Husband & I have been in Boston this weekend, visiting those college students who are retreating as part of the Augustine Collective, a network of Christian thought journals as elite universities throughout the US.
Here, I met another former editor (like husband) of the Harvard Ichthus, Jordan Monge, whose testimony was published in Christianity Today in 2013. I heartily recommend it, and hope it warms your heart and encourages your spirit as it, the the retreat here, has mine.
Finally, I cleaned up.
On Saturday, I resolved to clean up my house and life–maybe it was a lot to bite off on a weekend, but unsurprisingly, I didn’t quite accomplish my goal…
I am a fan of Ricky Gervais. I have loved the BBC version of the Office longer than I have been a practicing Christian. I followed Ricky on Facebook a number of years ago and his posts generally amuse me. Yet, occasionally, he posts some fairly vitriolic anti-Christian items. He is an avowed atheist who seems to consider religion with about the same level of charity as Hitchens and Dawkins. Sometimes this frustrates me to no end. Ricky also often posts about human rights and animal rights and part of me wants to shout to him that some of the most vocal and effective proponents of both are people of faith.
Yet, I can’t always shake my feeling that sometimes, somehow, he has it right. I don’t mean that he has it right that somehow religion is an awful and fruitless thing. Or maybe I do mean that, I suppose.
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Preached Sunday, 1 June, 2014; Keenan Chapel @ Trinity Cathedral, 11:15am – you had to be there…
Who knows Rick Steves? Last night, Jordan and I were watching Rick Steves’ travel show–he’s a guy from the Pacific Northwest who makes sense for me of Jordan’s family living half in North Dakota and half outside of Seattle, Mr. Steves’ accent has strong Midwestern undertones, and his boisterous nature reminds me of my brother-in-law. Rick traipses around Europe with his camera crew, giving travel advice and showing off the great sights. We watched an episode he filmed in a French town named Colmar, where there’s a really beautiful piece of art, the Issenheim Altarpiece. It’s been one of my favorite artworks since I learned about it a few years ago.
Back in the Middle Ages, many altars–if the church could afford it–had a painting of Jesus behind them. Up in Cooperstown, New York, where I did my field education work in divinity school, there’s a painting of Jesus ascending (especially appropriate as today is the Sunday we celebrate Jesus’s ascension) behind the altar on the East wall. What’s notable about the Issenheim Altarpiece, as Rick Steves tells it, is that a religious order commissioned it to hang in their chapel, and this religious order maintained a hospital for people who suffered from skin diseases. They were much more serious than they are today, many people died from such diseases in Medieval times. The altarpiece it depicts Jesus being crucified, but his body is covered with pox marks and leprous wounds–he has the skin diseases that those who are looking at him suffer from too. This Jesus enters into the suffering of those who see him; he knows what they’re going through. Rick Steves–he’s Lutheran, you know–goes so far as to say that medicine and painkillers weren’t so effective back then, and that the altarpiece served as a sort of salve for these dear people, saying to them, “Jesus knows how much it hurts.”
In our reading from the book of Acts today, we hear the words of the two angels, “this same Jesus, who was taken from you into heaven will return the same way you’ve seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11) This same Jesus. The same Jesus who has been appearing to the disciples the last forty days, who has nail marks in his hands, who suffered right next to his followers and those he healed–that human person is also God–he has been as close to people as he possibly can, and now he goes back to his Father, as our Gospel lesson puts it (John 17:1-11). Jesus, who sits with us in our sufferings, who knows what it is like to be human, is brought to God the Father, to draw us even closer too. Through Jesus, we are made closer to God, brought ever more into God’s presence.
And what are Jesus’ last words to his followers as he is taken from them? “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea, and all Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) This verse is a sort of summary or table of contents of the whole book of the Acts of the Apostles–it’s the account of the early church’s development from Jerusalem, which is the first few chapters, out to all Judea which is the few chapters after that, and into Samaria–a wider reach than Judea–in the chapters following, and headed to the ends of the earth–to the edges of the known world in the first century–by the end of Acts.
