dean Thompson just mention nudity from the pulpit?!?  Yes, I think he did.)

To be clear (and for the recording), I have not watched the documentary “Skin.” But I did read the description, and it mentions Midnight Cowboy, the first X-rated feature film to win an Oscar for Best Picture.  Then I looked at the readings for today and realized that the Old Testament reading is from the Song of Songs, the Bible’s very own erotic love poem.  So, maybe an X-rated sermon is just the right thing to jolt us on Rally Day. 

But then it occurred to me that I hope to remain dean of the Cathedral for quite some time yet.  Plus, the Bishop is on sabbatical, and I’d hate for him to be disturbed with all those calls he’d suddenly receive from Cathedral parishioners.  I’ll aim for a PG-13 rating.

Which 2019 Streaming Service Is Right for You? | GQ

Song of Songs really is, on a primary level, a sensuous love poem.  It is a about a young man and a young woman brimming with passion for one another.  Its language is, in places, ridiculously overblown.  Today, for instance, the young woman says this: “Look, my beloved comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.  My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.”  If my college-age son wrote like that in a creative writing class, the professor would roll her eyes. 

Even so, there is something authentic and deeply earnest about the language in Song of Songs, and part of that is its terrible turns of phrase.  These young lovers really do yearn for each other.  Their love is really real, and, for all that, it captivates us today as it has captivated people for eons.          

But Song of Songs also turns dark.  In chapter five, beyond today’s reading, the young woman goes out into the city at night to find her lover.  And the city turns out to be dangerous place.  She gets lost.  Plaintively, she says, “I sought him, but did not find him; I called him, but he gave no answer.  Making their rounds in the city, the sentinels found me; they beat me, they wounded me, they took away my mantle, those sentinels of the wall.”

What’s happening here needs no translation.  The young woman is abused in every way by those who are supposed to be her protectors.  She is left wounded and naked.

This all happens in the middle of the book, which makes curious a line from the first chapter, which we read today.  In chapter 1, one lover says to the other (in words we recall having heard read at weddings), “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.  The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.  The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom…Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

Do you see what happens here?  Do you see why it is curious?  At the very outset of the love poem, the lovers declare that all storm clouds have parted, that they have emerged from all trial, and that their world and lives together are now joyous and free.  But we know, as the reader, that this is not actually the case.  The world continues to be dark, dangerous, and injurious.  Either the lovers are completely naïve, or something else is going on here.

Stable Days: Leaping Beauties --- Gazelles

There are hints throughout the poem, and especially at its end, that the couple aren’t naïve and never were.  But if they aren’t naïve, how can they speak of light and joy at the outset of the poem, when the world around them is actually so ominous and dark?

It’s time for me to share with you a theological term.  (This is why I jolted you awake a few minutes ago, so you’d be alert for this part!)  The word is prolepsis.  Prolepsis means to live now as if some future event has already occurred.  To live now as if living in the future.

At first blush, prolepsis can seem like escapism, but it is actually a seminal concept in the biblical witness.  Prolepsis seasons Genesis all the way to Revelation.  The Gospels are proleptic.  So is Paul. 

Throughout scripture, those who are burdened, those who face trial, those lost in darkness are called to live as though they are, right now, bathed in light.  Part of this expresses a holy defiance, a declaration that darkness cannot win, or, as John puts it, there is a light that darkness cannot overcome.  But there is more to it than that.  It also turns out, again and again, that something about living proleptically—something about living as if the winter is already gone even when it is still snowing—births the reality we are waiting for.   

Prolepsis is, in other words, how we conceive, and gestate, and birth hope.  And hope empowers us to act.  And our actions light candles in the darkness, until, eventually, the shadows flee before the light.  In other words, we are called to live proleptically because doing so births into being the future we so desire.

