Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Believing

I'm going to lead a book study on the Wednesdays during Lent on a book called How Little Can I Believe and still be a Christian?  It's by a Methodist and isn't bad, in fact quite good, but it doesn't go far enough into the mystery of 'believing'. So, tomorrow night I'm giving the group a chapter from my memoir of 'being a priest' to consider as well.

Thought I'd give it to you too.





God around the Edges


                             I DRIVE HOME

I drive home through pain, through suffering,
through death itself.

I drive home through Cat-scans and blood tests
and X-rays and Pet-scans (whatever they are)
and through consultations of surgeons and oncologists
and even more exotic flora with medical degrees.

I drive home through hospitals and houses
and the wondrous work of hospice nurses
and the confusion of dozens more educated than me.

Dressed in green scrubs and Transfiguration white coats,
they discuss the life or death of people I love.

And they hate, more than anything, to lose the hand
to the greatest Poker Player ever, the one with all the chips.
And, here’s the joke, they always lose in the end—
the River Card turns it all bad and Death wins.

So, while they consult and add artificial poison
to the Poison of Death—shots and pills and IV’s
of poison—I drive home and stop in vacant rooms
and wondrous houses full of memories
and dispense my meager, medieval medicine
of bread and wine and oil.

Sometimes I think…sometimes I think…
I should not drive home at all
since I stop in hospitals and houses to bring my pitiful offering
to those one step, one banana peel beneath their foot,
from meeting the Lover of Souls.

I do not hate Death. I hate dying, but not Death.
But it is often too much for me, stopping on the way home
to press the wafer into their quaking hands;
to lift the tiny, pewter cup of bad port wine to their trembling lips;
and to smear their foreheads with fragrant oil
while mumbling much rehearsed words and wishing them
whole and well and eternal.

I believe in God only around the edges.
But when I drive home, visiting the dying,
I’m the best they’ll get of all that.

And when they hold my hand with tears in their eyes
and thank me so profoundly, so solemnly, with such sweet terror
in their voices, then I know.

Driving home and stopping there is what I’m meant to do.
A little bread, a little wine and some sweet smelling oil
may be—if not enough—just what was missing.

I’m driving home, driving home, stopping to touch the hand of Death.
Perhaps that is all I can do.
I tell myself that, driving home, blinded by pain and tears,
having been with Holy Ones.

8/2007 jgb


          Poetry, it has always seemed to me (aging English Major that I am) speaks in code and un-conceals truth with a lyrical ruthlessness. I had written the line above that goes: “I believe in God only around the edges” , and read that line several times before I realized being in “poem mode” had stripped away decades of self-deceit and un-concealed an abiding and profound Truth about me. I believe in God only around the edges. What a stunning realization to a man of 65 who has been an Episcopal Priest for some 37 years! What a dose of cold water poured over my head. Prior to my third or fourth reading of that line, which my subconscious wrote, I would have said, without fear of contradiction: “I believe in God.” But now I know that is a lie. Now I know I only believe in God around the edges.
