Backpacking with the Saints (Part 2)

Death Valley National Park, Holy Week 2005

You do not go into the desert to find identity but to lose it, to lose your personality, to become anonymous. You make yourself void. You become silence. It is very hard to live with silence. The real silence is death and this is terrible. It is very hard in the desert. You must become more silent than the silence around you. And then something extraordinary happens: you hear silence speak.

–– Edmond Jabés

In Part 1 of my commentary on Belden C. Lane’s book about “wilderness hiking as spiritual practice,” we explored his first two themes: Departure and Discipline. Here we shall look at his third theme.

The Philosophical Promenade, Keith Beckley / Dennis Evans (Seattle’s I-90 Trail, March 17. 2014)

Descent (When the Trail Gets Rough)

As a longtime backpacker, Lane knows that not every hike is a victory march. In fact, if you don’t encounter obstacles, setbacks, tribulations and the occasional failure, you’re kind of missing the point. Dante, history’s most famous trekker, discovered on his very first day in the wild that the experience of “descent” is not only inevitable, but necessary. Over the years, Lane has learned to welcome the hard parts as his teachers.

“Backpacking as a spiritual practice is about making yourself vulnerable in order to be stretched into something new. It’s the need to recognize your limits, to be taken to the end of yourself where resources are exhausted and you stumble in blind faith toward that which is more than you. In the beauty-mixed-with-terror of a backcountry wilderness, you begin to discover that for which the mystics had no language.”

Fear, failure, and death are Lane’s categories of descent. As with his other subjects, he chooses appropriate saints to guide him. His companion in the way of fear is John of the Cross, the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic who spent nine months locked in a dark space too small to stand up in. Abused by his ecclesiastical captors and frequently beaten, he struggled with boredom, doubt and despair. When he was close to death, he made a miraculous escape in the dead of night. But his cruel experience of confinement ultimately clarified and deepened his praise of the soul’s “dark night” as the passage into the place where love abides.

To reach the place you know not, John realized, you must go by a way which you know not. Satisfaction, assurance––even divine presence––will seem to go missing in the dark night, because whatever you “know” and the consolations you’re attached to are being stripped away to make room for something unimaginably greater. As T. S. Eliot would put it four centuries later, “wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” Only thus did the suffering saint become the passionate singer of divine love.

When you are in the dark night, you don’t yet know it to be a passage into the light. The darkness feels real and absolute, full of terror. You are not yet the future self who has made it through. When Lane hiked the Maze, a bewildering and dangerous array of interlocking canyons in Utah, its confusing paths and frequent dead ends triggered an unsettling engagement with his personal demons. A confined, horizonless space where you can get permanently lost, or washed away by a flash flood, was the perfect place to descend to one’s inner depths.

The suicide of a father when Lane was thirteen, his mother facing death with Alzheimer’s, a mentor taken by cancer, the heart attack of a close friend––all the terrible losses came to visit in that arid canyon, whispering their ancient fears. But that’s not where the story ends, because the dark night doesn’t just take away. It also gives, and as John of the Cross discovered, it seems to know exactly what you need. Lane’s own story bears witness:

“There in the dark night, wandering through a maze, the impossible may happen. You find yourself moving beyond the fear and confusion you’ve been carrying for years. It’s no longer necessary to ‘fix’ what was unresolved in your parents’ lives. You can leave the past––there at the canyon wall, on the floor of the Maze, finally and for good.”

Mt. Whitney summit, 30 minutes before lightning and snow (September 5, 1998)

Failure is the next layer in Lane’s archaeology of descent. His pilgrimage to climb the highest American peak outside Alaska came short by 1700 vertical feet. California’s Mt. Whitney (14,505’) may not pose the same technical challenges as the glacial summits of higher or more northerly mountains. In summer the trail can be snow-free all the way. But the air is thin, the way steep, and the weather fickle. When I climbed Whitney twenty-one years ago, the sky went from sunshine to lightning to snow in half an hour.

Lane ascended Whitney with a friend in late spring, when lingering snow made footing unsure and an enveloping cloud reduced visibility to zero. He could barely see his own feet, and a sudden panic about falling into an unseen abyss forced him to turn back. His friend continued on, and later reported on the stunning views Lane had missed. To make it worse, some 12-year-old boy scouts back at base camp regaled him with their own tales of reaching the top. “Failure,” Lane writes, “felt like an indictment of my own worth as a person, confirmation of a deeper defect in character.”

His unsuccessful climb has stuck with him as a vivid metaphor for his own struggles to prove himself. Whether he was feeling out of place in a demanding graduate school, or worrying about being good enough as a teacher or writer, he felt the pressure of high expectations. Whether we’re trying to live up to our own ideas of perfection or somebody else’s, the pinnacle of “success” is a killer climb. What happens when you just can’t go all the way?

Martin Luther is Lane’s companion on this particular trail. Tortured by angst, guilt and a damaging penitential system, the great reformer learned the hard way that when we come short, when we mess up, we remain the beloved of God. “All of his life, Luther had feared an angry, demanding God, only to discover in the end that God had been wanting to love and forgive all along.” The life of grace has nothing to do with striving for perfection. It is, rather, an economy of perpetual forgiveness and compassion. God’s love is not earned, nor is it ever withdrawn. All we have to do, as Paul Tillich said, is to “accept our acceptance.”

For Lane, the most important mountains are the ones we don’t climb. “Every failure is an invitation to growth. Mistakes are occasions for grace, opportunities to choose a different path. They make forgiveness possible. Only in the absence of success can you know yourself to be loved without cause.”

Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada (August 21, 2012)

Lane’s trajectory of descent concludes with death, the point of no return. The literal end of our mortal span is not the only death we face. We all experience many little deaths throughout our life, as one stage or condition ends and another takes its place. And for the spiritually adventurous, there is the hardest death of all: the annihilation of the inauthentic self.

Letting go of the old life, the old self, or the old story is always challenging. Sometimes we have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new life, even if it’s infinitely better. What Lane calls “the wild and reckless beauty” of untamed places can help us transcend our limiting self-descriptions and receive an identity far more luminous and vast.

“Inherently we sense that the uncaring majesty of wilderness has the potential of breaking us open to love. Each passage to a new self begins with an allurement that threatens to kill, even as it ignites a new fire within.”

