March 25, 2013 § Leave a Comment
On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment, and I imagine that it felt like the furthest thing from the very first sabbath which their rest was intended to recall. According to the commandment their rest was meant to imitate that first sabbath when the heavens and the earth were finished in all their multitude, and God rested from all the work done in creation. These days had felt more like destruction. For the women who had followed Jesus to Jerusalem, through the raving crowds and shouts of murder, to the cross and to the tomb, these days felt more like the unraveling of every good thing God had given them. For which, they needed rest, all the same, if not more. There was, I imagine, a certain peace to this rest, a certain comfort in finally being finished. The seams had threatened to unravel for so long, they had been exposed by glowering stares at the margins of the public squares where he had preached, they were tugged at each time his disturbing actions flew in the face of convention. Some of the women begged him not to make such a spectacle of his arrival in the holy city, and then there he was, hoisted three feet in the air, a wanted man in plain sight of all, the crowd ecstatic, their cries staked along a thin line between praise and rage. There had been no time for rest in these days among the kingdom of anxiety. Now, all that was finished. His body, once electric with the promise of abundant life, now lay still in a cavern of the earth, and eyes that had pierced anyone who dared return their searching gaze were shut. Likewise, the women rested in the grave stillness of that moment, and their bodies began the gradual unclenching of all the knots these days had bound within them.
This rest comes for us, too, who have followed Jesus on the way to the cross and tomb in our own time. The story of Christ’s passion can be exhausting. It’s telling can unfold like a mine-field of post-traumatic triggers. I, personally, cannot hear of Jesus being taunted, beaten and mocked by Herod’s soldiers without some pretty explicit flashbacks to my years as a slightly effeminate, out gay teen in North Carolina. When we get to that part of the story my body shivers and I weep at the thought of anyone having to endure such familiar degradation and contempt, let alone the love and Lord of my life. I wonder if you’ve had similar reactions to this story, also. Are there parts of it that trigger tears and memories? Are there parts that make you tremble? Perhaps you’re not the crying type, perhaps you feel the twinge of conviction in some other way, a resistance, a tightening in the gut, maybe a wave of nausea. Where does it come for you? Is it in the courtyard, beside Peter as he denies knowing the very one who brought him to new life? Is it with the women who are told that they would be better off barren in this world than with the children they have reared and loved? Is it when we stand together as a congregation, and shout “Crucify him!” every bit as complicit in his death as anyone was two thousand years ago?
Where does the pain and shame of your life rise to meet and fill this story?
That is the place where God holds you now.
In the passion of her Christ our Creator entered in to every bloody, broken thing that we have made out of this world. She has borne the taunts and kicks within us, she has stood toe to toe with our denial. At the cross, the compassion of God is made complete, for there God’s own self has entered even into death with us, that even in the bitter darkness of the grave we should not be parted from God’s persistent company.
God first rested from the magnificent birth of all creation, Christ’s companions rested from the the labors of a gruesome death and hasty burial. Our own rest now comes buried in the knowledge of a God who shares the pain of our failed and fragile human life completely. Our own rest comes amidst the re-creation of this world in an image of solidarity with the criminal, the accused, the beaten and the mocked. In the days to come we will relive this story again in new ways. We will listen to members of our community speak of how our common life rises to fill it even now. Pay attention to the places where it touches you. Rest in this story, let it seep into your bones. Let it loosen up the knotty places which the kingdom of this world has bound within you. The time will come within this rest when the body begins to stir again, and eyes open to behold the dawn.
March 18, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Martha’s fingers often smelled of garlic at day’s end, and in the hours when sleep would not come she held them near her face and reflected on the time that had passed: the aching place in her back where she held weight above two feet flat on cold clay pavement, the way her torso curved to prop the dish up to her right hand, the way men’s faces looked around the table when they had tasted something good. Sometimes there were notes of lemon, too, sometimes the scent of olive oil or yeast, yet garlic was the base beneath them all. On this night, however, she could detect none of those familiar things. Even from her bed the overwhelming smell of spikenard was inescapable. The whole house bloomed with it, like a dessert flower spread wide open to the moon. Neighbors, passing by the darkened windows which the fragrance wafted from, might have thought that a marriage bed had been prepared within if they had not known better. The household pulsed with this perfume from the points where it had been applied, just like points at the wrist, or at the neck behind the ears: it rose from the slick still wet on the floor where his feet had been, but even more than this, it rose from Mary’s hair. She turns in the night, her eyes wholly given in to sleep, and her cheek sets itself softly into bands of hair that still smell like him. The dirt of long roads traveled, sun, skin, lake water and wood, with spikenard as the base beneath them all. In the days to come she will pass between stalls at market with the scent trailing just behind, raising eyes and nostrils as she goes. Hungry men will forget the taunting smell of roast meats momentarily in her wake, distracted by the thoughts of lavender boughs and bedrooms that will follow her everywhere.