Living proleptically gives the young couple in the Song of Songs fortitude to endure and courage to act.  It saves them.  It can save us, too.  Despite the one-hundred-degree heat outside, the winter of our world is not over.  Pandemic, global upheaval, and civil strife all cast a dark shadow on these days.  But we are children of the living God, and our God calls us to live today in light of God’s promised tomorrow

Houston Skyline At Sunrise | Stockyard Photos

How do we do that?  Well, maybe it’s time to speak and write in the gushing ebullience of young lovers.  It’s definitely time to get vaccinated and encourage everyone we love to do so as well.  It’s time to recognize that we care for one another; and we care for justice; and we care for our sisters and brothers we find strange and with whom we may vehemently disagree.  

We are called to live as though we will be fully reconciled in every way we are estranged, and to act in this world in favor of those reconciliations even when—or especially when—the world shakes its head at what looks like our naivete. 

Because when we do this, we will first notice that in our own lives the light begins to peek through the darkness.  We’ll then notice that, beyond our own experience, the world around us begins to brighten.  Until finally, the future we have chosen to live becomes the real and actual present.  Our hopes are realized!  And God says to us, “Arise, my loves, my fair ones, for the winter is past.  The flowers appear on the earth, and the time of singing has come.” Now there’s something for which we can rally. 

Solomon the Wise?

Today we read the inauguration of David’s young son Solomon as King of Israel, and we read of Solomon’s incredible request of God: not for riches, or revenge against his enemies, or for expanded power, but for “an understanding mind to govern [the] people, able to discern between good and evil.”  Solomon’s request pleases God, and God responds, “Indeed, I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.”

And thus begins the illustrious career of wise King Solomon, known the world over.  Immediately after today’s reading, 1 Kings shares the famous story of two women who come to the king, both claiming to be the mother the same child.  In his sagacity, King Solomon commands that the child be cut in two, granting each mother one half a baby.  Of course, the real mother recoils at this notion and relinquishes her rights to save the baby’s life, and thus wise Solomon discovers the true maternal identity and returns the baby to its home.[i]

Solomon’s discerning wisdom was so great that tradition ascribed to him authorship of the biblical books of the Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes.  Never mind that Solomon almost certainly didn’t write any of those books.  It is a testament to his legendary wisdom that, when an author is needed for the Wisdom corpus in our canon of scripture, Solomon gets the nod.

Solomon - Wikipedia

There’s only one problem with all of this: the real Solomon was not wise.  He was a terrible, promiscuous, vain, and tyrannical ruler.  Solomon was so self-absorbed and self-indulgent that after building the great Temple to God in Jerusalem—and committing himself to follow God in the mold of his father David—Solomon immediately abandoned the God of Israel and veered toward both abject hedonism and rank idolatry. He mocked the God with whom he’d made covenant and worshiped false gods.

Solomon also conscripted his own citizenry into forced labor for his many building projects, creating a virtually enslaved populace.  In a sparsely-populated country, 1 Kings tells us that “King Solomon conscripted forced labor out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men.  He sent them to Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts; they would be a month in Lebanon and two months at home.”[ii]        

And, Solomon denuded the populace with crushing taxes they could not pay.

In the end, Scripture condemns Solomon with the words it reserves for the worst of rulers.  1 Kings eventually says that “Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”[iii] 

Once we know all of this about Solomon, then even that legendary story of his wisdom—the one about the two mothers claiming the same child—reads differently.  Rather than addressing them as a sage, we can see Solomon as a capricious tyrant toying with the distraught emotions of a mother, desperate to get her baby back.  There is horror in that story, when Solomon blithely commands that the little child be cut in two.

Though 1 Kings tries mightily to maintain the notion of Solomon’s wisdom alongside his foolishness, the proof is in what happened immediately after Solomon died.  Without his domineering personality to maintain fear and order, ten of the twelve tribes of Israel immediately revolted against Solomon’s son, and the nation of Israel was split forever.[iv]  With that knowledge, we go back and re-read with irony God’s promise to the young Solomon.  God had told Solomon, “No one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.”  No kidding.  Solomon was truly one-of-a-kind.  The kingdom that David had labored so long to create was ripped asunder by the folly of the king legend credits with wisdom.

For anyone interested in either scripture or history, the story of Solomon is endlessly fascinating, but, as this is a sermon rather than a lecture, the question remains, is it also more than that?  Beyond what it tells us about the distant past, does it mean anything for our own present and future? 