A few years before his retirement from thirty years of university teaching, in the company of his dog and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Lane ascended a wild section of Missouri’s Ozark Plateau to undergo a ritual death, releasing his hold on an identity which was passing away. On Mudlick Mountain, named for some of the oldest exposed rock in the world, he chose a primitive stone shelter as his “death lodge”––a place to bid farewell to the old life and prepare himself for the new.

“My hope was to trade the mind of the scholar for the heart of a vagabond poet. . . In my backpack I’d brought along the last few pages of a scholarly book I’d been writing. I read these to the dog and the hickory trees, offered thanks for the work I’d been given, and then burned the pages in the fireplace.”

Finally, like the prophet Ezekiel, he shaved his head to welcome old age and celebrate his imminent freedom from “impression management.” It’s a poignant image. The aging scholar consenting to vanish. The ashes of his writings now cold in the fireplace. His faithful dog––whose  last breath would come during Lane’s drafting of the death chapter––quietly living in the moment.

It’s like a quatrain from Li Po, an 8th-century poet cited in Lane’s book. On a mountain overlooking China’s Shuiyan River, Li Po wrote:

The birds have vanished into the sky,
and now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and I,
until only the mountain remains.

Sunrise view of Mt. Whitney from Trail Camp at 12,000′ (September 5, 1998)

 

Except for the epigraph, all quotations are from Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice by Belden C. Lane (Oxford University Press, 2015).

All photographs were taken on my own hikes.

 Lane’s final theme, Delight (Returning Home with Gifts), will be the subject of my next post.

Backpacking with the Saints (Part 1)

Sky Top Creek carries glacial meltwater from Montana’s highest peak.

I am going to allure her, and bring her into the wilderness,
where I will speak tenderly to her heart.

–– Hosea 2:14

We all need to get away––beyond the noise of history and culture, the deafening roar of the social imaginary, the insistent obsessions of the constructed self, the blinding glare of the familiar. We all need to go into the wild. But the exodus “away from here” is not merely escape. It is also quest. We lose in order to find.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers knew that the trouble with wilderness is that you risk meeting God there. That’s exactly why they went. Celtic monks put to sea in rudderless boats, surrendering personal control to the unpredictable wildness of wind and tides. Only a power beyond themselves could show them the way to an unmapped reality. John Muir had to disappear into California’s Sierra Nevada to find a “church” commensurate with his praises. True pilgrimage always takes us away from here. And even should we return, we will be somebody else.

Belden C. Lane, an American theologian and scholar, writes about the deep connections between geography and spirituality. Landscapes of the Sacred (1988) examines the “spirit of place” in various American religious movements and traditions. The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (1998) focuses on the physical and spiritual extremes of desert and mountain. Backpacking with the Saints (2015) draws on his personal outdoor adventures to explore “wilderness hiking as a spiritual practice.” His most recent book, The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul (2019), models the vital and necessary dialogue between the human soul and all the voices of creation.

Believing that transformative works are best read in transformative places, Lane always throws a spiritual classic in his backpack before setting out. In my own 49 years of backpacking, I too have taken other voices along, and Backpacking with the Saints, drawing on a variety of wisdom teachers from St. Columba and John of the Cross to Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh, has been my choice for a number of backcountry walks, including a recent week in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana. Even though it’s only available in hardback (1 pound!), its abundant riches are worth the extra weight.

In each chapter, Lane links a personal wilderness experience to the life and writings of a particular saint. Whether a venture into the wild produces fear or wonder, discouragement or exhilaration, joy or grief, the saints know what he is going through. But the holy teachers are not always consoling. Sometimes Lane feels the reproof in their words, which can “slap me upside the head as may be required.”

After an introduction to the virtues of walking, reading and being in places of silence, solitude and natural beauty, Backpacking explores the fourfold pattern of wilderness spirituality: Departure, Discipline, Descent, and Delight.

Badger Pass Trail, Banff National Park, Canada (2012).

1) Departure (Leaving the trailhead)

The call to venture out may come from dissatisfaction: something is wrong, or something is missing. Or its source may be a hunger for mystery, a thirst for renewal. “The mountains are calling and I must go,” said John Muir. But getting out of the house (or routine, or to-do list) can be the hardest part. I keep a walking stick by the front door to remind me that the path is always waiting just outside. But the gravitational pull of the safe and familiar is a strong force. Sometimes a great leap is required.

Lane draws on the Celtic wanderers to help him out the door and into the wild. “Well does the Fair Lord show us a course, a path,” they said. The Sufi poet Hafiz employed a more violent image: “Love wants to reach out and manhandle us, breaking all our teacup talk of God. . . It wants to drag you by the hair and rip from your grip all the toys in the world that bring you no joy.” Whether the leaving is gentle or wrenching, there’s a lot of letting go and leaving behind, if one is to travel light and venture far.

But once you are on your way, disillusionment will greet you sooner or later. You’re not the hero you imagined. You make mistakes. You get tired. Romantic illusions crash and burn. There are no shortcuts. As the mountaineers warn, ““It’s always farther than it looks. It’s always taller than it looks. And it’s always harder than it looks.”

Lower Aero Lake and Mt. Villard, Beartooth Mountains, Montana.

Feeling strangely vulnerable in the “vast loneliness” of a Wyoming peak after dark, hemmed in by the impenetrable shadows of a place where humans don’t belong, Lane had the sensation of being watched, of being exposed to a dread he couldn’t name. “[M]y image as professor, spiritual seeker, and self-styled ‘wilderness backpacker’ counted for nothing.” I’ve had similar experiences out in the lost and lonely places. Nature doesn’t always smile back.

Lane found comfort in Thérèse of Lisieux, the “warrior saint” whose desire for spiritual greatness was tempered by an acceptance of her own littleness. In the last months of her short life, her characteristic lightness gave way to desolation. “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into. . . the night of utter nothingness! I feel no joy. I sing only of what I wish to believe.” But Thérèse’s dark night of abandonment was where she became best acquainted with divine mercy.

Once disillusionment has stripped us of grandiosity, we can begin to examine our desire. The first step is to release our attachment to all the “unmet desires of the past,” that insatiable “yearning that lingers in unhealed wounds.” Just as the forests act as a sink for carbon emissions, the “quiet presence” of trees is also “able to receive whatever we need to release in terms of misspent passion.”

Born into a family shadowed by disappointments, failures, betrayals, abandonment, alcoholism, sexual abuse and suicide, Lane’s testimony to wilderness healing is authentic and moving.