          Since the edgy God I believe in is a master of irony, just today a dear friend asked me if I’d read the article about how Mother Teresa (God Bless Her) was haunted with severe doubts about the existence and reality of God throughout her life of doing God’s work. The article, my friend told me, promising to get it to me, was written by one of the recent group of authors who have challenged “faith” to the point of finding it the root of all problems in our suffering, darkling world. “Just an example,” she told me, “of how ‘religious people’ are all frauds and fakes and worse than that.”
          Irony piled on irony—I had emailed the poem “Driving Home” to my friend the night before she saw the article. And now, Mother Teresa, the combination of Martin Luther King, Hildegard of Bingham and Gandhi, had doubts! Who better, I commented, given all she saw and worked with every day to have serious considerations about a God of compassion, love and mercy? Who better to believe in God only around the edges than Mother Teresa? Who better to doubt?
          Here’s what I know: I don’t believe in God ‘head-on’, rushing inexorably into my life, running the Universe like the manager of a Target store, slaying the unrighteous and guarding the faithful. I don’t believe (whatever “believe” means) in the blood-thirsty and vengeful Almighty of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I don’t believe, except around the edges, in the God of the Nicene Creed—a collection of random dogma if there ever was one. And—this is the killer, the one to get me de-frocked after all these years—I don’t believe in the petulant God who decided the Creation and human beings he/she/it ‘spoke’ into being in Genesis and destroyed in the Great Flood were so despicable and un-holy that the only thing that would make them somehow ‘fit’ to be in the Kingdom was if he sent his child to be brutally murdered in their place.
          I don’t believe in the Doctrine of the Atonement, in other words. It is offensive to me and reveals a childish and impetuous Deity. “Hey, you ‘chose’ these people as your own! Put up with them, for your sake!” (I’m reminded on the little poem by Ogdon Nash: “How odd of God/to choose the Jews.”) But since you chose them, don’t change dance partners half-way through the party. And for all that is sacred in heaven and earth, don’t demand the blood of Yourself—Your son—to correct the problems! Get over it and move on—there might be a design flaw in those created “in Your own image” and “just a little lower than the angels” but that’s Your fault not theirs. The God of the Old Testament reminds me of automobile manufacturers in our own day who are so loathe to admit they made a design error and re-call cars as if it were the fault of those who bought them. That God also reminds me of the Chinese folks who have—in a remarkably short period of time—be found to have poisoned animal food, children’s toys and clothing. Just today they admitted their fault but covered the bet by saying it was a result of a change in regulations rather than the poison that they felt was ‘legal’ when they put it in food, painted toys with it and dipped clothing in it. At least there is this: a few of the Chinese managers have committed suicide to prove their commitment to ‘honor’. Yahweh just kept killing off the enemies of the Hebrews, destroying the world with water and deciding to have the authorities crucify the second-person of the Trinity because of manufacturing mistakes. Hey, put poison in dog food, lead in toy paint and formaldehyde in baby clothing and someone will get hurt. Perhaps the God of A/I/J should have taken a little responsibility for making Free Will part of the factory package….
         