I am a fan of the historian Barbara Tuchman, and her best book is The March of Folly.  The book charts several historical events that move from promise to folly: the Protestant Reformation, the British loss in the American Revolutionary War, and the American morass in Vietnam.  Tuchman shows in clear relief the markers along the way of each, where the actors could have and should have seen the looming disaster ahead.  But those actors had such myopic vision, were so self-indulgent, and were so obsessed with the immediate that they failed to note the bigger picture and marched tragically into doom. 

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam: Tuchman, Barbara W.:  9780345308238: Amazon.com: Books

I have often thought that Barbara Tuchman could have added a chapter about King Solomon to her celebrated book.  Solomon started with a kingdom that had, under David’s canny leadership, positioned itself as mighty in its own right and as a power broker between larger kingdoms.  Solomon must have shown enormous early promise, or else the chronicle of his God-given wisdom never would have emerged.  And yet, little by little, decision by decision, he strayed from discerning wisdom.  He squandered God’s gift.  He listened to untrustworthy voices that whispered not the truth or the good for the kingdom, but selfish motive and what Solomon wanted to hear.  And in his comfort, his harem, his indulgences, his brutal exercise of power, Solomon paid attention only to what was immediately in front of him and ignored the long-term consequences of his actions.  The result was folly, the destruction of all that had been entrusted to Solomon and all that he held dear.

Beyond a doubt, Solomon’s story, like Tuchman’s book, has much to say to our age and our society beyond historical note.  There was a time, I believe, when we were wise, wisdom being defined, at least in large part, as the willingness to compromise for the common good, to seek truth and knowledge without subterfuge, and to embody the humility to acknowledge what we don’t know, all to make the world in which we live —and which we all share—a marginally better place.  Our wisdom was surely flawed, but it was something. 

Today, too often, we fail in all these measures of wisdom.  Compromise for the common good has been replaced by a self-righteous, rigid stridency on all sides, masquerading as virtue.  Humility in the face of our ignorance has been replaced by the folly that we are all experts because we have read a few unsourced lines of text on the internet. Worst of all, the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge has been replaced by some with propaganda disguised as fact that seeks to obfuscate and confuse vulnerable people. 

In all of this, we think we are wise, but we are too clever by half, and the results are tearing apart our societal bonds.  I’m talking about all of us.  I’m talking about me.

Collectively, our society is squandering God’s gift and shedding wisdom for folly.  And now, finally, the result is death.  Every day, because of willful folly in the form of the politicization of the coronavirus and misinformation willfully disseminated about COVID vaccines, people are dying.  A pandemic that could have been in its last days is instead, due to overwhelmed hospitals, imperiling even people who need medical care unrelated to COVID, all because we have lacked wisdom. 

Italy has a world-class health system. The coronavirus has pushed it to the  breaking point.

The question before us is, then, how do we reclaim wisdom?  Of us, what does wisdom require?  The key is found (as it is always found) in the Gospel.  Today, Jesus speaks to a confused crowd who misunderstand, and yet Jesus persists in proclaiming that which gives light and life.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus does not, in his frustration, castigate or denigrate the crowd.  He won’t play that game and devolve into folly.  He simply speaks, again and again and again, the truth in love.  Always the truth.  Always in love.  He moves people from where they are to a new place.  His message is the bread of life. 

No matter what the state of affairs today, I believe in the persuasive, transformative, redemptive, wisdom of love. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry wisely reminds us that “Love is not a sentiment.  Love is a commitment to the common good.”[v]  I believe when the disciples of love—that’s us—act and speak in ways that uplift our neighbors and our community rather than indulge the self, then wisdom will be reclaimed.  If ever there were such a moment for such a Gospel it is right now.  The biblical work “repentance” means “to follow another path.”  It also means “to rise above our own minds,” which includes the mutually-destructive thought processes to which we are prone.[vi]  In our relationships, in our politics, in our public health, we can arrest the march of folly and walk instead in the way of God’s wisdom.  We—us, here—can become the very bread of life to a starving, ailing world.  To be that food, to offer light and life, is our sacred calling in these days.  When we hear misinformation touted as fact; when we hear apprehension or fear of vaccines; when we encounter those, from any quarter, who seek to tear down and divide, let us be wise, and speak the truth in love.  We are the Body of Christ.  We are the bread of life. 