“We hike into wilderness with the accumulated desires of the past. We carry our own twisted longings and those of our parents, our lovers, and our children as well. We’re the ‘walking wounded,’ battle-scarred by desires we’ve carried throughout our lives. More than once I’ve lugged a wounded father on my back up Rockpile Mountain. Father and mother wounds are handed down to us, filled with frustrated desires we still try to satisfy.”

Over time, Lane says, he has been able “to release these wounds back into the wilds. I let them go, like injured animals. . . It’s not far wrong to think of our wounds as creatures who’ve wandered into our lives from out in the wilds. Doing so gives them the respect they deserve. It also allows us to identify ourselves as separate from them.” And once we do that, our deepest desire––for the one true thing worth having––begins to speak.

Pink monkey flowers along Sky Top Creek.

2) Discipline (The practice of the wild)

Just like the Christian life, it is possible to drift unchanged through a wilderness walk. You may enjoy it, or learn from it, and still return pretty much the same as when you left. If you want to invite a deeper transformation, the saints would encourage you to practice certain disciplines: solitude, simplicity, and mindfulness.

Kierkegaard is Lane’s saint of solitude. The 19th-century Danish theologian refused to be part of the herd. He sharply criticized both church and culture, and was ridiculed and scorned in return. He even broke his engagement to the love of his life, choosing “to stand like a lonely pine tree” for the rest of his life. But his personal solitude produced the existentialist understanding of Christian faith as no collective generality, but a specifically personal risk––demanding no less than everything.

Solitude, in its freedom from external forces and the need for approval, makes space for our truest self to emerge. “I want to be the person that I am when I’m alone in wilderness,” says Lane. At the same time, solitude can remove the hindrances to a deeper communion with the mystery of God and the interconnectedness of creation––“the common life that binds our separate solitudes into one.”

Traveling light is the second essential discipline in the wild. “The only indispensable item I pack is a capacity for amazement,” Lane writes. As a hiker who carries more than one book, journal, camera, binoculars, bear canister, tent, sleeping bag, rain suit, cooking gear and a few extra treats beyond the basic meals, I have yet to attain ultra-lightness. I have, however, trimmed 2 inches from the end of my toothbrush as well as the white space from the edges of my maps.

Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations Secretary-General whose profound inner life was unknown to the world until his spiritual testament, Markings, was discovered after his untimely death. As a powerful and famous world figure, he wrestled with both self-importance and despair. But his mountain hikes, and his writings, helped him to release those burdens.

“To be free,” he wrote, “is to be able to stand up and leave everything behind––without looking back––to say ‘Yes’ to whatever comes.”

Traveling light not only means to leave behind burdens, hindrances and negativities. It also means to renounce expectations and outcomes. I’ve met walkers on the Camino de Santiago and the Pacific Crest Trail who were in such a hurry to accomplish the journey that they missed exquisite moments of Now along the way. And perhaps we could even renounce language––stop naming and labeling what we see, receiving everything in its indescribable fullness. As Hammarskjöld put it, “In the point of rest at the center of our being, we encounter a world where all things are at rest. . . Then a tree becomes a mystery, a cloud a revelation.”

The third discipline in Lane’s wilderness praxisis mindfulness, “a rigorous practice of welcoming the moment, whatever it brings.” Be present to the presences around you. Don’t let your feet take a walk without you. Receive the bird’s song, cloud’s shadow, wildflower colors, sunlight on your skin, wind in the pines, the steepness of the trail––all the gifts of the moment––as they happen. Do not grasp, but “catch and release.”

“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle,” says Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. “But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth.” Whenever I climb a steep trail, I try not to think of how hard it is, or how far I have to go. I simply attend to the act of lifting my foot, swinging my leg, lowering my foot, step by step. If I am fully present to these actions, I am free from longing for a future state of rest.

Walk “as if you are kissing the earth with your feet,” Hanh says. Mindfulness is the best form of reverence. And it is also the key to perfect presence. In the words of an old Celtic prayer,

May I arrive at every place I enter.

In my next two posts, I’ll cover Lane’s final two pillars of wilderness spirituality: Descent (When the trail gets rough) and Delight (Returning home with gifts). But for now, I leave you with my favorite story from Backpacking with the Saints.

In the chapter on desire, the saint is Thomas Traherne, a 17th-century Anglican metaphysical poet whose Centuries of Meditations celebrates unbounded desire and delight. “You must Want like God,” he urged, “that you may be satisfied like God.” For Traherne, enjoyment of God and God’s world was not a matter of feelings, occasional and intermittent like gusts of wind. They were chosen practices, a form of faithful participation in divine delight.

“Your enjoyment of the world, is never right, until every morning you awake in Heaven. . . You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars. . . Yet further, you never enjoy the world aright, till you so love the beauty of enjoying it, that you are covetous and earnest to persuade others to enjoy it.” (Centuries I: 28-31)

When Lane tossed Centuries into his pack for a Good Friday overnight in the St. Francois Mountains of southeast Missouri, he was not in the best of moods. Out of sorts physically (a tiring trail, empty stomach, headache and sleeplessness), stressed by thoughts of work and family, and feeling the Holy Week darkness of crucifixion and tomb, he “grudgingly read Traherne by candlelight,” as if daring the poet to cheer him up.

The next morning, his body felt better, but his soul was bored, restless, fraught with “all the unsatisfied longings of the past.” Still, he resumed his reading of Centuries, on a sloping rock at the edge of a “shimmering pool.” Traherne reminded him that those who “put off felicity with long delays are to be much suspected.” It was like a resurrection summons to Lane’s buried heart.

Sky Top Creek on my last night in the Beartooths.

“He was urging that I give myself to Joy,” Lane says. “To embrace what he called felicity despite a world of endlessly unmet needs.” His mind stubbornly resisted the call, but his body could not. He found himself pulling off shoes and clothes. But in his haste, he failed to notice the precarious balance of the book on the sloping rock.

“To my horror, the university library’s copy of the Clarendon Press edition of Traherne’s Centuries began sliding down the rock and into the water ahead of me! As if the author and his book were crying out, “HERE’S how it’s done!! THIS is what felicity looks like!! Wheeeeeeee, follow me!!” And so I did, screaming as I hit the ice-cold water, grabbing the book before it sank out of sight.”

Lane spent the next hour naked on that rock, sponging the book cover to cover with his T-shirt: “I imagined Traherne laughing with me on every page.”