          So, I believe in God around the edges. Here’s a metaphor for that (don’t blame me that all metaphors ultimately fail after making their point). Did you ever have a bee—or worse, a wasp—show up in the front seat of your car when you’re driving 75 mph in the third lane of an Interstate? There you are, straining your fine motor skills to the limit by driving a lethal weapon faster than it should be driven, and suddenly there is a bee buzzing around your hands on the steering wheel. There are several options. Crash into the divider and kill yourself rather than get stung. Slam on the brakes and cause a five car pile up, damaging lives other than your own, instead of getting stung. Swerve across two lanes of heavy traffic to the break-down lane and if you don’t kill yourself or somebody else, stop the car, open all the doors and run around your car screaming like a banshee, avoiding being hit by a twelve wheeler bearing down on you. Open your windows and hope the little beast goes out. Start slapping at it with a road map, careening madly across crowded lanes of traffic in front of people who, truth be known, shouldn’t be allowed to drive to begin with. Or, keep your speed up, hoping for an interchange in a dozen miles or so that you can carefully cross the other lanes and pull off at a Shell Station to deal with the bee.
          If (as I hope you will) you choose the last option—(using the Free Will Yahweh shouldn’t have handed out so lavishly if He/She was going to regret it later), you will have, before then, felt—whether true or not—the little insect, make it a wasp instead of a bee since bees are so fuzzy and loveable and wasps are the spawn of Satan, walking up your leg with six sticky little feet toward your thigh. I forgot to tell you it was summer and you had on shorts as you drove like a crazy person down an Interstate with a wasp in the car.
          Ok, that’s a metaphor for how God most often shows up to me—just when I don’t have the time or attention to give; just when I’m distracted by vital things; just when I’m too busy to be disturbed.
          It’s like the story of the young monk and the wise old monastic. The younger monk asks, “Brother, you have taught me to always be ready to receive the Lord when he arrives in strange guises. But I am sometimes too distracted or busy with my work and prayer and study and am not hospitable to the stranger.”
          The old monk smiled and nodded his head. “That’s alright, my brother. Often when I see the Lord coming at an inopportune time, I say to him, in my annoyance, ‘Jesus Christ, is it you again!?’ Our Lord is always ready to be welcomed—even when we are not feeling like we can….”
          A year or so before I retired, I was at a meeting in St. John’s library at 3 p.m. Four of us were discussing a brochure we are creating to raise money for capital improvements. I will take the opportunity to whine a bit since Friday is what I occasionally referred to as “my day off” and there I was sitting around a table, annoyed and out of sorts. No one but the four of us were in the building, it being an August Friday afternoon, but the last person in had not locked the door to the Parish House so I heard it open. What a pain—not only am I spending my day off talking about raising money—now I have to go see who just walked into the building.
          It was a young woman named Rachel who was in tears and obviously distressed. I told her I was a priest (who knows if she believed me!) and asked her what she needed.
          “My friend is dying,” she told me, between sobs, “and I just wanted to light a candle and pray for him.”
          I told her we didn’t have candles to light but I would be glad to let her into the church to pray. I did that small kindness and minor hospitality and then went back to my meeting.
          Half-an-hour later I sensed her in the hallway and left the meeting again. Her friend has a rare form of cancer—he’s 33 and a new dad and is dying in spite of all the resources and miracles of Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. We sat for a while in the hallway and she suddenly asked me, “Can I be baptized?”
          I thought she meant at that moment and, though I would have roused the witnesses from the library and done it then, she meant in the near future. She’d not been baptized as a child—in fact she’d been to more funerals and weddings than Sunday services in her lifetime. But it had haunted her—like a wasp climbing up your leg at 75 mph—that she’d never done it.
          I told her what I truly believe: that God loves her just as much in that moment as God will love her after her baptism but that I believe baptism has a profound objective reality and that I would be honored, blessed, humbled and proud to talk more with her about it and baptize her whenever she was ready.
          She hugged me awkwardly and, tear drenched, went on her way.
          We finished the meeting about the brochure—so vital to the future and enhancement of the mission and ministry of St. John’s, I really mean that—and yet, driving home, I was left wondering if the God I believe in around the edges had brought me to that oh-so-important meeting to meet Rachel, longing for baptism.
          OK, right off the bat, I have to admit that I never saw her again. Maybe she felt embarrassed by how open and needful she had been with me. Maybe her friend died and she’ll was too angry with God to want to be baptized. Maybe her friend lived and she’ll think coming to pray for him and talking to a graying, over-weight priest who didn’t want to be there…wasn’t supposed to be there, was enough. Maybe she’ll come back and talk to the next priest and they'll talk about God and baptism and the water and oil will proclaim the awesome and unfathomable truth that Rachel is a beloved child of God and she’ll teach church school or be a Lay Eucharistic Minister or Senior Warden one day. Who knows? Maybe God knows—the God I believe in and love around the edges. But I know this: any God that thinks Rachel needs water and oil to be His/Her child is outside the edges I believe in and love.
          Here’s where my wasp in the car metaphor fails. I simply left my oh-so-important meeting and spent time with Rachel. I didn’t kill the wasp or get it out of the car or pull over to the side of the road. I just knew the little sticky feet—six of them—on my thigh meant I needed to react to the moment and deal with the person God sent to be with me when I wasn’t supposed to be there. That’s all I know. I don’t know the rest.