[i] 1 Kings 3:16-28

[ii] 1 Kings 5:13-14

[iii] 1 Kings 11:6

[iv] 1 Kings 12, ff.

[v] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/following-the-way-of-love-through-divisions-upheaval-and-uncertainty?fbclid=IwAR0rI0RiX6iBcgTY0X8hy9vz4Hcs4R1yx4VjLbHzuIEzoimQhAwn9QFILpE

[vi] Metanoia in Greek

Hunger

One day a man was hiking in the mountains when he came upon an exceedingly hungry grizzly bear.  The bear raised up on its hind legs, let out a roar, and prepared to charge.  Panicked, the hiker started to run, but he soon realized he’d never outrun the bear.  Now, the hiker was, at best, a Christmas and Easter Episcopalian, so he didn’t rightly recall all those good, rich prayers from the Prayer Book, but he did drop to his knees and in his desperation pray, “Dear God, please make this bear a good Christian bear!”  To the hiker’s surprise, in an instant the bear stopped charging, dropped to its own knees, reverently folded its paws, and began to pray.  Just as the hiker was about to walk on in relief, however, he heard the bear say, “Thank you, Lord, for this meal I’m about to receive…”

Teeth-baring brown bear chases ski instructor in 3 minutes of 'horror'

It is safe to say that we live in a hunger-obsessed world, and the Gospel lessons last week, this week, and for the next several weeks are all about hunger.  Last week, we read the only miracle story (other than the Resurrection itself) that appears in all four Gospels: the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Each Gospel tells the story differently, but they all agree on one thing: A huge crowd has followed Jesus and is hungry, and the disciples are a bit freaked out at the prospect of having to feed them all.  What follows may be an example of Harry Potter-like wizardry on Jesus’ part, or it may be an example of miraculous generosity and change of heart on the part of people in the crowd who are hoarding their picnics.  But either way, the Feeding of the Five Thousand in John’s Gospel and the extended speech Jesus gives following it—and which begins today—are a theological treatise on hunger.

The University of Michigan Health Science Center describes three aspects of hunger.[i]   See if these resonate with you.  The first aspect, hunger itself, is described as the “normal sensation that makes you want to eat. Your body tells your brain that your stomach is empty. This makes your stomach growl and gives you hunger pangs.”  Makes sense.  The second aspect is “fullness,” which is the “feeling of being satisfied. Your stomach tells your brain that it is full. Normally, this feeling causes you to stop eating and not think about food again for several hours.”  That also makes sense.  Would that these two descriptors told the whole story!  But third, there is “appetite,” which is “a desire for food, usually after seeing, smelling, or thinking about food.”  And here’s the coda, say the Michigan experts: “Even after you feel full, your appetite can make you keep eating.”

That’s revealing.  At its root, hunger is not only about the need for sustenance.  Hunger is about desire, and desire can be an insidious thing.  Long after one feels full, desire can nevertheless create an insatiable appetite. 

This can be physiological, of course, but it can also be existential.  We all know that our hungers, our appetites, our cravings, our desires are about a whole lot more than chicken and dumplings.  Our hunger can be for things rational and irrational, healthy and perverse.  So, for what, besides food, are we hungry?  Success, lust, wealth, esteem in the eyes of our fellows, material possessions, a yearning to be loved, vicarious living through our children, or some obsessive pursuit inexplicable to anyone else: Any of these and innumerable others can be the objects of our hunger, of the gnawing appetite that pangs within even after we know we should feel full.

No one in the past hundred years has understood and articulated this as brilliantly as C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape LettersThe Screwtape Letters consists, as many will know, of the correspondence between the demon Screwtape and his apprentice Wormwood.  The demons’ project is to encourage, to urge, the voracious appetites that drive us.  The demons cultivate our desire to consume, and subsume, and absorb all that is around us so that the world becomes merely food for us, the object of our desire. 