 

 

Most quotations, either by Belden C. Lane or the saints cited, are from Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice (Oxford University Press, 2015)

All photographs are by Jim Friedrich. Except for the the Canadian Rockies trail, they were all taken last month on my backpack in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains. 

Related posts: 

Solitude (Part 1)

Solitude (Part 2)

Bushy the Squirrel: A Justice Parable

My father, an Episcopal priest and producer of Christian media, made a series of filmstrips called Parables from Nature in the 1950s. Based on a children’s book by John Calvin Reid, they retold the parables of Jesus using characters from the natural world. One of these was “Bushy the Squirrel,” inspired by Luke 12:13-21 (the Lectionary gospel for Proper 13, 8th Sunday after Pentecost). The illustrations were painted by Hollywood animation artists, and some of them are included here.

Once upon a time there was a squirrel named Bushy. He was a fine little squirrel, but as he grew older everyone began to notice a change in him. All he cared about was gathering nuts. Every day you could hear his voice ringing through the forest: “Gotta get more nuts! Gotta get more nuts!”

As soon as he stored the nuts he had found, he’d run off to find some more. “This is not enough. Gotta get more! Gotta get more!” Bushy was so obsessed with getting more nuts, he drove all his friends away. And when anyone came to his door collecting for the needy, he just said, “Aw, don’t bother me now. I’m too busy getting nuts.”

After a while, he had so many nuts, he needed a bigger place to put them. And one day he saw an old hickory tree with a big hole in it. It was perfect. But some woodpeckers had made their home in that tree. That didn’t stop Bushy. He kicked the woodpeckers out, and filled the tree with nuts.

Bushy’s neighbors had a hard time finding any nuts left for them to eat. But Bushy didn’t care. He had what he needed. The other squirrels were not his problem.

When winter came, Bushy relaxed in his tree, the happy owner of all those nuts. He didn’t have a care in the world.

Then one night, when he was fast asleep, a wind began to blow, and the wind was so powerful, it broke his tree in half and sent Bushy tumbling into the lake.

“Help me! Help me!” Bushy cried. Mr. Bear heard the shouts, and called the other animals of the forest to the rescue. Suddenly Bushy found that he was not the only person in the world – luckily for him! He needed the others and they needed him.

Bushy’s heart was changed by his experience, and he became a new squirrel, sharing everything he had with anyone who needed it.

The story of Bushy is like a parable Jesus told: There was once a rich man who had a problem. He had too much stuff and didn’t know where to put it all. So he built bigger and bigger storage units. But that didn’t solve his problem, because his appetite for acquisition could never be satisfied. “Gotta get more nuts, gotta get more nuts!”

So is Jesus trying to be Marie Kondo here? Is he offering a useful method of self-help so we can reduce our clutter and make our lives more beautiful and satisfying? Is that why he tells this story––to foster self-improvement? Or is he doing something more radical, more demanding?

What if Jesus had said, “This story is not about you––it’s about us. It’s a story about the foolishness of trying to live as though ‘I’ am the only person in the world. It’s a story about the foolishness of being oblivious to community.” Well, he didn’t say those words, of course. He just told the story, trusting us to have ears that hear.

A certain rich man’s lands brought forth bountiful crops. And he deliberated within himself, saying, “What shall I do, since I do not have a place where I may gather my fruit?”

He deliberated within himself” is a telling image of isolation, suggesting a self utterly cut off from other voices, other perspectives. And notice how he seems surprised by the size of the harvest. As a rich man, he would already possess considerable storage space. But this harvest is bigger than he ever expected or imagined. And when the Bible talks about abundance that is excessive and surprising, that usually means one thing: God is involved, showering down blessings.

A first century listener, steeped in the stories of God’s miracles of generosity, would have picked up on this. And they would have noticed that the rich man’s first response is not one of gratitude or wonder. Does the rich man thank the Creator for the miraculous harvest? Does he laugh in wonder at such a gift? No. His first thought is, “I’ve got a problem. Where am I going to put it all?”

Then he gets an idea:

“I will do this: I will tear down my granaries and build larger ones, and I will gather there all my grain and all my goods and I will say to my self, ‘Self, you have many good things stored up for many a year. Eat, drink, and be merry!’”

In a world full of hungry people, here’s a man who has more than he knows what to do with, and it never occurs to him that he could feed all those hungry people.

As hunger experts point out, hunger is not a problem of supply; it’s a problem of distribution. But distribution is the last thing on this man’s mind. He isn’t just ignoring other people. He seems oblivious to their existence. He is the perfect expression of rampant individualism – untroubled by any sense of interdependent community.

The story makes fun of his isolationism, by having him talk only to himself.

“I will say to myself, ‘Self, you have many good things…”

A narrator would say something like: “Then the man said to himself, ‘Self, you have many good things…’” Instead, the rich man takes over his own narration: “I will say to myself, ‘Self …” and so on. Do you see the difference? This guy doesn’t need anyone, even a narrator. He takes over the telling of his own story. He’s in control, totally self-sufficient.

Whatever the future may bring, he can deal with it, no problem. Just kick back and “eat, drink, and be merry.”

Isn’t this the ideal to which consumerism aspires? Those of us with enough money can acquire everything we need to be self-sufficient. The fundamental unit of our culture is not the tribe or the village, but the single family home. We each have our own rooms, our own food supply, our own car, our own entertainment center, our own set of tools and appliances, our own insurance policies.

The only reason we need to leave the house is to earn the cash in order to maintain the autonomy of our domestic units. If we get rich enough, we don’t even have to do that.

The whole trajectory of the consumerist dream is to declare our independence from the traditional supportive networks of extended family and neighborhood community.

Vincent Miller, a Catholic ethicist, points out that the cash demands of the single family home encourage people to act selfishly:

“Social isolation and the burdens of maintaining a family in this system make it unlikely that other people’s needs will ever present themselves. If and when we do encounter them, we are likely to be so preoccupied with the tasks of maintaining our immediate families that we will have little time and resources to offer. The geography of the single-family home makes it very likely that we will care more about the feeding of our pets that about the millions of children who go to bed hungry around us.” [i]

When we live in isolation from one another, when we fail to nurture the vital aspects of interdependent community, we minimize the ways in which we can either offer help or receive it. Even if we have all the goodwill in the world, we remain trapped within the cash-intensive demands of the consumerist dream. “Gotta get more nuts!”