          If you asked me to describe my spirituality—which I hope you’d never think of asking me…ask me about the weather, the Yankees and Red Sox, the Obama administration, the price of gas, my twin (not identical) granddaughters and their 4 year old sister who is a force of nature, how I’m feeling, the work I do in the Cluster, whether I saw American Hustle last year or have read the all of The Game of Thrones novels  (yes and yes, by the way) and I’ll be happy to engage you in conversation—however, I pray you won’t ask me to ‘describe my spirituality’.
          But if you did, I would pause long enough to let you be distracted and walk away before telling you, “I’m a contemplative.”
          I am a ‘contemplative’ spiritually. Though I am often and always involved in social action issues, I am not a ‘social activist’ in my spirituality. I wouldn’t even know how to be that. I believe in prayer the way I believe in God—“around the edges”. I’m perfectly happy to pray the prayers of the Eucharist of the community. That’s what I get paid for, in large measure, after all. And I participate in ‘intercessory’ prayer and prayers for healing and more often than I remember pray prayers of thanksgiving and prayers giving Glory to my edgy God. All of that I do without apology. And, I must admit, though I think it is meet and right to do so, I’m not certain in any significant way about what those prayers mean or do.
          Prayer to me is not asking or inviting or thanking or hoping or wishing or intoning. I don’t object to any of that—but if you asked me how I pray—when I do…I would tell you I am a contemplative. Here’s what the prayer I truly believe in consists of: sitting in a chair and shutting the hell up. And that doesn’t mean I believe if you just ‘sit there’ and ‘listen’ God will come over your FM receiver with lots and lots of news. In fact, I believe mostly in prayer that makes no sense and has no immediately discernable result. What I believe in about prayer is this: Prayer is waiting.
          I have sat by the beds of people dying from horrific diseases and my prayer by those bedsides is not that they get better or be healed or die. My prayer is simply that I’m waiting by the bedside. Waiting only. Just Waiting. That—waiting—and nothing more.
          That might be an insight into what a ‘contemplative’ is and what the nature of believing in God ‘around the edges’ is all about. I could never believe in a God who was guided by what I call “Gallup Poll Prayers”. I could never believe in a God who was tallying up the number and sincerity of prayers before deciding, as the Creator of the Universe, what to do about Aunt Elsie’s cancer. I participate in “prayer chains” and am honored, humbled to do so. But if you put a gun to my head I’d say that the God I believe in and love isn’t keeping count of how many prayers come in before deciding to let Aunt Elsie live or die. To start down that road turns prayer into some form of competitive sport and if you only pray hard enough and well enough and avoid getting penalized for insincerity or too little love then the One who spread the heavens and created the stars will say: “well, lots of prayers on that one—let them live….”
          Please don’t hear this as a discouragement for prayers of intercession. They ‘work’; I know they do. It’s just that they don’t necessarily ‘work’ (from my point of view) in the way you and I want them to ‘work’. 
          I was once sitting in my friend's back yard talking and his 4 year old daughter, Leah, came and asked politely to go get ice cream. Malcomb told her  they world after he finishe talking to me. A few minutes later, she came back and asked again. He gave her the same answer. Less than a minute passed and she was back asking again. “Didn't you hear my answer, Leah?” he asked. “Yes,” she told him, “but it wasn't the answer I wanted!”
          I often tell people in deep distress about something in their life or the life of one they love to read the Psalms aloud. And I tell them to skip the mushy ones like everyone’s favorite—the 23rd in the King James Version—and concentrate on the ones that are totally pissed off at and mystified by God’s deafness. It seems to me that prayers raging at God are good for the soul and most likely, unless I’m totally crazy, good for God. Do I think ‘God answers prayers’? Of course I do. I just don’t think the ‘answer’ is necessarily the one we prayed for and expected. If you only believe in God around the edges, it seems to me, you develop a highly sophisticated trust in what God does since the God you believe in is the God of mercy, love, inclusion, forgiveness, compassion, joy and life.  Those are the ‘edges’ of God. What exists inside the edges is a God of judgment, vengeance, favoritism, psychological imbalance, destruction and almost endless pain.
          You take your choice and get the God you get….
          So, I’d describe myself as a ‘contemplative’ spiritually. That definition would be like shock and awe among both my friends and those who don’t like
 me very much—and both, interestingly enough, for the same reasons. I am considered, by most people who know me as “a crazy, off-the-wall, out of control Left-Wing nut”. Which is, by the way, one of the ways I would define myself, if you asked me: I’ve been known to say that I’m so ‘liberal’ I sometimes scare myself.
          But nobody deserves just one ‘description’. Since I get at least two, I describe myself as a “contemplative” as well as a “left-wing nut”. One way I would not describe myself—though many who know me would use that description—is as ‘an activist’. I used to be an activist. I used to frequent demonstrations and protests for all the right causes. I used to show up in court to support my comrades who had been arrested. And I’ll ‘talk the activist talk’ as much as you can stand to hear it. I minister to activists all the time. But my commitment to being a parish priest took me off the ‘front lines’ and into a supportive role. I’m not proud of that retreat, but it is a retreat I’ve made.