Throughout the book, the apprentice demon Wormwood attempts to corrupt his “patient,” a human who, like all of us, struggles with our appetites and desires.  There are twists and turns, moments of hope and near-despair, but in the end Wormwood ultimately fails in his task.  And as a failed demon, Wormwood then becomes food for his mentor demon Screwtape.  In the end, the master says to the apprentice, “My dear, my very dear Wormwood, my poppet, my pigsnie…Rest assured that…I have always desired you…I think I they will give you to me now…Love you?  Why, yes.  As dainty a morsel as ever I grew fat on.”[ii]

Screwtape Sounds Off on “Christian Fiction” | The New Authors Fellowship

The demons in Lewis’ book are characterized by their fantastical, voracious, insatiable hunger.  In other words, they are us taken to an absurd extreme.  The demons want to consume anything and everyone—including each other—into themselves.  And as always, C.S. Lewis is both entrancing and discomfiting because his fable reads so true.  Our own hungers sometimes border on the insatiable, to the point that we, too, may skirt the demonic.

The story of David and Bathsheba, which also began last week and continues today, is the quintessential biblical example of such hunger.  Down through Christian history, Bathsheba has gotten a grossly unfair and unjustified bad rap, but make no mistake: David is the demon of this story.  His hunger for another man’s wife—that of his friend and companion—is insatiable, and he uses irresistible kingly power to consume his heart’s desire.  And the dessert of this unholy meal is Uriah’s murder at David’s behest.

King David, Screwtape, the innumerable, everyday, mundane examples of our own insatiable and destructive hunger…What is the remedy?  The world has provided all sorts of band-aids, distractions, temporary existential diet pills that suppress our pangs and cravings.  But our faith tells us that there is but one cure.  Beginning with the Feeding of the Five Thousand and continuing through Jesus’ long discourse which begins today, Jesus reveals that he—who is the icon and embodiment of the presence of God among us and provided to us—is the bread of life.  Reliance upon that bread and nothing else to fill our insatiable hunger, is the only relief from our craving for all those things that can never satisfy. 

In our own day, just as when we combat our physical hunger with whatever gimmick or diet fad is in season, we can seek to satisfy our existential hungers with Oprah’s newest secular self-help program, or with new age spiritualities, or with a shallow, smorgasbord dabbling in different religious traditions that doesn’t respect the integrity of any of them.  But just as with our physical hunger, when we do so we will repeatedly find ourselves frustrated, disappointed, and binging all over again.  “I am the bread of life,” the Incarnate God says today.  “Whoever comes to me will never go hungry.”

We know this.  Our tradition has always known it.  Whether we turn to St. Augustine, who famously said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in you”; or to the great mystics of the Church whose desire, greater than any demon’s, found its satiation in God; or to our modern, deeply spiritual twelve-step movement in which recovering addicts acknowledge the necessity of relying completely on a higher power in place of their substance or behavioral cravings; or to my own recent study and teaching about the cessation of clinging and living and loving both fully and non-attached, all speak to a redirection of the heart, the mind, the will, the appetite,to satisfy our hunger only and entirely in God.  This is what the feeding of the famished crowd is all about.  This is what Jesus means when he says he is the bread of life. This is not about believing the right things, and it is certainly not about moral rectitude and holier-than-thou living.  It is about directing our hungers to the source of all and receiving back true sustenance.  The only and true satiation is in God, in whom we are filled. 


[i] https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/aa155258, emphasis mine.

[ii] Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters, pg. 171.

Ordinary Time

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!

Whose armor do you wear?

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.

Former Texas quarterback Chris Simms: Major Applewhite 'treated me like  crap'
Chris Simms and Major Applewhite

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.

Edgar Degas famous french artist, art-Degas.com - David and Goliath 1863
Degas’ “David and 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.


[i] https://247sports.com/college/texas/Article/Horns247-QA-with-Rod-Babers-Chris-Simms-Major-Applewhite-37829212/

[ii] Ibid

[iii] 1 Samuel 9:2

[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.”

“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. 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.

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.cityofhope.org/stiller-prostate-cancer-diagnosis-and-case-for-early-screening

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.