Ideally, a local church can function as a support system for its members. If someone gets sick or has a family emergency, others in the community step up to provide meals and other forms of assistance. But this kind of support system is exceptional in a society based largely upon isolated autonomous households.

If you don’t have the cash to keep a roof over your head, there is no village to take you in. Maybe you have some relatives somewhere, but they’re probably scattered around the country. And they’re probably running on a tight budget themselves, and don’t have any spare rooms. We’re a long way from the traditional support systems of former times and simpler cultures. Just ask the homeless to tell you their stories.

In American mythology, this is the country of the Lone Ranger, the self-made entrepreneur, the hard-boiled detective with no attachments, or the trucker rolling down that endless highway, free as a bird––and lonesome as hell.

When vast numbers of Vietnamese refugees settled in southern California in the 1970s, they found American culture to be fatal for something they had always taken for granted: the supportive network of extended family. They had to learn, as one writer puts it, that the land of the free means “the perfect freedom of strangers.” [ii]

So Bushy the Squirrel, and the rich man with the storage problem, might be seen as the products of a consumer culture. They don’t need neighbors. They don’t need community. They’ve got everything they need close at hand. There’s nothing for them to do but eat, drink and be merry.

But then what happens? Just when Bushy settles in for a long sleep, a storm breaks open his tree and casts him into the raging waters. In the Bible, whenever something breaks open your neat little world, you can be pretty sure that God is in that storm.

But in Jesus’ parable of the rich man, God intervenes even more explicitly, not with a storm but with words. God speaks to the rich man. In fact, this is the only one of Jesus’ stories where God appears as a character within the story.

And what does God say to the rich man? “Fool!” God says. “Fool!” Now that’s something to wake up your prayer life––to hear God calling you a fool.

Do you remember the most famous use of the word “fool” in the Bible? It’s in the first verse of Psalm 14: The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’  The fool is the one who denies God’s presence, who thinks he or she can grab the gift without acknowledging the Giver––or the Giver’s way, which is not the self-possession of me/myself/and I, but rather a ceaseless pouring out of self.

“Fool, on this night they will demand your life from you.
And all the stuff you have stored up, to whom will it belong?”

In an instant––“this very night”––the rich fool discovers that his autonomous life is not only unstable––it is unsustainable.

He had thought that life was a commodity that could be owned and held onto. But he discovers that God operates a very different kind of economy. God’s economy, which we call the Kingdom of God, is a gift economy, where everything is received and nothing can be held onto.

Everything is like the air we breathe. We take it in, we receive the life it gives us, and then we give it back again. Breathe in, breathe out; receive, give back.

A commodity-based economy is an attempt to hold your breath. You take possession of God’s gifts, you take them out of circulation, you lock them away where others can’t use them.

Whereas a gift always keeps moving from hand to hand, a commodity is grasped and hoarded. And to grasp and to hoard is to live outside of God’s economy, where the gifts are always in circulation, always being given away as fast as they are received. If you reject God’s gift economy, and try to live apart from the interdependent circulation of life’s gifts, you are in effect denying the Trinitarian reality––the eternal self-offering, the ceaseless circulation of gifts, that comprises the heart of God.

That is why the Bible insists that if you try to live as though you were the only person in the room, if you try to exempt yourself from interconnectedness and interdependence, from the need to both give and receive, then you are indeed a fool, trying to live against the way we are made to be as images of the divine reality.

The divine reality is a circulation of gifts. When you are oblivious to the presence of your neighbor, you are oblivious to God as well. When you deny communion, you deny God.

On this night they will demand your life from you.

Most translations use the passive voice: “your life will be demanded of you.” But the original Greek verb is in the active third person plural: “They will demand your life from you.” So who might “they” be? The plural language could be a remnant of archaic mythological imagery, a way of speaking about death as the operation of avenging spiritual powers. But this is not really that kind of story. It’s not steeped in old-fashioned apocalyptic imagery like the Book of Revelation. For all we know the rich man dies in his sleep, without any thunder from heaven.

But what if the “they” who demand his life refers to everyone else in the world, all those neighbors whose existence has been ignored by the rich fool? Other people didn’t exist for him. He took what belonged to his fellow beings and kept it for himself. Now they want it back. As the story puts it, they “demand” his life. Is this punishment, or just a realistic understanding of how God’s universe works?

The story does not have God say, “I will demand your life…” The man’s fate is not an apocalyptic intervention from heaven. It’s simply the way things are in an interdependent reality.

The rich man tried to live outside the way of things, outside the economy of God, and in the end it all caught up with him. In the gift economy in which we live and move and have our being, he discovered that you have to keep the gift moving. You have to give everything away, even your very life.

The parable ends with a question:

What will become of everything that you have stored up?
To whom will it belong?

The question is being posed to the rich man in the parable. But it is also being posed to us. To whom does our wealth belong? Not just our money and our stuff, but every good gift we have been given since God put us on this earth, including our souls and bodies, and every breath we take––to whom does all this belong?

In a country plagued with obscene economic inequality, where the rich and powerful will even take food from the mouths of children to gather more wealth for themselves, how shall we respond to this parable? How do we answer its disturbing question?

Maybe greed is normal now. Maybe selfishness is normal now. Maybe crushing the poor and killing the planet for profit are normal now. But Jesus came to tell us that such things are decidedly not normal––not in God’s world. And we would be fools to think otherwise.

In my father’s filmstrip, Bushy learns his lesson and repents of his selfish ways. Its happy ending was meant to encourage the children who watched it in Sunday School. But Jesus concludes the original parable more ambiguously. He leaves us hanging, without knowing the ultimate fate of the rich man.

I suspect that Jesus is inviting us to finish the story ourselves, to construct a happy ending out of our own actions, as we work together to create a world whose blessings are not hoarded, but freely shared; a world where no need goes unmet, and all God’s children can flourish and thrive.

God, bring that day closer!

 

 

 

[i] Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture(New York, Continuum, 2004), 50.

[ii] Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World(New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 88.

This homily for Proper 13, Year C, will be preached August 4, 2019, at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, Washington.

Lamentation for Notre Dame

The burning of Notre Dame has broken many hearts, including mine. The fact that it happened in Holy Week feels strangely apocalyptic, as if the stability of our world were suddenly under threat. Like the earthquake at the death of Jesus, it suggests a cosmic shaking of the foundations.

