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Have questions about my life and work? Me too! I recently sat down with myself to get to reflect on some of what’s happened for me over the past year. You can read the whole text here.
I sing a lot. Sometimes with others. It sounds like this.
I was last published in 2015, in Assaracus, and then fussily abandoned the writing of formal poetry for being too isolating with too few immediate returns. I now avidly and actively seek to appreciate the poetry of others, most especially in live settings, and use that to inspire some of my other work in the pulpit, at prayer, and on stage.
I couldn’t find my passport yesterday. Technically, Nathan couldn’t find his first. We’re traveling to British Columbia this afternoon for a conference and while getting ready Nathan realized he didn’t know where his passport was. I all but rolled my eyes at him as he searched from room to room; how careless of him! Of course his searching prompted me to lay eyes on my own just to be sure, and sure enough it wasn’t where I thought it was, either. So I began discreetly looking for my own passport under the pretense of helping him find his. Which is my least favorite thing in the world, looking for something I’ve lost. Or perhaps it’s just the losing. Elizabeth Bishop called it an art, one not “hard to master.” Her poem One Art catalogues a list of things from keys to an “hour badly spent” to names and whole continents which so “seem filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” I’m not convinced. There’s nothing so disastrous to me as not being able to put my hands on something which I know must be hiding just beneath another pile of magazines or in the back of some unopened drawer. Thomas, it seems, is not convinced either. In the story we tell every year on the Sunday after Easter he can’t believe that all the other disciples have laid their eyes upon their recently deceased friend and teacher and he has not; and who can blame him? The first loss was traumatic enough, and now they would arrest his grief, also? Death is like this. Many of the familiar habits which were tied to a beloved now gone still reach out into the world like phantom limbs: picking up the phone a moment before realizing they will not, discovering mementos of their presence like detritus washing up on shore. When Thomas says, “until I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my hand into his side I will not believe,” I imagine him having a moment like this, casting about the house for something which was here just a moment ago but is now gone. All the others seem to have found it already. The other disciples have their ticket, ready to go, ready to embark on some new journey where now life is death and death is life and here’s Thomas with everything lost, about to get left behind. It seems that more than proof, Thomas only wants to touch what is real. What a relief when you finally open the right drawer and find what had been missing. All the flurry melting into foolishness, the sudden sense that of course it had been waiting there all along. The future changes suddenly from a dire one where everything goes wrong to one where maybe fate will cut you some slack after all.
Nathan’s passport happened to be in a box where I had mistakenly packed it away with some other things. Mine was only in an unkempt room. Holding it, I couldn’t help but think how made up it was, how unreal. Here was a piece of paper I’d been desperate to find because it proves to some person guarding some border that I belong somewhere. A belonging and a border and a piece of paper which are each essentially made up, agreed upon by enough people with enough power to make them somehow real. Most of us find that we are drawn to something more real than that. Many of us share community with those not so lucky as to find themselves in possession of such magical papers. When the government says, “unless I see the papers which prove it I refuse to believe these people belong here,” we say, “we know their belonging is real, it is rooted in our family, in this community, in this land, as much as anyone’s.” But that does not seem to be enough for the powers of the world. The people of the world, like Thomas, long to touch what is real, but we are sold imaginary substitutes instead: false securities, mistaken enemies, half truths. We cast about in search of some missing solution to a problem we did not invent. One side says, “love would remake the world entirely.” Another side says, “prove it.” Proof, in that case, means losing many of the things the world instructs us to hold dear. Unjust laws, dishonest wealth, arbitrary lines between us and them. In the Resurrection each disappears like misplaced keys or a name not easily remembered. What remains to be found? God, having been waiting there all along to show us.
When did it happen? Did he wake up in the middle of the night like an old man who has to pee and step outside his cave scratching to see through half open eyes the full moon lonely above him? Or did he become a kind of night light, himself, the dead cells of his bio body switching one by one into something more serene, already gleaming before the dawn outside arrived? Did angels see it happen or were they sleeping, too? Did a band of rebels break in to steal him so rumors could foment? Was it a surprise, even to him, the way abandonment had been surprising, too? Was there urgency? Relief? Was it like the way you wake up on a day with nothing scheduled? The story doesn’t say. The story only shows a hole where the body had been, a real absence staring back into the one these three women had already been walking around with in their hearts for three days, a gap in the expected, attended by a young man dressed in white. Any renaissance painter worth his salt has offered his own suggestions to fill it in. Piero della Francesca’s resurrected Jesus stands with one foot in the grave, one out, like a miner on his break. Paolo Veronese’s pirouettes from death while scattering a choir of soldiers to the ground. But these are not the kind of details which matter to our author. He only has the young man dressed in white tell the women that the one whom they are looking for is not there, that he is where he always said he would be: raised from death and gone ahead of them. The first women to receive this news do not know when it happened. Or how. Or even what it means. Their evidence is an absence. Their guide is trust. The one who was God with them always said it would turn out this way. Now they’re left to believe him or not. It’s the same for us. He is not here. And you get the same thing they did: a young man -youngish- dressed in white telling you that it all went down the way he said it would. That violent death was inevitable for someone like him in a world like ours and that death is not the end. Death died with him. He is raised. I do not know when or how or even why. There is no intellectual trick to trust. There is no clever story to tell or convincing argument to make. It is, however, easier to trust what one knows. The women knew Jesus intimately. I have a few friends whom I love so dearly and who seem so clearly close to the heart of God that sometimes I imagine them telling me that they cannot be contained by death, either. We know Christ communally. We’ve meet the incarnate heart of love here regularly. We’ve know Christ in the wounds and resilience of those of us who have faced sickness and addiction and divorce this year. We’ve know Christ in the honesty of those facing death. We’ve know Christ in the insistence of those who call our societal bluffs and greed. We know Christ as the one we’re always speaking with about our fear and singing to with our joy. We have learned to see Christ in the stranger who shows us pain bigger than we know how to fix and grace more rich than we could have imagined partaking in. We know what Christ Jesus said about life and death. So when did it happen? The better question may be when does it happen still? I, for one, would not know faith in God’s power for resurrection if you weren’t here to proclaim it now. Our experience to trust or leave is the steady repetition of this strange faith back and forth to one another through the centuries, a question of whether we can look into the absence and see life, an answer that beyond all reason we have. It happens in hymns which reach for the impossible with a language only the heart can understand. In happens in whispered confidence that love will have the final say. It happens every time we answer the acclamation of our faith, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!”