I got an email recently about two books that are “Monastic Values for Everyday Life”. The first book is called “Simplicity” and the second “Hospitality”. I can get them both, according to the email, for “$40 USD plus shipping.”
There were two quotes, one from each book, included in the email. I want to share them with you, though they are lengthy. The underlined portions are what I want to write some more about, contemplative that I am.
“The expression ‘separating the wheat from the chaff’ means to find things of value and separate them from things of no value. The contemplative life calls us to discern between that which is true and good and that which is meaningless and distracting. It is a life of ever deepening relationship with God, a life of value and purpose and in vertical alignment with what is real, eternal and sustaining.  Simplicity praxis book.

“Hospitality is an important aspect of contemplative spirituality, as it gives a concrete shape to the meeting of God in silence and prayer. To love the invisible God one must love the visible neighbor. And, as a logical extension, there is a call to respect all that God has created, showing a stewardship toward what has been freely given by God for the earthy journey toward heaven.”   Hospitality praxis book.

I learned my contemplative spirituality from Fr. Basil Pennington who believed we must have a holy respect for “ALL that God has created”. Fr. Basil refused to “discern between that which is true and good and that which is meaningless and distracting”. He considered the ‘distractions’ to prayer as a gift from God. He never suggested obliterating or separating them out from anything else. “The distractions”, Fr. Basil would say, “are part of your prayer.”
The two quotes in the email are contradictory. Never mind that I agree with Walt Whitman—“Do I contradict myself?/Very well, I contradict myself./I am large./I contain multitudes.”—I still find a profound problem in ‘separating the wheat from the chaff’ in the spiritual life. I agree, however, that in the spiritual life ‘there is a call to respect all that God has created’. So, either everything—every f---ing thing—is meaningful; or, none of it is. Once we start to pick and choose about the ‘meaningful’ and the ‘meaningless’ we have let loose upon the earth an unholy code that will divide God’s creation against itself. I—as a contemplative—just can’t accept the uncontrolled self-righteousness that would grant me. There are enough people on the planet who are dividing the “wheat from the chaff”. I choose, with the God I believe in around the edges help, not to be one of them.
A dear friend of mine, once my lay assistant, considers himself a Buddhist Christian—or a Christian Buddhist—I can’t remember which. I remember overhearing a conversation between him and a member of our parish over a decade ago. Stephen (not his real name) had just returned from his vacation, which had been a 30 day Buddhist retreat. He was telling Carl (not his real name either) about the experience. When Stephen had worn Carl out with the details of the meditation and vegetarianism and physical work of the retreat, Carl asked, not unexpectedly, “Tell my Stephen, are you a Christian?”
And Stephen, God and Buddha bless him, gave the finest and most complete answer I’ve ever heard to that presumptive question.
“At least,” Stephen said.

When you “believe in God around the edges” you can be ‘at least’ a Christian. ‘At least a Christian’ is a proper definition for believing in God around the edges—at least for me.
Another metaphor for how God shows up for me is this: I am pouring the water of baptism over some so-cute-you-could-eat-them baby, who is smiling and cooing and enjoying the whole thing. And then, as I say “Holy Spirit”, the baby either farts or has a massive, almost instantaneous bowel movement, filling up her/his diaper within his/her little satin baptismal get-up with what can be defined as lots of things, but let’s say ‘poo’.
I’m convinced whoever wrote the thing about ‘separating the wheat from the chaff’ and the ‘meaningful from the distracting’ would categorize baby ‘poo’ in the latter of both those distinctions. But I’m not sure. I know you’ve seen the bumper sticker that says “SHIT HAPPENS”. Well, it does, of that I am convinced.
Either the shit that happens is part of the whole thing—a piece of the party, a wondrous gift once you get by or begin to enjoy the smell and the mess and the dry cleaning bill for the satin baptismal outfit—or, it’s not. I’m a fundamentalist about this—‘either IT ALL means something or NOTHING DOES’. I really trust that either every moment/distraction/shit/wonder of life can either reveal or un-conceal God or, as a friend of mine says: “Life is just one damned thing after another.”
Would that we could siphon out the bad and reflect only on the good. Would that we could distinguish between the clean and unclean. Would that we could gather all the wheat into one place and consign the chaff to outer darkness. Wouldn’t that just be the cat’s pajamas?
Well—aside from having no idea what ‘cat’s pajamas’ means—being able to divide God’s beloved creation into the “good” and the “bad”, the “saved” and “damned”, the “light” and the “darkness” would make me worship the God within the edges. I have no patience for that God—boisterous and demanding and ultimately Self-Serving…the God that I fear many worship and cling to and even ‘vote for’ when they vote in elections. I have no patience with the God that demands warfare and drinks blood and condemns those who do not give obeisance to eternal fires and boils and running pus and suffering beyond all imagining.
I offer two more metaphors (for now) about God and how God shows up for me. First: I am in a room with someone I care for, even love, who has been a part of my life, and they are dying. They are surrounded by family and maybe even friends. I am expected to say something ‘profound’ and ‘meaningful’, but I have no words. I take a chair near the bed—they almost always find me a chair near the bed—and simply sit. Breathing is labored, strange fluids flow through plastic tubes into their arms and ports and other places. Machines register numbers in green figures on screens. People in scrubs and white jackets move in and out. The only sounds are those of medical devices and the soft wings of angels. I pray words I have prayed before, mumbling them through my pain and my tears—which are nothing, nothing at all compared to the pain and tears of the others by the bed. I use the only tools I have—prayer, oil, bread and wine—and then I sit down and wait. Something in the sacraments brings an initial healing, some temporary peace to the others by the bed. And the God I only believe in around the edges is inexplicably present. Something soft, something tearful, something wondrous.
And we wait. All we can do is wait and weep. Something Holy is near.
Imagine the God that would include such intimacy, such anguish, such sweet patience, such waiting. That is the God I worship and love around the edges.