But you know what? We’re at the end of the earth too–here in Columbia, South Carolina. This is our story. This is our mission, to be witnesses to God’s work in our lives through Jesus Christ. We are called to be witnesses, to talk about how God has change our lives, right here in Columbia.
Last week, Jordan and I went to see my brother graduated from college in New York City. We had some extra time the night before the graduation, so we went to dinner with a friend of Jordan’s who is also doing his graduate work, and lives in the City. I’d met him once, three years ago, and though he’d been married almost two years, neither of us had yet met his wife. It could have been a really awkward dinner–with us really not knowing each other well at all–but they were such holy, open people, we started talking about what God was doing in our lives within fives minutes.
You’re thinking, “that’s what a couple of preachers do!” aren’t you? Well, as the husbands were getting dinner ready in the kitchen, this new friend of mine told how God had been leading her in a very clear, specific direction in the last six months; I got into this business because I love to hear what God is up to in peoples’ lives, so I asked her how this happened, how did she know that God was speaking to her, directing her?
She told me about walking home from church one Sunday with her husband, talking as they always did, and soon the conversation turned, and as he asked her questions to help discern what she was thinking and feeling, it dawned on her all at once what she was meant to do. And she cried, right there outside in the middle of Manhattan (of course, it was Sunday morning, so there weren’t many witnesses).
I started to tell her how it was that I was called to be a priest; but I didn’t tell her the story I usually do–you see, I have two stories. One is about how I was doing a lot of reading and thinking and reflecting and talking the year I worked after undergrad, and how a conversation with my mentor became an “ah ha!” moment–but that’s not really when I knew, that’s not really when I was called.
The story I hadn’t told anyone except Jordan until that night was from earlier on; the summer I graduated, I lived in an apartment, and I was lying in bed one night–I’d just received my first Book of Common Prayer from amazon.com (I don’t recall what possessed me to buy one, but I did), and as I shut the book and lay there, clearing out my mind to go to sleep, the thought floated right into my head–like that game you play as children, pretending an egg is cracked on your head, with the innards oozing down your hair, into your mind–and like a flash, I knew it was true, “You will be a priest.” The realization made me gasp, and then cry, and then I fell asleep.
My new friend put it well, she said something like, “when you come face to face with Truth, what can you do but cry, and submit?” There aren’t good words for what happened to me that night as I was falling asleep, or what happened to my friend as she was walking down the street. They were moments beyond the realm of the explicable.
Which takes me back to Rick Steves.
At another moment in his travelogue last night, Rick was at the Louvre. He was describing the Realist movement, the style of painting in the mid-1800s which sought to portray scenes as accurately as possible. Many artists got quite good at this, studying light and details, using paint to make what looked like a photograph–there are plenty of them featured at the famous Parisian museum. Then along came the Impressionists, who not only let their brushstrokes show on their “finished” canvases, but eschewed this idea that paintings should look like photographs all together. They favored, instead, to use paint to give life to a scene–like Renoir’s depiction of a cafe in Paris, where you can almost hear the people talking, the music playing, and the dancers’ feet tapping. The sense of movement and life captured in Impressionists’ work continues to amaze and delight. They knew there was more to life than the bare facts, the scientific and certain lines and boundaries of a body or an instrument or a street scene. Impressionists captured wind and breath and emotions in a way that Realists never could, a way that science and sociology and anthropology never can.
Today we celebrate the Ascension; next week is Pentecost, and then we spend the next several months in Ordinary time. Nothing to interrupt us, nothing to catch us off-guard, nothing to jazz up the green vestments and altar-hangings, from here till December. But isn’t a lot of life that way? Not just that it’s our longest church season, but that we spend most of our time taking kids to school, making dinner, going to work–banal, common, ordinary stuff (of course, the church season “Ordinary” means “counted”–not “common,” though perhaps it should). Our challenge is to witness to Jesus’ work in our lives, to notice God in the common, ordinary, everyday things.
