A Sensory God

A poem for a sense of God while in discernment.

Inspiration thanks to a prompt given at Arkansas’ Episcopal Church Women’s Summer Quest with special gratitude for St. Luke’s, Hot Springs.

God tastes like a vitamin

Bitter and nasty

if left too long on the tongue

or in the mouth.

Heaven forbid it get

stuck

in the throat.

Best to swallow quickly and whole.

God smells like a spring rain

refreshing and sweet

with the scent of death

not far away or

under feet.

God feels like a 2×4

directly slammed to the head

or heart

but also like

grandma’s arms and chest

wrapped around in full

embrace

          and

                 comfort. . .

assurance that all is well.

God looks like the twinkle

of the eyes

above a smile,

through the tears,

from the heart,

bubbling up from the soul,

unbidden yet persistent.

God sounds like “YES”

when “no” is easier,

like “Here I am”

when nothing’s left to give,

like “I’ll go”

when no clear path appears.

God is Love

when Fear is all around.

To whom would you

         rather go?

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On the Edge of Knowing

 

Acts 7:55-60 | Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 | 1 Peter 2:2-10 | John 14:1-14


That this Sunday is Mother’s Day here in the states and that we have chosen today to celebrate those graduating with their various accomplishments make me keenly aware both of my motherhood and of my firstborn graduating from high school. It probably doesn’t take much to imagine the vulnerability I feel in this place and time as a mother generally and as parent of a child who–at 18–is (we hope above all hopes!) prepared for the next stage of her adult life. This is a vulnerable place because it feels like being at the precipice of knowledge, on the edge of what is known and unknown, and like setting out on a journey with no idea what the traveling conditions or the final destination will be.

Marie Howe, former poet laureate of New York, said in an interview in 2013 that we often turn to metaphor when describing something that’s real because “to actually endure the thing itself, … hurts us for some reason.” We want to compare whatever “it” is to something else more readily known rather than take time to really see something as it is, endure it for all its worth until we realize that there is nothing more valuable or comparable than the thing itself. It’s easier to look away. She speaks with the authority of a writer/poet and professor who has her students start class by writing ten observations of the actual world. She said the students have such a hard time with this. If they can recall something–say toast, for example, they would rather say the toast is like sandpaper rather than describing it as dry, brown, and crumbly.

Howe theorizes our inability to make honest, aware observations comes from our constant distractions in the speed and chaos of life in the digital age. We spend more time gazing into the screen of our phones, computers, and televisions than into the eyes of one another. One could say we get accustomed to our hectic, over-filled, preoccupied lives, especially if we’re in the child-raising or career phase of life, and it easily just becomes the way it is, how life works. So even when we’re out of the “busy” phase, we perpetuate busy-ness in other stages of life. What we know is the perpetual busy-ness; we rely on our phones, calendars, and reminders. We get stuck in the roundabout of daily chaos. But if we keep doing the same thing, we’re relatively certain we’re going to get similar results. It’s called predictability, and most of us like the security of predictability. I’ll keep doing a good job, pay my bills on time, tuck the kids into bed with love, and wake to repeat the same things the next day. I know what to expect, and it gives me a sense of security. The same is true even if what I’m doing isn’t good by any standard. Perpetuating cycles of poverty, abuse, addiction, dysfunction–you name it–bring with it the same comfort of familiarity, even if it’s “the devil you know.” Our “roundabout” life doesn’t ever really take us anywhere, though . . . and certainly not to everlasting life.

After about four weeks of making concrete observations, Professor Howe says she has to put a cap on the amount of writing time the students have. She hears the scritch-scratching of their writing as they rush to get it all down, knowing their time is almost up. And when she changes the assignment, telling them to switch to using metaphors for their observations, they ask, “Why?

What brings about this switch? How do we move from not noticing our surroundings in all their value and sensuality to being at a place where we can’t imagine not noticing them and giving them full account?

Something happens to get us out of the roundabout: we can choose to set a different pace or to evaluate life more closely. We can retreat, quite literally backing away from the regular program. We can take the scenic route instead, maybe even bike or walk. One of my many fond Sewanee memories is riding my bike to school with the kids (even if Casey told me I looked like the Wicked Witch of the West in my black clothes and a basket on the back of my bike). Riding a bike lets us set the pace, especially if we’re with kids. We feel the wind in our face, note the smell of spring or rain. We notice even the slightest incline and rejoice in the euphoria of speeding downhill. We can also listen to and follow new directions, like when Professor Howe tells us to notice the smell of the air or the face of a stranger and then holds us accountable to recount the experience. We can pause or stop in illness or pain and listen anew to the demands of our body.