In the great three days that lead from Holy Week to Easter Maundy Thursday is the first, when we remember Jesus sharing a final meal with his friends and asking them to love one another as he loved them.
Wait. I’m not ready for this part of the story yet. I’m not ready for the final meal with friends. I’m not ready for the awkward intimacy of the foot washing or the mundane failure of the tired disciples to stay awake. I’m not ready for Holy Week. Not because of the practical details, mind you, people here make sure those are all taken care of. The bulletins were all printed, the music rehearsed, and the tables set for dinner a whole day early waiting empty in the sunlight for their guests the way this place waits for all of you all year long to tell this story. I’m not ready in a bigger way than that. I didn’t do good at Lent this year. The past two years when Chris asked me what I was going to do for Lent I’ve shouted something back like, “isn’t life itself enough already?” But it’s not somehow. And each year Easter comes like a wave, like the big one, and if you see it gathering on the horizon you have time to get yourself together and stand up tall and take a deep breath and wait. Or you don’t, and suddenly you’re upside down with a sinus full of seasalt. I’m not ready for this part. And maybe I never am. So much of Holy Week catches me off guard and makes me cry. It’s the kind of crying that comes when you touch something that you don’t quite have words for yet, or maybe it’s the kind of crying that comes when someone else’s words are surprisingly accurate. I cry when little kids wash the feet of strangers with absolute earnestness. I cry when the altar is bare and all the lights cut out. I cry when Jesus is distressed in the garden, when Jesus is mocked and spit on, when Jesus sees his mom. I’m a mess. But look at the other guys! There’s Jesus, clearly telling everyone at his dinner party that he’s going to die tomorrow, and there are the disciples, essentially asking, “so what’s our plan here, exactly?” There’s Jesus, asking for a few final waking moments with his three closest friends, and there they are, napping. There’s Jesus alone in prison, and there’s Peter outside saying, “I don’t know him.” In fact, one of the only people who does seem to be prepared comes before this part of the story. A woman, of course, another dinner party, per usual. Jesus saying something wise. She walks in with perfume, the kind you use on dead bodies, and just starts crying. Super awkward, my kind of people. She kneels at his feet and washes them with her hair and her tears and makes the whole house smell like an adolescent who doesn’t know how much cologne to use. Jesus is the only one unphased. The disciples squirm. But she’s ready for what’s coming. She knows. And the gift of knowing, rarely given to so many more who must endure the terrible thing, is also the gift of getting to say goodbye. How many people, this year alone, who didn’t get to say goodbye? God only knows. Maybe Jesus thinks of them, maybe Jesus mimics her, when he gets down on the floor after his last dinner and begins gingerly to hold the feet of each person who has walked with him this far. They cringe. They mince words. But ready or not, Jesus makes the round. In three days, everything will have changed. They will no longer be able to clearly follow one man who more or less stays in one place at one time. He will have become something more than that kind of earthy permanence. They will suddenly be in charge, others will look to them to lead, will watch which way their eyes are pointing when they squint to see something imperceptible a step or two ahead. But for now they are held by their friend with a love which makes their insides quiver and hurl. Love like this, he says. Are they ready? Of course not.
“He will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears…”
We are a people obsessed with personalities. We are a people who love to watch and read and think about special persons. We are also a people often uncertain of the specialness or rightness of our own personhood. Our politics are personal, receiving their highest ratings and attention when populated by personae non grata engaged in the sport of personalized attacks. Our justice is often best served personally, the issues of affordable housing and immigration reform all the more galvanizing when given the face of a personal story, someone we know, or could imagine knowing. And then there are our own selves, the persons we attempt to craft with meticulous detail and the persons we simply cannot help but be. What kind of person are you? Maybe I could answer this question from your Facebook posts, or from your record collection, or from what you wear or who you talk to. What is a James? A Chris? A Bonnie? Maybe we are accumulations of biblical-scholarly-articles, or the person you call when someone is sick or dying, or white-robe-wearers, or possessors of impeccably quaft and wildly flowing hair. Perhaps more importantly, is what I am as a person good, is it seen and known and approved of by the other persons whom I admire and respect? If God had a Facebook account, which of my posts would she like? The one about the Imams acting as vocal advocates for a theology of peace over and against the theology of violent extremists, or the one where I talk about how many times I’ve listened to the new Beyoncé album?