Devotion has a way of lingering upon a human soul in love. We recognize it in the dazed eyes of love-struck teenagers or in the glow about a gardener well-satisfied with his day of labor. Devotion can make us strange with a peculiar commitment. It possess us with a single-minded focus and fills us with encyclopedic knowledge of some things mostly undervalued by others. Devotees, for their part, often seem queer to normal eyes: attending Comic Cons, standing for hours in the rain for tickets to a show, pouring over forgotten manuscripts, slaving for hours to perfect a recipe or for years to write a dissertation. For all the singleness of mind and body which we sharpen with these vows, the heart also longs to be so committed. The heart longs to sink into the steady rocking of a single phrase: “You are good, you are good, you are good.” The heart longs to behold the object of her praise as she softly sings to it. A thousand other objects may distract from and divide this task, responsibilities and commitments to the systems of this world that weigh us down with their requests and deplete our resources. They are like a circle of disciples standing round wringing hands fearful of the consequences suggested by their master’s aim. From among them the heart steps forth and kneels. She pours her life out in praise and grows fragrant with it’s offering while the others blush, sneer, or turn their heads. In this same fashion, God breaks through the nervous circle of our doubts and fears and anger and sadness and shame to kneel at the cradle of our infant souls, to clasp her feet and hands and head close to the bosom of the body that gave her breath, whispering to her ears: “You are good, you are loved, you are mine.”
God’s own person has been made strange with the knowledge of us. In devoted singleness of heart, the Spirit of the Deep comes to search our souls, to inhabit our own feelings and desires, to cry our tears and bleed our blood. Peculiar signs to mark a God so mighty. In our own devotion, we may grow more peculiar still. We may learn the names of those passed over by the world, and then we may learn their lives. We may develop a singular focus upon those who seem unlovable because the existence of this condition totally contradicts the truth which we believe. We may even sell our riches and give the money to the poor, that we may be closer still to the object of our heart’s desire. In such a release as this, in such an expensive pouring out, even the taunting stench of death may be forgotten in the fragrance of God’s wide-embracing love. The whole body hums with well-worn melodies of joyful praise. The world notes a lightness in our step and brows rise at the suggestion of something so profoundly good walking in the midst of us. They will inquire of the spirit in whose wake we linger, love-struck and glowing, and we will tell them of a house that blooms with fragrant offerings, and of the love waiting for us there.
January 30, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Movement, stillness, silence, song.
Hearing, seeing, knowing
an other soul “into a condition
of disclosure and discovery.”
Interpreting texts, making space,
in alchemical containers.
December 16, 2012 § 1 Comment
“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”
This is Advent, a time when we face the darkness of the world and ask for light.
This is wilderness, a place untamed and raw and totally cut off, where we wait, and cry to God for help.
“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”
Every third Sunday in Advent when I hear, in this prayer, of God stirring up his power/ I think of bare feet walking across a creek bed, the sediment swirling up in murky clouds through clear living water with each step; or, I think of spices at the bottom of a large pot full of broth that must be conjured with a wooden spoon for the flavor to spread. The biblical language is not so gentle, however. It comes from Psalm 80 a psalm often read in Advent for its 16th verse, which begs for God’s right hand man to come among us with the power of God’s strength. The psalm is plea for God to break his silence and make himself known amidst the total decimation of his people. “Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh stir up your strength and come to help us!” the psalmist cries. It is one of our great, scriptural traditions to demand this kind of attention from God when the whole world seems to have gone wrong. You have hidden your face for too long, O Lord. You told us we were a chosen people and here we are, left for dead, trampled on by enemies, scorched by the heat of this world’s glaring cruelty. Where are you, God? Why do you not act? Stir up your power, arouse your wrath and, like a sleeping lion stirred to wake by the clamor of injustice, pounce upon the wicked in our midst.
“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”
It seems at times that it would take great might just to reach us here. The prophet Zephaniah looks at his people, tormented by corruption, lawlessness and murder, and imagines that it would take a warrior to bring triumph and rejoicing back into their midst. It would take a God who came singing, flinging prisoners upon his shoulder, swooping up the scattered ones to bring them home, trampling down every enemy he meets along the way.
Likewise, the Baptist John looks at his people, bewildered in their search for answers, and imagines fire. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees,” he says, and he speaks of One to come who will separate the evil from the good with a winnowing fork, to incinerate the evil once and for all.