Secondly, I am in an apartment in Brooklyn or in my home in Connecticut six years ago, and Morgan and Emma—my twin (though not identical)  grand-daughters are with me. Morgan laughs as soon as she sees me (she would probably laugh if Satan walked in…she’s just ready to laugh). Emma is suspicious, withdrawn, not ready to embrace the stranger. They are almost a year old and they are the product of DNA from the British Isles, from Italy and Hungary, from China. They are, in a real sense, ‘the world’.
And I love them—unconditionally, without strings attached, absolutely, finally and eternally. I almost weep to simply see them—blood of my blood, bone of my bone, two children who would not exist if I had never existed…so beautiful, so full of life, so wondrous and magic. I bite my lips to hold back sobs of joy as I move toward them—knowing they may accept or reject my embrace, my wonderment, my unquestionable adoration and devotion to them. I would gladly forfeit my life for them—in a heart-beat, without hesitation, gladly.
They know me only “around the edges”. They do not realize or have the capacity to know the secrets of my heart, the betrayals of my life—the distractions and the crap—or the love that nearly makes me explode into white light. They cannot yet ‘name’ me—though they will learn a name for me, some name to call me by, some name to ask for intercession, some name to demand attention and presence and relationship. Now it is only me—just as I am—and Morgan crawls toward me, laughing and Emma walks (she who walks first) toward me, suspicious but trusting. And I feel their tiny bodies against mine. I lift them in the air. I speak to them in non-sense syllables and escape from the bonds of time as I hold them near.
Imagine the God that could grant me such wonder and love and peace. Imagine the God that could create, out of nothing but DNA and sperm and eggs Cathy carried from birth, ready to bloom, such creatures. Imagine such a God and I will tell you this: THAT IS THE GOD I BELIEVE IN AROUND THE EDGES.

The God I believe in, around the edges, is the God of Life and Death and everything in between and everything after and all that there is—the God of the Shit and the Glory, the God of the Wonder and the Pain, the God of the Anguish and the Joy, the God of the Hopefulness and the Loss, the God of the sterile hospital rooms and the rooms of homes and promise,  
          That God.
          Around the Edges I give That God my life, my heart, my soul….


                                      CREEDO
I believe in the Edges of God.
Truly, that is my limit on the whole question of Creed.

I don't believe in God storming out of the clouds
and smiting me to smithereens if I am bad.
I don't believe in a God who would wake me up,
pin me to my bed and give me bleeding sores
on my palms and the top of my feet,
much less my side.
(Explain that to your general practitioner!)
I don't believe in a God who would instruct me
to slay infidels or displace peaceful people
so I can have a Motherland.
I don't believe in a God that has nothing better to do
besides visit bedrooms around the globe
uncovering (literally) illicit love.
I don't believe in a God who frets
about who wins the next election.
I don't believe in a God who believes in 'abomination'.

I believe in the edges of God--
the soft parts, the tender pieces--
the feathers and the fur of God.

I do believe in the ears of God,
which stick out—cartoon like—on the edges of God's Being.
I, myself, listen and listen
and then listen some more
for the Still, Small Voice.
I believe in God's nose—pronounced and distinctively
Jewish in my belief--
I smell trouble from time to time
and imagine God sniffs it out too.
The toenails and finger nails of God--
there is some protein I can hold onto,
if only tentatively.

Hair, there's something to believe in as well.
God's hair—full, luxurious, without need of jell or conditioner,
filling up the Temple, heaven, the whole universe!
I can believe in God's hair.

God's edges shine and blink and reflect color.
God's edges are like the little brook,
flowing out of the woods beyond the tire swing,
in what used to be my grandmother's land.
God's edges are like the voices of old friends,
old lovers, people long gone but not forgotten.
God's edges are not sharp or angled.
The edges of God are well worn by practice
and prayer and forgotten possibilities
about to be remembered.
God's edges are the wrists of someone
you don't quite recall but can't ever remove from your heart.