We are a people who are very interested in persons, the persons we believe ourselves to be and the persons whom we are either attracted to or repulsed by. And so it may interest you to know that our modern Western idea of personhood itself was actually invented by a bunch of Christian theologians in the fourth century. When these guys were attempting to describe what had happened between the human race and God in the person of Jesus, the idea of a person itself was something of a novelty, at least in the way they decided to use it. Up till then the idea of persona was mostly used in theatre, the persona of a Greek tragedy was it’s list of characters, the collection of large masks used to articulate relationships and emotional currents within the broader drama. It did not mean individual, it did not mean personal identity. The time was not so obsessed with the uniqueness of every individual, a good citizen of Hellenistic culture was one who upheld the common good and government, a good Israelite was one who embodied the holy laws of God’s people. Not uniqueness. But there was something unique about Jesus. Not that he claimed to be God, necessarily, many crazy people claimed as much, but that so many more people so many centuries later still believed him. What was more, there was something unique about Jesus from God. Jesus was God but different from God somehow, not just an appearance of God or a manifestation of God or a piece of God, but a distinct individual, still distinctly divine.
Plenty of easy explanations circulated about why this was so- like maybe Jesus was just God pretending to be human, or maybe Jesus was just uniquely possessed by God, uniquely channeling God; but each of these explanations too easily explained away something which was, essentially, inexplicable. And so, with a new meaning for an old word, these theologians described God and Jesus as distinct, individual persons who shared the same essential being. And if that doesn’t make sense, then it’s probably working; because any definition of the Trinity which seems easy to get a hold on isn’t doing justice to the incomprehensible mystery of God. By the next century the idea of personhood was extended to the Holy Spirit also, and then to angels as manifest expressions of certain spiritual realities, and last of all to non-divine beings, like humans -we came to think of ourselves as distinct, individual persons as well, not least of all through authors like Augustine, who depicted the interiority of individual personhood -the little inner conflicts and dramas we see played out in our own private minds- in radical new ways through works like his Confessions. (For more on this see Phillip Carey, Charles Taylor, or John Zizoulous.)
The interesting thing to me is that for us, today, the idea of what makes a person great essentially revolves around this uniqueness, around this bold assertion of a distinct self, often loud, always powerful, set apart from all others. Yet the persons of the Trinity, the persons we originally spoke of and the persons which our own asserted personhood is a mere imitation of, were essentially selfless. In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks of a person who will come not as a body but as a spirit of truth who will speak through and among other bodies not his own, who will speak words not his own but the very words of God. The Holy Spirit then is presented as a selfless person whose chief aim is to show God through someone else. If this sounds familiar it may be because Jesus is described by scripture in a similar way. Paul described Jesus as one who emptied himself of any pretense and all clinging to show forth God, and John says that when we saw Jesus we saw God’s light and truth and way. God’s very own self is revealed less often through personal appearances and more through interpersonal actions: justice for the poor, creation out of nothing, the sound of sheer silence like balm over a troubled soul, a friend who would sacrifice everything rather than forsake his love. Something in the selfless nature of the Holy Spirit shows us what Jesus is like and something in the selfless nature of Jesus shows us what God is like, a God who is in turn giving us the grace and company of the Spirit who brings us together in Christ’s body. For all our talk of personhood, the essence of the Holy Trinity is a kind of selflessness, each member showing forth the other two.
Now, I want to be especially careful any time I stand up here and espouse selflessness as a virtue, mainly because for most of Christian history, virtues like selflessness and obedience and humility have been used to silence and submit people without power to people with it. Namely selflessness as a virtue has been used to silence and subject women, whether it is wives to their husbands or religious sisters to their superiors. The theologian Sarah Coakley has taken this issue head on in her writing (specifically in her chapter on Kenosis in the book Powers & Submissions.) She addresses the damage done to women and others through the kind of self-emptying which is demanded by force, and she holds up the possibility of real power lying in the kind of self-emptying which comes by choosing to not cling to the false power of this world, but remaining rooted in the one who is creating, nourishing, loving our very essence into being. Perhaps then, our own definition of what makes a person good deserves some retooling. If the original persons of the Trinity were each pointing to one another, what are we pointing to most often? What are we showing forth? The selfless Trinity shows forth a way of being, a way of being in the world and a way of being with one another, a love which does not cling, a generosity which won’t resent what it gives, a wisdom which cannot be deceived or deluded. Perhaps we can simply begin by praying that this Holy undivided and selfless Trinity will show themselves to us, that ultimately God may show themselves through us to as well, to a world which desperately desires to be seen, and known and loved.
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