Poems from Book of Lamentations, an anguished response to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., are often sung during Holy week. Written to grieve the loss of a sacred place, their eloquent images of affliction and grief were later appropriated by Christian liturgy to lament the suffering of Christ. In gratitude and sorrow for our beloved Notre Dame, here are some of my own past views of the cathedral, accompanied by selected lamentations from the Holy Week lectionary.

How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations. (Lam. 1:1)

Jerusalem remembers in the days of her affliction and distress, all the precious things that were hers in days of old. (Lam. 1:7)

All you who pass this way, look and see: is any sorrow like the sorrow inflicted on me? (Lam. 1:12)

Listen, for I am groaning, with no one to comfort me. (Lam. 1:21)

For vast as the sea is your ruin; who can heal you? (Lam. 2:13)

Cry then to the Lord, rampart of the daughter of Zion; let your tears flow like a torrent day and night. (Lam. 2:18)

He has walled me about so that I cannot escape. . . though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer. (Lam. 3:7-8)

But this I call to mind, and so regain some hope: Surely God’s mercies are not over, his kindness is not exhausted. (Lam. 3:21-22)

It is good to wait in silence for Yahweh to save. (Lam.3:26)

 

Photographs and video by Jim Friedrich

Ultreia!

Camino de Santiago, west of Pamplona.

 

The Religious Imagineer is five years old this week. It began during my 500-mile pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in the spring of 2014, with dispatches on miles I walked, things I saw, people I met, thoughts I had.

No great views today, but the summit where France turns to Spain was a brooding cloud of unknowing where we walked by faith not sight. (April 8, the first day)

 

Crossing the Pyrenees on the first day.

 

The land through which we pilgrims passed today was painted with a few strong colors: dark green wheat, yellow mustard, blue sky, white clouds. Those four colors filled the eye in every direction, with no lesser hues to dilute the effect. To wander through such a scene was a glorious thing. Whatever else the Camino brings, I will have had this day. As a German woman said as she passed me by, “Cherish every step! Cherish every step!” (April 11)

 

Pilgrims moving westward from Castrojeriz.

 

[A 30-second video of my shadow moving along the Camino]: If you want to experience the length of my walk in real time, replay this video 27,000 times. (April 25)

 

Few trees, big sky, only occasional villages, and long stretches where the only human presence was the long procession of pilgrims migrating westward. The lack of distractions and variations tends to make the very act of walking to be the mind’s principal occupation. As Robert Macfarlane puts it in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, walking becomes “sensational” – it isn’t just conducive to thought, it becomes the form thought takes. I walk, therefore I am. Perhaps it is similar to the way that cinema thinks through the movement of the camera. It isn’t forming propositional thought, but is simply absorbing through its attentive motion the shape of the world, the textures of existence. (April 29)

 

Fellow pilgrim Edward “Monty” Montgomery enters San Juan de Ortega on Good Friday.

 

There are many along this road who began it as a form of athletic challenge or youthful adventure or unusual vacation. And many will finish it that way. But in talking with those who profess no religious intention, or who are dismissive of Christianity as something they outgrew, I still hear the spiritual language of pilgrimage breaking through the verities of secularism. One has lost a job and is trying to discern a meaningful alternative. Another is trying to listen to her life from a place of unknowing. Another has no answer to the question of why he is walking, but still presses on to Santiago. To borrow a phrase from the great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, every pilgrim is trying to arrive at a place we know not by following a way which we know not. (May 1)

 

Halfway to Santiago, a Camino friend was feeling some pain and discouragement on a particularly demanding stretch. But then he saw a handwritten sign: “Don’t give up before the miracle.” (May 7)

 

 

But can I, having now trod 478 miles in 31 days, really claim any kind of illumination or transformation as a result? I still get annoyed by the loud and incessant talkers who mar the tranquility, I still get angry when a speeding truck comes close to knocking me into a ditch. I have yet to perfect the pilgrim equanimity urged by my guidebook, which sees every irritation as the sand that produces the pearl. But at least I try to make these things part of my walking prayer. As the monks say of life in the monastery, “We fall down and get up, fall down and get up …” (May 9)

 

This morning I performed the final Camino ritual: climbing the stairs behind the altar to hug the gleaming metal effigy of Santiago. Despite the cool hardness of the sculpture, it was strangely comforting. I whispered in the saint’s ear: “Thank you for the beautiful voyage.” (May 12)

 

Statue of St. James behind the high altar, Cathedral of Santiago.

After I reached Camino’s ultimate end in Muxia, on the western shore of northern Spain, my blog just kept on going, continuing its own pilgrimage to God knows where, reporting as it goes. I have written about theology, spirituality, liturgy, poetry, the arts, cinema, music, politics, culture, nature, seasons, time, death and resurrection. My topics––and my influences––may be eclectic, but I trust my Christian faith and Anglican temperament to lend some coherence to these verbal wanderings.

In that spirit, I borrowed my blog’s subtitle from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “Where the fire and the rose are one.” This union of contraries––passion and tenderness, danger and beauty, wild instability and serene form––draws upon Dante’s imagery in the Commedia. Fire is purgation, divine light and the flame of love. The rose, perhaps inspired by the rose window of an Italian cathedral, images the heavenly city, containing a multitude of saints within its harmonizing circle. Dante unites flame and flower in his image of the Virgin, whose “womb relit the flame of love––/ its heat has made this blossom seed / and flower in eternal peace” (Par. xxxiii.7-9). In the unfolding future of God’s not-yet, the fire and the rose will indeed be one.

Gustave Dore, The Celestial Rose in Dante’s Paradise (1868)

In The Religious Imagineer’s first five years, there have been 237 posts, 61,913 visitors and 92,870 views. My ten most viewed posts so far have been:

1) The ten best Jesus movies (Jan. 6, 2015)–– I have taught Jesus movies for years, and find cinematic gospels, despite (or because of?) their flaws, to be fascinating case studies for questions of biblical representation and interpretation, as well as Christology.

2) Members of the same body? A post-election homily (Nov. 10, 2016) –– “Can we truly delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, labor and suffer together? In one of the darkest moments in American history, this is the work we have been given to do.”

3) Ten ways to keep a holy Advent (Dec. 6, 2014) –– Interrupting, Silencing, Waiting, Listening, Watching, Praying, Reflecting, Loving, Giving, Receiving.

4) A deep but dazzling darkness (Aug. 25, 2017) –– My account of the 2017 eclipse, seen through the lens of mystical theology, continues to find readers almost every day. It has been viewed on more total days than any other post.