God's edges are rimmed and circled
with bracelets of paradox and happenstance
and accidents with meaning.

God is edged with sunshine,
rainbows,
over-ripe, fallen apples, crushed beneath your feet
and the bees hovering around them.

God's edges hold storm clouds too--
the Storm of the Century coming fast,
tsunamis and tornadoes, spinning out of control.

Blood from God's hands—now there's an edge of God
to ponder, reach for, then snatch your hand away.
God bleeding is an astonishing thought.
God bleeding can help my unbelief.

And most, most of all,
the edges of God are God's tears.
Tears of frustration, longing, loss, deep pain,
profound joy, wonder and astonishment--
tears that heal and relieve and comfort...
and disturb the Cosmos.

That's what I believe in:
God's tears.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Lent I sermon



Lent I ‘18—Wild beasts and angels
          Mark’s Gospel doesn’t waste any time on the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. While Matthew spends 13 verses telling the story and Luke uses 11 verses, Mark does the whole thing in two sentences: “And the Spirit immediately led him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him.”
       End of story, Mark says, let’s move on….

          Well, you don’t get off that easy!  But I’ll be brief. Three points and three only: 1) What was the ‘wilderness’ where Jesus was led? 2) How are we to understand ‘temptation’? and 3) What’s the ‘wild beast’ and ‘angel’ thing about?
          First: the actual ‘wilderness’ in the gospel stories is almost certainly the desert lands that make up the whole of south-eastern Israel. It is a barren and desolate and dangerous place. Almost nothing people from Connecticut would recognize as ‘vegetation’ grows there but it does provide enough to sustain snakes, spiders and scorpions and enough food for small animals. The small animals provide enough food for the bigger animals and scavengers that eat them. A single human being can’t survive there for long—certainly not forty days….
          But what is more important is that as soon as Jesus is declared “the Beloved” by the voice from heaven, he is removed from his society and culture, from the necessities of life, from human contact. The “wilderness” is a lonely, empty, forbidding place—the natural habitat of dangerous creatures and evil spirits.
          Few of us can identify with a long sojourn in the desert—but I suspect a good percentage of us know about the “psychological and spiritual” wilderness. I suspect many of us have experienced that lonely, forbidding and empty place within us. Most of us have known the dark night of fear and despair. Most of us have been to that ‘wilderness’ sometime in our life. THAT PLACE, we know…

Secondly, the Greek word that is translated as “temptation” is “peirazein”. Peirazein does mean “to tempt”, but it also could mean “to try” or “to test”. You might notice that when we use the contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer, we say “save us from the time of TRIAL” instead of ‘lead us not into TEMPTATION”--two different and equally legitimate translations of “peirazein”.  In fact, in one of the gospels that was left out of our Bible, Satan is called “The Angel of Testing”.
We tend to think that ‘temptation’ is uniformly ‘bad’. “Don’t tempt me,” we say when someone asks if we want a second helping of dessert. So we want to be saved from ‘temptation’. But being ‘tested’ is a way of measuring our competence is some skill and ‘facing trials’ is a way of building up our strength.
We live in a world that will give us temptations and trials and tests of our abilities. That is not always a bad thing.

Finally, what’s this about wild beasts and angels? You can take it literally, if you wish—as Mark certainly did. But one thing was almost as certain in Mark’s thinking—because Jesus was the Messiah, the Holy One of God, the ‘wild beasts’ were no threat to him. Throughout the Old Testament there are stories of wild things being positive aspects of life. Adam and Eve lived in peace with all the wild beasts. The lions didn’t hurt Daniel. The huge fish took Jonah where he was supposed to go.
And angels, well, I believe we are surrounded by ‘angels’ all the time—those who treat us kindly, those who help us heal, those who comfort us when we mourn, those who bring joy and meaning into our lives. They may be the people you love most—or they might just be total strangers—but if you listen closely you’ll always hear the distant rustle of wings….

Lent is our desert, our wilderness. It is the opportunity to wrestle with temptation, to ‘try’ ourselves by trying new things, to go into the dark and lonely places to be tested. But remember this: the Spirit leads us there and the angels AND the wild beasts will serve us well and we will never, no never be alone.   
         

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.