Then again, what was my experience going to sleep at night back in that apartment in Durham, North Carolina, and what was my friend’s experience walking back from church with her husband, except ordinary and common? Jesus meets us in the ordinary and the common, Jesus finds us and stays with us in our suffering and in our “normal;” God is eager to reveal himself to us in the everyday. We have only to watch, and then to witness; even if it is an experience that is more of an Impression than Realism.
“Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?'” (John 4:28-29) “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony… So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them… And many more believed because of his word.” (John 4:39-41)
Last weekend, Jordan and I went to the mountains outside of Hendersonville; there’s a cabin up there that we love to stay in with our dog, Ben, and the land and air up there rejuvenate us. The first time we went there was back when we lived in Durham, before we even got Ben. We’d never been to Western North Carolina before, and for spring break decided to try something new; we visited St. John’s in the Wilderness in Flat Rock, and Connemara, Carl Sandburg’s mountain home, and what has become my favorite antique store in the world–Jane Asher Antiques. I didn’t know that we’d ever go back–what a glorious realization last summer when we moved to Columbia that we were hardly two hours away from that dear place! We were so excited to go back, and to bring our dog, Ben, to camp and hike and “see” the sights with us.
What are places, or people, or events in your life that you think of being eager to share with others?
I remember when we were planning our wedding, I thrilled at the thought of my friends from my Upstate New York internship meeting Jordan’s family from North Dakota. My dear friend Dan, from high school, who I hadn’t seen in years, would drive up form South Carolina; my friends from summer camp in Ohio would be the ushers. We were so excited to invite all these people from different moments in our lives to be together at the same time.
Are there any places in your life or memory that you love so much that you want to share them with others? Are you a sort of evangelist for a particular resort or city or restaurant? Is there somewhere that you’ve got to go to eat every time you visit Charleston, or New York?
The Samaritan woman in our Gospel lesson today had an experience like that when she met Jesus. There at the well in the heat of the day, though she’d expected to be alone–that’s why she went when she did–there was someone else sitting there, and she joined him in conversation. It didn’t take long for her to realize that he was not the standard-issue man-sitting-next-to-a-well. Though it’s a long Gospel passage (John 4:5-42), theirs is a relatively short conversation, and yet it completely changed the course of this woman’s life. After talking with Jesus, even though she didn’t quite understand everything he said–I don’t understand everything Jesus has said to us, either–she was so taken that she went back to her town and told everyone that they had to come and meet this guy.
She witnessed to them. She had encountered Jesus, she had been changed by this personal encounter, and so she went and told others about it, about Jesus. She wanted others to experience the same thing that she had–the freedom, the peace, the joy, the honesty that she knew through this God-man, she hoped for everyone to taste the same transforming water that had quenched her thirst.
Just like Jordan and I were eager for our dog Ben to experience the waterfalls, hiking, and beautiful nature of Western North Carolina, this woman knew that meeting Jesus would change each person’s life, and she didn’t want them to miss out on it. Just like Jordan and I were excited to bring together all the wonderful people we knew from various parts of our lives to meet each other and enjoy each other at the wedding, this woman told others about this person, Jesus, whom she’d met, and brought them to him, so they could meet him themselves.
Jesus is here, my friends. That is why we come here every Sunday. If Jesus isn’t here, there’s no reason for you to come. If God is not present and transforming in this place, there is no reason for you to show up. But if God is here, if God reveals himself to you through your quiet prayer, or through the bread and wine, or through the music, or preaching, or teaching, or through each other, then why not tell someone about it? If your life has been changed, transformed, made new and different by God in Jesus Christ, I challenge you, tell others to “Come and see.” We are promised that the harvest is plentiful and that many more will believe because of God’s Word.
Last month, Jesus bought me a latte. A few days ago, I saw Jesus’ eyes.