5) You can never go fast enough (Sept. 9, 2014) –– This mix of classic cars, road trips, nostalgia and eschatology got a huge amount of traffic when it became a WordPress editors’ pick.

6) 7 spiritual practices: a to-do list for the time of trial (Nov. 18, 2016) –– This brief guide to engaging the powers of darkness without losing our own souls remains all too relevant.

7) Dreaming the church that wants to be (Oct. 7, 2015) –– Eleven Christian artists gathered for 10 days in Venice to imagine a rebirth of wonder among God’s friends. This prologue, and the several posts that followed it, emerged from that quest.

8) The ten best religious films (Oct. 8, 2014) –– “Most of these films refuse the usual manipulations and excitements of mass cinema, and demand a contemplative mind. Transcendental style can be as rigorous as prayer.”

9) The spirituality of running (Aug. 4, 2016) –– A subject dear to my runner’s heart. “What we do with our bodies manifests and expresses inner states, the sacred ground of our being. But bodily practices can also induceinner states. How we move, how we sit, how we breathe, can all make a difference in our spiritual life. Inner and outer are intertwined and interactive. We pray in, with, through our bodies.”

10) Hospital for the soul (April 24, 2014) –– One of my earliest posts concerns a house of hospitality where pilgrims find momentary respite from the Camino’s onward rush. “Everyone is welcome here,” I was told, “but it’s not for everyone. Many people hurry along the Camino who show little interest in the work of the soul.”

Of the top ten, three are on spiritual practice, three are about movies, three are about widely shared experiences (the Camino, the eclipse, and our current political “time of trial”). And three include a number in the title, always a hit with the search engines!

If you want to explore further in these writings, enter a subject in the Search box, such as “Cinema,” “Nature,” “Liturgy and worship,” or “Imagination,” and you will find a range of selections. Or as we enter Holy Week, you might try “What Shall We Preach on Easter Sunday?” (currently featured in the April 10 issue of The Christian Century) or “Just a dream?­­––Reflections on the Easter Vigil.”

I am grateful to you, dear readers, for joining me in this journey of words and thoughts over the past five years. I deeply appreciate your attentive reading and supportive comments. And if you would like to help me expand the reach of this writing ministry by sharing your favorite posts now and then (share buttons are at the bottom of individual posts), that would be an awesome anniversary gift!

And now, as we say on the Camino, “Ultreia!” (“Let’s go further!”). In the days to come, I will always strive to be worthy of your time.

The author at Camino’s end in Muxia.

All photographs by Jim Friedrich

A fig tree and a burning bush walk into a homily. . .

Richard Misrach, “Desert Fire #81” (1984)

This homily for the Third Sunday of Lent is a double feature. The lessons from the Episcopal lectionary, Exodus 3:1-15 and Luke 13: 1-9, are not thematically connected, but I felt both stories demanded attention.

Today’s gospel shows Jesus and some other folks talking about the local news. It’s something humans have always done, shooting the breeze about unusual or dramatic events. We don’t expect our conversations around the water cooler or wherever to be recorded for posterity. But 2000 years later, we’re still hearing about some Galileans slaughtered by the Romans during a sacred ritual, and eighteen unnamed victims killed by a falling tower.

But there’s no film at 11. We are given no further details. Some scholars speculate that both incidents involved the Zealots, Jewish rebels who may have been killed by the Roman soldiers during acts of resistance. Perhaps some Zealots were staging a demonstration in the Temple when the Romans struck them down. They died in the very spot where animals were being sacrificed in an atonement ritual. The image of their blood mingled with the blood of animals sacrificed on the altar was a horrific mixture of violence and the sacred. People wondered, if the animals were dying for the people’s sins, for whose sins did those Galileans die? Could it have been their own?

As for the Siloam tower, could it have been a rebel stronghold destroyed during a Roman siege, another case of those who live by the sword dying by the sword? Or maybe it collapsed in an earthquake, a so-called “act of God.” Or maybe it was built by crooked contractors who used shoddy materials. Or maybe it collapsed for no apparent reason at all.

Whatever the causes of those tragedies, people wanted to make sense of them, so they could continue to live in a predictable universe where events have reasons and everything can be explained. If we’re unwilling to live in a universe of absurdity or blind chance, we need to know why bad things happen to good people. And one of the easiest answers is to say that maybe good people aren’t so good. Maybe in some way they get what they deserve, like people’s bad habits catching up with them, or our collective addiction to oil bringing the climate apocalypse down on our heads. Or maybe human suffering is somehow God’s will, even if we can’t say why.

Jesus quickly dismisses this kind of simplistic blaming of the victim. He says there is no simple correlation between sin and suffering. The victims of those tragedies were no worse offenders than anyone else. The problem of reconciling human suffering with the providence of a loving God remains complex and ultimately insoluble in human terms. Jesus recognized that. And 2000 years later, we are still puzzled by the question of “why?”

But Jesus was not that interested in a theoretical discussion about the problem of suffering. He wanted the people in that conversation to consider their own situation. Did they think their story needed to get different? Were they prepared to change their life?

“Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

What does Jesus mean by this? Without knowing the actual details of those ancient news stories, it’s hard to say for sure. If both incidents involved acts of armed rebellion, repentance could mean a refusal to participate in a world of reciprocal violence. Stop living by the sword, or else. More broadly, it could mean that we should stop describing the world as a place where God dishes out suffering or endorses any form of human violence.

Jesus could have meant many other things as well.  Renounce your self-righteous pride, and stop demeaning those who suffer as less good or less deserving than you are. Never presume your own innocence. No one is without sin, whether it’s personal sin or collective sin. The world’s troubles are not somebody else’s problem. Like it or not, everyone is implicated in a world of interrelated causes. And don’t treat life’s blessings as rewards for good behavior. They are gifts freely given by a generous and loving God, and you should receive them humbly and gratefully.

Stop trying to make the world controllable or predictable with simplistic explanations. Life is complicated and sometimes it’s sad. You can’t always have it go your way or have it make sense. You have to live by faith in love’s bigger picture.

In other words, if any of you think you can live in this world without grace, without mercy,
you have perished already.

Jesus ends this challenging conversation with a parable of mercy. A barren fig tree is taking up valuable space in a vineyard, sucking up nutrients and moisture needed by the grapevines. “Time to cut it down!” says the owner. But the gardener pleads, “Give it a little more time. I’ll add some fertilizer to help it along. That may make all the difference. If there’s still no fruit next year, then you can cut it down.”