But what if I get a roadblock in my little roundabout life that I don’t choose or see coming, like a pink slip, a collect call from jail, or a diagnosis from the doctor? The flow stops abruptly. The unexpected has suddenly arrived, and my discomfort is off the charts. Rather than doing something destructive, at the end of the stressful day, I might think, “It’s been a while since I’ve prayed before going to sleep. Compline’s usually comforting (and predictable), so…I’ll give it a go.” When I get to page 129 in our Book of Common Prayer, I read the words of Psalm 31, the same words we said today, and I pray for our Lord to “be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe.” In this time of uncertainty, the prayers for God to see me through this night illuminate the unknown not only of the night to come but of my uncertain future and my eventual death. I realize that in the rush of my daily round, prayers have fallen to the wayside, church is just another thing to do, and only if it’s a good day do I have some sense that God is in the midst of it all. But how striking are the words “Into your hands I commend my spirit” when I stand at the edge of life as I know it and the unknown of life to come, whether it’s tomorrow or the hereafter.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says in John 14, which also happens to be one of the gospel readings often used in our burial rite. How meaningful to read this before our death. Jesus assures us that we are provided for, that he is the way, the truth, and the life, that through him, we know God the Father and everlasting life. In these simple words, there’s such peace and clarity. Jesus is the way, the path we follow. Jesus is the truth, everlasting and certain. Jesus is the life, vibrant and radiant. When I’m standing on the edge and feeling the world as I know it falling apart, Jesus reminds me that he has prepared a way and even has a place for me, for everyone. I honestly don’t imagine heaven as a bunch of houses, but I know that wherever Jesus is, there I will be also. When I question the validity of Jesus’ truth, he reminds me that my doubts are within the bounds of normal but are not necessary. Thank God for clueless apostles! Not only Thomas but Philip also needed a bit more proof for the outlandish claims Jesus made, and Jesus understood, knowing our hearts as he does. Jesus didn’t need signs or miracles to prove his divinity; those works were provided for you and me. And, when I fear change or death itself, Jesus reminds me of the triumph of life, the light overcoming the darkness, even if we have to go through the darkness first.

So often what is unknown is portrayed as darkness–shadowy, cloudy, or obscured. Jesus, let alone God, seem so far away. And yet, so often we say one’s future looks bright. We don’t know anything more, but looking into the faces of our graduates, it seems so easy to see the light and be sure of the presence of Christ with them, to see the Holy Spirit at work through their gifts and talents. Looking forward with faith brings a bit of light, which fuels our hope, making it even brighter. Add to that the joy of love, and we look into the face of uncertainty with a spirit of adventure. This is how we break open our hearts to love with all that we have. This is how we Christians walk the way of Christ, the way of love, to see our neighbors not as a statistic but as people doing their best with what they have. This is how we continue to learn and grow emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, even though that knowledge will inevitably open us to more pain, responsibility, and greater awareness of the unknown.

It’s what we do know of goodness and love that bolsters our faith and strengthens our belief, even when it’s hard and hurts our hearts. When we’ve stopped to notice the smell of a newly bathed infant; when we’ve lost ourselves in uncontrollable laughter; when we’ve opened our arms as wide as we can to give and receive a hug from a beloved; when we’ve clenched our throats against a sob as we smiled and assured a love it was okay to go . . . at these times and so many more, we have, indeed, tasted that the Lord is good. And we know that the only way we have the strength to endure anything at all is because of God’s mercy and grace. With that blessed assurance, found mostly in those moments when time stands still as we stand on the edge, we love fiercely, lean into the unknown, and step toward eternal life through Christ.

 

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The Only Way is Through

Isaiah 50:4-9a | Psalm 31:9-16 | Philippians 2:5-11 | Matthew 26:14-27:66

If only the passion narrative were a “choose-your-own-adventure” story where we could make the decisions of the many characters and craft a story that wasn’t so heart-wrenching and tragic. If only our faith let us show up for Christmas and Easter to celebrate the glorious news of Jesus Christ’s birth and resurrection. If only all the stories throughout the Bible revealed the joy and faith and hope and love so we could truly celebrate being Christians and share that happiness with others. If only we weren’t so quick to run away or avoid the pain and suffering of reality.