Did you know that Jesus is still around? Or is it that my brain turns certain moments over in my head, and soon enough, something clicks in my environment, and poof! out pops a fictitious “God moment”?
Surely, in this, the 21st century, someone with a degree from a top-tier institution wouldn’t be so superstitious and mentally weak as to believe that there’s some kind of mysterious power at work in this big old universe.
A cynical but seeking friend of mine, when I told him about the latte (read on for the story), said, “Ah ha! So, who’s to say whether it’s God or not, but you were out there, making yourself available, putting yourself in the position to encounter something. You weren’t forcing ‘God”s hand, or demanding something of the universe, but you didn’t sit at home alone, praying for a miracle and refusing to move either.”
On my birthday this year, I had a very early meeting. My husband was out of town, and I was pulling especially long hours working on a big surprise (reno project) in his absence. I was a little bit down the super early, cloudy morning as I drove to work, feeling like I didn’t quite have enough community in this place yet to really enjoy my birthday (how like little children we remain!).
Praying Complaining in my car, I said, “Couldn’t you send me a birthday gift? You’re supposed to be my comfort and Rock. I want a gift. Let me know you’re there.” (this is nothing like Gideon and the fleece, or Moses and the burning bush–those were people with REAL questions and REAL doubts) I stopped by my favorite coffee shop on my way downtown, and the owner asked me what brought me there so early; I told him about the early meeting and bribing myself with a latte for my birthday. He insisted that the coffee be on the house. When I got back to my car, I shed a tear. Maybe it was Jesus, maybe it was just small town Southern Hospitality, but I knew that this really was a community in which I was beginning to belong, and that God hadn’t left me alone.
And as for last week, and Jesus’ eyes: on a retreat, we were invited to enter into the narratives of Holy Week in a new way–we read and reread John’s passion stories, and listened to creative writings telling the same story from another perspective. Good Friday was told from the perspective of a guard, and in his reflection, he returned again and again to Jesus’ eyes–when Jesus had first looked at him on Palm Sunday, during the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, again as the guard kept the people from Jesus while they marched slowly through the city on Friday, toward Golgatha, and finally, when the guard offers Jesus sour wine, the last action taken from the cross, in John’s Gospel. I found myself envying the guard–he looked into God’s eyes. He got to see Jesus. Can you imagine? I thought, “I want to see Jesus. I want to look into Jesus’ eyes. They say that eyes are the window of the soul; what would it have been like to look at God?” A large part of my work is visiting–and I’ve been working on being more present during these visits, listening more closely to my parishioners in between the lines, and trying to hear how God might be guiding them. I visited someone last week, and as they held my hand and looked deep into my eyes, I knew I was seeing a glimpse of what Jesus’ eyes looked like.
Is this all just hooey? An overactive imagination attuned to its environment, making up connections in a desperate attempt to create a Higher Power? Could be. I can’t prove that it isn’t. What I do know is that there’s a lot more to life than meets the eye. People can indeed surprise you–in good ways and in bad ways–and sometimes things happen that are just a little bit outside the realm of explanation. Maybe these little witnesses from the last few weeks of my everyday life aren’t from a divine source, but one can’t conclusively rule it out, either.
We’ve lost of a lot of wonder in our modern lives. Controlling our use of time with electric lights, medicines, and machinery makes us less attuned to the mystical moments that happen to us and through us every day. Things like human love will always have a bit of mystery to them, as do myriad other aspects of our existence, if we let ourselves wonder and let ourselves let go of the illusion that we can control every eventuality with the power of our intellect (it didn’t go so well last time around, see Genesis 11).
Let some mystery sneak into your life this Lent, this spring. As the world starts to come alive again, marvel at the miracle of life and growth, the wonder of learning something that doesn’t come from a book and on which you won’t be tested. Maybe make a bit of room and pay a bit of attention to how God might be sneaking around the corners of your life, calling to you.