“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”
It seems at times that it would take great might just to reach us here. Beneath the din of unceasing news reports, behind dull eyes that have seen so much senseless violence. It seems that it would take a mighty arm to straighten all the crooked paths that have led us to this hell. It seems that it would take the power to move mountains just to find us in the place where we are cowering, beneath the stockpiles and the sadness and the speechless gasps. It would take a mighty god who could reach down through the madness we have made and pluck us up and hold us safe and protect us from any evil that may come. It seems that it would take a mighty God to save us from ourselves.
And yet the tool of our God’s strength is not the ax that John imagined. Neither is it a winnowing fork, nor is it a fire. The tool of our God’s strength is in the cross where he suffered in the same way that we suffer still today: senselessly. The might of our God is born in the feed-trough of a manger, tender and defenseless as an infant child, dependent on a mother’s human hands for care.
This is the power that we ask for, still. This is the great might that we pray will come. To stop pretending that the world as we have made it is OK. To let down our defenses and acknowledge the real horror in our midst, side by side with a real God who loves us through it. To love, knowing that our love can bring us pain, can leave us out in the world beyond ourselves and our ability to protect and guard. To shed tears for those we do not know, to hold the ones we do even tighter still, to lift a voice in outrage, to lay one’s life down for one’s friends. To dream of a world where disaster is no more, especially when the idea of it seems crazy, and work to give that dream flesh and breath to sing with. This power belongs to God. This is the power Christ comes to baptize with: a world shimmering with such exquisite light that our hearts break each time evil threatens it, and weep when death still seems to carry it away.
If you are angry because you are fed up with the thousands of innocent children and adults who are killed and maimed by guns and violence in this and every country, every year, then let your anger burn for justice until God’s just and peaceful world is come. If you grieve because the loss is more than you can hold alone, then let God’s consolation fill your heart. And if you rejoice because the goodness of God’s world shines brighter now for all the darkness that surrounds it, then lift your voices high and sing.
Now is the time. This is the place. God is with us.
August 13, 2012 § Leave a Comment
“Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
The final line from our Ephesians reading this morning was a favorite Offertory sentence of my priest in Greensboro, North Carolina, and he recited it every Sunday morning after the Peace had been exchanged and the announcements had been made before we prepared to break bread together at the altar. It did what an Offertory sentence is supposed to do in the liturgy, it refocused our attention towards the Lord’s table after all the hustle and bustle of our prayers and glad exchanges and comments on the life of our community were through. He also habitually followed this sentence by asking our pianist for the number of the Offertory hymn, so in my mind this line of scripture is not only always spoken in his voice but always with the added dialogue between priest and musician, “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. What’s the hymn, Joan?” After hearing it enough times, this line burned itself onto my heart. This was in the early days of my return to church from a very long time away from it, and this verse haunted me on long, ambling Sunday afternoon strolls around the city after mass, my mind full of urgent questions about how, exactly, I was supposed to go about loving all the unlovable people around me. “Walk in love,” I heard, passing by the man who slept beneath the bridge, “walk in love” past the garbage bins behind the grocery store full of perfectly edible produce with slight imperfections, “walk in love” alone, keeping all my thoughts close to my chest, unsure of how to even begin broaching the subject of my newfound savior in Christ Jesus within the mostly secular world where I worked and played.
“Walk in love as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Not a perfect sacrifice, as it is described elsewhere in the Epistles, though its perfection is presumed, but a fragrant one. I found this phrasing captivating and evocative. “What, exactly, is supposed to smell good about the cross of Christ?” I wondered. Is it the smell of lilies at the altar freshly opened on an Easter morning, or perhaps the lamb roasting in the oven? Well, actually, yes, in part, it is. In the most primitive, Biblical- even pre-Biblical sense of the term, sacrifices were supposed to smell good. Sacrifice simply meant the animal you killed for God. It was usually the fattest, choicest piece of an animal roasting on the open coals, the smoke of its fat rising to an invisible God somewhere past the sky. I was reminded of this one Autumn morning as I walked outside the doors of St. Mary the Virgin in New York City after Mass and passed onto West 46th St because I moved from one kind of smoke to another as I went. If you’re any kind of ecclesiastical tourist, you might know the parish I’m talking about by its nickname, “Smoky Mary’s”, so called for its profuse employment of incense during services, which, I’ve been told, is stored in the back by the barrel-full. Outside on 46th St, however, the smoke was of a different kind. One of Manhattan’s many street fairs was well underway, and the usual assortment of food carts were out en masse, their flat, black griddles sizzling hot with beef shanks and whole chickens whose flesh erupted into white, aromatic smoke upon contact. Our worship used to smell something like this, I thought. The alluring smell of something tasty rising up to heaven, drawing anyone with a nose to follow in, curious to see what’s cooking.