May your hearing of the the Gospel reading today set the tone for and enrich your experience of Holy Week. It’s important that we tell the story year after year. Like our Jewish ancestors who insisted on the telling of the Passover and the observance of holy days that united them as a people delivered, a people favored by God, we, too, must tell our story and observe our holy days: our identities depend upon it. There’s insistence for all peoples and tribes to tell our stories so our children and our children’s children know and never forget who we are and where we’ve come from; it makes us stronger, these common bonds. Sharing our stories within our families and outside our comfort zones has a way of keeping our connection with reality and our dependency upon the grace of God in check.

Consider this:

Sitting with a convict who has admitted to heinous crimes, I can give testimony to the power of God to forgive him, offer redemption and wholeness, if he prays to God with repentance because I, too, have sinned (even if it’s nowhere near his crimes). He sees me as a prosperous woman in society. I must be living life right, so he wants to do what I’m doing. He wants God’s favor to be with him, too, because up to this point in his life, he can’t remember a time that didn’t reek of the stench of smoke and mildew, sweat and blood, and other things he’s trying to be polite and not mention. This makes me feel like I’ve done right, that I’ve shown him the right way. He’s going to be a better person because I’m a better person. I’m going to make him more like me.

But what about this alternative:

Sitting with the same convict, I can listen . . . not just to his crimes but to all the burdens he’s been carrying for some time: where the smoke and mildew came from, whose sweat and blood. Listen without judgment as he recounts the stories of his youth, revealing the dysfunction of his family and his parents’ so-called friends and how he thought he found a sense of belonging with his friends in school, but it turned out to be a re-creation of another mess tied up in drugs and crime. His truth-telling unfolds like a never-ending stream, and I watch as he won’t let the tears fall from his eyes until he sees my tears fall unbidden.

He looks down and away as the truth and tears stream together. All I can tell him is that the only one who knows the depths of his pain and suffering is Jesus. I won’t dismiss his doubts; rather, I share stories of those who have also questioned, “Why me?” I remind him that it’s okay to be wary of those who profess righteousness because even those who praised Jesus as he entered Jerusalem stood aside or joined the masses to have him crucified. Who’s to say we would have done differently?

I hardly know what I’m saying because a force greater than myself is flowing through me to him. I trust it to be Spirit, and I feel it to be Love. It must be what living with the mind of Christ is like. I feel small and insignificant but feel like I will never let go of the faith that holds me in the embrace of the Almighty and makes me strong. It’s not my strength that broke the floodgates of the wounded man before me. Only Jesus Christ, who persistently did what no one should have been able to do, what no one was supposed to do . . . Only Jesus Christ who faced, mostly in opposition, all manner of authority and power and still rode into town on a donkey without any sort of defense–not even fear . . . Only Jesus Christ who let us choose what would be done, knowing it meant showing us the way of suffering and death . . . Only Jesus Christ who “holds all things together” (Col 1:17) releases us into the freedom of true Love.

We deceive ourselves if we skip the arduous journey to the cross this week. Yes, we know the full arc of the story, but if we take some time to sit with the stations of the cross or just pray with this reading from Matthew, what do we find ourselves resisting? What do we want to skip over? What do we think we already know enough about? What are we already “right” about?

Jesus, who enters our world through a willing, unmarried young woman, who shows our world that things aren’t always what they seem, brings the divine into our world right smack dab into the mess of things as they are and shows us all how to go through it. We’ll die, yet we’ll live. This is the way of the cross. This is our story. This is who we are as a Christian people.

In Matthew, we are told that Judas realized too late how pointless his betrayal was, how greatly he had been used to no good end. Whatever he thought he was getting out of the deal, it had been an illusion. Things weren’t as they seemed, and he had so completely lost hope, he rejected life altogether. If only Judas had seen. If only Judas had been there. If only Judas had persevered through the despair, he, too, would have tasted and seen the glory of the Resurrection, the power of redemption, and hope everlasting while still in the flesh.

We can’t let ourselves be fooled by illusion, by quick fixes or cheap promises that guarantee us a bypass over the pain and suffering of life. We can’t succumb to normalcy of oppression and domination. We can’t let ourselves forget our story, that it’s our job, our responsibility, to live our lives in the way of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit — because Jesus showed us that we can, with God’s help.

It’s going to mean reading even more of the Bible to tune our ears to hear God’s guidance and remember God’s power, mostly through the stories of those who walked the way before us. We have to talk to strangers, listen intently to our neighbors near and far, and get outside our comfort zones. Most importantly, living in the way of Christ means loving without judgment, loving and living without fear because we know who truly holds the power of Life.

As we walk through this week, we will open our hearts and minds to remember. We’ll taste hope. We’ll be afraid. We’ll worry. We’ll face death. And we’ll sleep, knowing the Son will rise to greet us Easter morning. But we’ve got to go through hell first.

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We Have All We Need

 

Isaiah 58:1-9 | Psalm 112:1-10 | 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 | Matthew 5:13-20


Knowing how different each of our lives are, I still think I can say with much certainty that we all have a lot on our plate right now. Before we even bring our offering to the Lord’s table, we bring all our anxieties and distress with us when we walk through the door. So, please . . . take a deep breath, drawing in the peace of Christ, and exhale, letting the yoke of all your burdens rest beside you or at your feet, yours to pick up when you leave, if you can’t leave them altogether. Breathe in . . . and out in the luxurious security of this place, with one another, in the presence of Christ. Whatever else is on our plate for today, right now we’re given this time and taking these moments to make way for the light of Christ to break into our reality, perhaps even, as our collect says, to set us free from the bondage of our sins. We need this time more than we realize.

We’re in a place of being perilously close to losing our way, losing our heading of what is true and real.

I share with you a question I was asked on MLK Day. Speaking to a small but beautifully diverse gathering, I was asked sincerely: after all that has happened and is happening, can we be a united people? Sitting here, together, with all our different views, the answer is easy: Of course! We’re all children of God, and we come to the table as one Body in Christ.

But who are we when we’re not gathered on Sunday morning?

The news and media represents all of us as what I call “a hot mess.” Everyone is slapped with a label whether we like it or not, and we navigate our community as part of the majority or minority, the left or the right, the us or the them. A rare news or media outlet will create the safe place of a small group where we can be who we are. Tuesday night at the human trafficking panel, I caught a glimpse of who we are. With care and respect, we delved into a difficult topic. As beloved children of God recognized their woundedness, especially having been harmed by others, they were not helpless victims but strong survivors. Saturated with the Spirit that empowers them to carry on as love warriors, loving of a power greater than themselves and loving of themselves, these women sprinkled their salt generously on those of us present. We couldn’t help but be enriched and hopeful that lives will continue to be touched by grace and saved from harm. However damaged or broken the body might be, the dimmest flicker of light could be tended and kindled to grow ever brighter. At no point did anyone say they did the hard work alone, even though they had to make hard choices for themselves. Their truths sent out ripples of righteousness to all of us gathered.

Beloved child of God we are, but we are also part of a much larger family. We are each of us unique, bestowed with particular gifts and talents, skills and experiences. Unless we have reached a certain point in our life, chances are we’re not sitting still, hiding our light under a bushel.

What are we doing for ourselves and others?

Many of the women who have escaped trafficking or drug abuse find that even getting their life back on track with a steady job, safe home, and healthy kids isn’t as satisfying as reaching back into the darkness to help another escape the pits of destruction. Many today reading the news find that they cannot remain immobile and silent while their neighbors are afraid. That light bearing the brightness of a city on a hill bears the Light of the Body of Christ not to be dampered by the bushels of fear, anger, and indifference the world might try to construct.

Some days we are just trying to breathe under the weight of everything we bear; we’re just trying to survive. Eventually, though, like a candle under a glass jar, the isolation of our self-focus deprives us of the oxygen that fuels our light. Like a single tear dropped into a tub, the saltiness is lost. Even if we’re the most introverted of introverts, we need relationship. We need a friend, a mentor, a teacher. We need the Word, a prayer, and Jesus. We need to listen and be heard. We need to see and be seen.

In our relationships, we have the opportunity to untie some of the complicated knots of deception and injustice, to untangle ourselves from the bondage of sin, of turning away from God, by doing what Jesus tells us to do: to Love. Love God so much we can’t help but love ourselves, and that love is so overwhelming and rich, we can’t keep it all to ourselves but have to share it with others. That doesn’t mean we dance around singing Broadway songs, kissing everyone we meet. It does mean we question our motivations behind our decisions. Is where I spend my money perpetuating justice or enforcing injustice? What am I doing to help release the prisoner trapped either in mind, body, or spirit? Who do I know who is hungry? What am I doing to help feed their hunger? Who needs shelter from whatever storms they are facing? Who is naked and vulnerable? In my wealth and responsibility, what does Jesus command me to do? How can I best love my neighbor?

“Why are you helping me?” someone asked me last week.

“Because you’re a child of God,” I replied, our eyes connecting so he could measure my truth, my heart and soul laid bare.

What are we doing? At our best we are sending out ripples of righteousness not for our sake, not in empty selfish prayers and false piety but for the glory of God, without whom all our works are but dust.

Where do we go from here?