In the Torah, animal sacrifices were prescribed to cover a multitude of offenses, and for general thanksgiving as well. If you were truly sorry about something and didn’t want to get kicked out of the clan for it, you took a perfect, valuable specimen of livestock from your herd, that is- you took it out from the midst of your very own livelihood, and you gave it to the priests of the Holy Tent to carve and burn for God appropriately. If you didn’t have an animal you took a bird and if you didn’t have a bird you took some grain. It was symbolic. It was something that stood in for your very own self. It had to be symbolic. God didn’t need to eat a bull or a goat or even a handful of grain for that matter. God did not desire those things, he desired the people themselves. He desired a people who made his name known to all the world by walking in the ways of his justice and truth. And when, as it would inevitably happen time after time after time that the people fell short of that ultimate goal of total surrender to God’s way of justice, they would make sacrifice upon the altar of hot coals before his tent in reparation. They would make sacrifice regularly, in fact, to cover for any misgivings they had missed. They would make sacrifice because of how grateful they were for the blessings of their households, and for the harvest. They would make sacrifice to remember that everything they had belonged to God and came from God and was going back to God in the end. In one of the great anthropomorphisms of the Torah, God is revealed as delighting in the very smell of these sacrifices offered before him as the smoke rose heavenward. But the prophets tell us that what he loved even more than this was when his people acted with God’s justice and God’s loving kindness in the world around them. Hosea says that God delights in mercy and knowledge of God even more. “I desire mercy more than sacrifice,” God says to Hosea, “and the knowledge of my ways more than burnt offerings.” Similar, Psalm 51 calls out that, “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
“Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” When the authors of these Christian letters speak of Christ as sacrifice, they are pointing to this altar by a tent in the wilderness, they are pointing to a life of mercy for all who desire turning from their selfish ways to God, they are pointing to a heart that was broken by the cruelty of this world. They are pointing to the way that Jesus gave himself over to the life of God, not in a symbolic way only, but utterly, entirely. What is more, they are pointing to the way he was given over entirely to God for our sake, that all with eyes to see and ears to hear might know what God is like, that we might experience and taste and touch the very goodness of God’s way in the flesh, by the physical realities of our fingers and our mouths and our beating hearts. When a human soul is given up entirely to God, it does not take an alluring fragrance to signal its desirability to those about it. It is, in its own regard, effusive. More than a flower calling bees in Spring, more than the perfume of a lover long-since gone, the soul given up to God fills a room and calls down to our deepest yearning for what is good in this world. It is apparent , as the letter to the Ephesians says, every time that we are able to tell the truth to one another in loving-kindness, every time anger rises within us and we are brave enough to let it pass without adding to its rage, every time we forgive the one who has made mistakes in our direction and failed to live up to the radiant justice that God has given us up to making. It is, in other words, our own sacrifice to make, as well as Christ’s. Not always on a cross of wood, but often in the crucible of true friendship, honest speech, and the always ever difficult forgiveness offered up to those who hurt us.
“Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” It isn’t easy, being members of one another, being open and honest enough with one another to act as a single body does, its nerves intimately connected, immediately communicating the next move that needs to happen. But it is good, and it is what God desires. It is what makes our Church a living sacrifice to God, a witness to the life of truth and reconciliation that is possible among us. And it is ours to claim as soon as we pass from the doors of this place on this day into a world that desperately needs to taste and touch that goodness, too. Walk around in it, move about in the effusive goodness God has given us this day, a banquet of unending love springing new from every step you make in God’s creation, and share it with the people you pass by. Your sacrifice of love will be Christ’s own, reaching out to those around you, and it will fill the air of any room you both shall enter. Amen.
June 22, 2012 § Leave a Comment
“Or Earth, perhaps, so newly separated
From the old fire of Heaven, still retained
Some seed of the celestial force which fashioned
Gods out of living clay and running water.”
-Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book I
Every earthy slick of mud
which we were left in
when the Heavens stretched themselves
beyond our reach
speaks on longing
left behind in that divide,
every spark of something more
burrowed in the bowels
of our birth
swerves with solar winds
passed over us
from that first light,
and every sun that sets its blood
down on the hills
that cup us close
melts a pat of possibility upon them:
that we, when dawn returns,
might also rise.
April 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
My maternal grandparents lived in a
menagerie of their domestic history,
glass shelves of family, and lists
in form of porcelain and pysanka,
lamps of heron, ballerinas, Sacred
Heart of Jesus, Immaculate of Mary,
all back-lit relief on bureaus where
we could find costume jewelry, faded
wigs and slips. In: faux gold-leaf and velvet
hibiscus papered walls; out: the canal,
old men boating, grandchildren screaming, towels
flung from shoulders like capes, dripping wet,
and a black storm building to pass over
us, brake, and make us wilder than we were.