One could say we’re all headed to our death. All living things die as part of our natural order, but we are also a spiritual being. As we move forward in time it seems we make decisions that are either headed toward destruction or restoration, toward isolation or community, toward inadequacy or fulfillment. We move toward death or toward eternal life, to the grave or to the heavenly banquet.

What does it take to move beyond our fear of death long enough to taste true Love, true freedom?

I was reminded of what it feels like to let go in a very physical way when I was at Disneyland just over a week ago. In the 8 hours I was there–from 4pm until midnight–we rode as many rides as we could. Of course not all rides are equal. The caterpillar ride through Alice’s Wonderland differs greatly from the Indiana Jones Adventure ride complete with oncoming boulder I thought I must dodge physically. (I couldn’t get any lower in my seat!) It was on Space Mountain that I felt certain in the twist, turns, and utter darkness that I would die. At one of the crests, I relaxed my death-grip and let my heart leap and expand. In that moment of darkness with pinpricks of light like galaxy stars, I let my eyes be wide open and smiled with peace and sheer joy . . . before being yanked into a valley and slung around another curve, surely going faster than the 35mph the stats say it goes.

As I watched a video being circulated from the New York Times of people at the top of a 10 Meter dive tower, I wondered how different it was for them. They weren’t strapped in a moving vehicle. They climbed the tower stairs and walked to the edge, some more bravely than others. Nearly all the people shown backed away first. Would we willingly take a dangerous plunge? Would we go weak at the knees, or give ourselves a pep talk? Would we give up, declare it an impossibility, and ease ourselves back down the steps we ascended, or would we listen to the encouragement of a friend? Could we dive into the deep end, completely vulnerable, breaking through our irrational yet resounding fear? “I’ll go first,” more than one person said to their companion.

In this high-speed, one-way life of ours, we die many deaths; we take many risks. The Good News, dear Christians, is that we have all that we need to be a people united if we choose to keep moving toward God. We have all that we need to be free, to love fiercely. We have the gift of each other to help us in areas where we are weak, others who are honest, sincere, and righteous. God gave us discerning hearts to know the truth, that we could follow the light and love of Christ and keep moving toward eternal life. This isn’t idealistic spiritual talk; this is our true north. Following the Light, giving glory to God, we’ll not lose our way.

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“Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself”

The night I spent in the Orlando airport I felt vulnerable and small yet unafraid — despite the every fifteen minute reminder that the US terrorist threat alert is a Code Orange.  While I don’t want to die a fiery death any more than the next fellow, I also don’t want to live in the constant worry about how my end will come.  I don’t want to focus on the awful capacity humans have to inflict harm on others.  I don’t want to be afraid.

As parents of an avid reader, we let ourselves get swept away in the Harry Potter phenomenon.  (Okay, so it was my decision to go ahead and see what all the hype was about after the second book came out.  Been hooked every since then.)  So, when I think of fear, I think of the grip Voldemort had over the wizarding community.  Hold on.  See me through on this one; you may have heard it before. 

The Potter books captured something in people’s imaginations, in their lives.  Otherwise, it would not have been able to sell the millions/billions of copies it has.  Fear is a universal emotion, and it is one that fuels the opposition to the “good guys” in the series.  Think about it.  Voldemort’s supporters either adore him or fear him; perhaps it’s best a mixture of them both.  The majority of the community fears him so much that they dare not speak his name lest they summon his presence.  The “good guys” or The Order do not so much fear Voldemort as the evil that he perpetuates.  Harry and Dumbledore go so far as not even to fear Voldemort because they understand a truth.  Voldemort at his core is just a man, a man devoid of a soul, devoid of the capacity to love, which is why he is so willing and able to feed and thrive on fear.

What do we fear so much that we whisper its name.  What do you whisper to your closest companions as your greatest fear?  What sends a chill up your back?  Why do you fear it so?

I do not proclaim to be immune to fear.  There are things that make my skin crawl, my heart race.  But I catch myself asking why I let myself get so worked up.  Maybe there are ghosts.  Spiders can inflict harm (we have the harmful kind around here).  Maybe I shouldn’t watch the movies that activate my imagination.

If I value my quality of life, I have a choice to make.  I can name my fears and face them bravely (as JK has suggested we do), or I can avoid them, let them rule my life.

Whether it be the spiders in my yard or countries over seas, I acknowledge the fact that I cannot determine the actions of others.  I send out the energy of love, faith and hope.  When it comes down to it, if I have a clear and open heart, then I have lived well, lived a life full of love rather than fear.  After all, isn’t our capacity to love what can save us in the end?

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