That’s how the parable ends, but when next year rolls around, I suspect that the gardener will be telling the owner the same thing: “Just one more year. I know it can be fruitful. It just needs a little more time, a little more nourishment. A little more tender mercy.”

Now let’s leave that fig tree, and travel further back in time, 1400 years before Jesus, to see a very different kind of plant: a bush in the wilderness of Sinai—a bush which burns, without being consumed.

I saw a burning bush once, not in Sinai, but in the hills of Palestine. I was walking on a trail near Ramallah in the West Bank, when I saw a shepherd leading a small flock through a ravine below me. About 30 yards beyond him, a bush was on fire. I never found out why. But having imbibed the story of Moses since childhood, I could only experience this inexplicable reenactment with a sense of wonder. It was a gift, and I received it gratefully.

I heard no voice. For me, only the story speaks now. But for Moses, the voice came from the midst of the fire: “Moses, Moses!”

The Scripture does not tell us whether Moses is surprised, shocked, or frightened by this sudden intrusion of the divine into the routineness of a shepherd’s day, though we might imagine all of those things. All we know is that Moses responds as if his life were made for precisely this moment: “Here I am,” he says.

God calls, Moses responds. No matter how unlikely or uncanny this encounter between divine and human may be, no matter how unprepared Moses might feel for such a meeting, his whole being rises to the occasion. Before the voice even identifies itself as the God of Moses’ ancestors, Moses experiences the kind of recognition described by the mystics, an awakening to a reality so profound, so insistent, so real, that it seems to make perfect sense despite its utter strangeness.

Nobel laureate Derek Walcott wrote a poem, “Love after Love,” about the sudden recognition of your inmost reality, your deepest truth, which was there all along even though you hadn’t quite known it until it suddenly greeted you face to face:

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again
the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart. . .

That is what I think Moses must have experienced, must have suddenly known, when he heard his name called from the midst of the flaming bush. That voice, however uncanny and unfamiliar, also produced a sense of recognition. Oh! it’s you, isn’t it. It’s you. The one who knows me by heart!

And Moses, however surprised he may be to meet at last the stranger who has loved him all his life, consents to the encounter with his response: “Here I am.” That couldn’t have been easy, for the divine stranger in the burning bush was not the gentle presence in Derek Walcott’s poem. Whatever Moses knew about God, he believed that it was a fearful thing to look divinity in the face. Mortals were not wired to handle so much voltage. So while Moses listened to the voice, he was afraid to stare into the fire.

So what happens next? As we know from our baptismal covenant, when God calls our name, that is not the end of the story. It is the beginning of a new life, a life where something is asked of us. Vocare––to call––is the root of vocation. To be called is to be given a vocation. When God calls us, it is to do the holy work of repairing the world.

That work takes many forms, as each of us must discover as we practice our own vocation in a world of such great need. In Moses’ case, his work was to speak truth to power, stand up to the tyranny of Pharoah, and lead God’s people out of bondage to the land of promise.

That was a huge and intimidating assignment. Moses balked at first. “Who am I to do such an impossible thing?” But God was insistent. When God gets an idea, it’s no use saying no. And there’s no turning back. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

Every time we gather in God’s house, the bush burns and the flames speak. We hear the voice of God, the stranger who has loved us all our lives, who knows us by heart, calling our name. But we don’t get to stay by the fire forever, gently warming ourselves in the loving presence of the divine. Mary Oliver’s poem, “What I have learned so far,” makes this point perfectly:

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause?

The poet goes on to say that our only choice is “indolence, or action. / Be ignited, or be gone.”

The voice in the flame is the voice that ignites us and sends us forth, to do the work God has given us to do. Some of that work seems feasible enough. As the Prayer Book says, “tend the sick, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous.” But some of the work of loving our neighbor and repairing the world can seems overwhelming, even impossible. When we hear words like “racism,” “mass killings” or “climate change,” we cringe at their magnitude. Like Moses, we are tempted to cry, “Who am I to make a difference?”

And what does God say then? Do not be afraid. I will go with you.

Okay, Moses says. But if we’re in this together, I need to understand something about who you are. I need to know your name.

And God says to Moses, “‘Ehyeh-‘Asher-‘Ehyeh.” It is a strange and mysterious name, whose precise meaning has eluded translators, scholars and theologians ever since. Robert Alter, whose recently published and profusely annotated translation of the Hebrew Bible should be in every library, says that “I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be” is the most plausible rendering of the Hebrew. But he suggests that its linguistic ambiguities could also produce variations such as “I-Am-That-I-Am,” “He-Who-Brings-Things-into-Being,” and “I-Am-He-Who-Endures.”

But whether the preferred translation stresses the being of God or the doing of God, whether it evokes the eternal source and essence of reality or the ongoing providential activity woven into the causalities of time and history, God reveals to Moses that whatever happens in this finite world or in this transitory life, God is. God endures. God will be. God will be with us.

However dark the night of violence and death, however deep the waters of catastrophe, God is with us. The God who endured the cross and grave, the God who makes a way where there is no way, will share our journey and deliver us to the place of promise.

For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress. . .
[the] soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.

This is not a prescription for passivity, as when people say stupid things like “God will take care of climate change, so why worry?” No. Passivity in the face of human sin and folly is not faith. It is complicity.

To those who are called and ignited by the Spirit’s fire for the work of repairing the world, God’s promise to be with us produces not passivity, but courage and action. Come what may, whatever sorrows, tragedies or defeats may await us: ‘Ehyeh-‘Asher-‘Ehyeh. Heaven and earth may pass away, but the Holy One remains, arms open wide, to welcome us to our abiding home, the loving heart of the divine mystery.

Or as Jesus put it, “I am with you always, even to the end of time.”

 

 

 

Related post: The voice that allows us to remain human

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gathering God’s Children: A Homily for Lent 2

Stanley Spencer, Christ in the Wilderness––The Hen (1939)

A homily preached on the Second Sunday of Lent at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, WA (Texts: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 / Luke 13:31-35)

The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid. Your story is not over.
It will continue long into the future.”

But Abram can’t believe this. “I have no offspring, no heirs. How on earth will my story continue?”

And God says, “Step outside, and look at the stars––more than you could ever count. So shall your descendants be.”

This kind of thing happens a lot in the Bible. God makes a way where there is no way. God turns nothing into something. God makes a barren marriage the seed of countless generations.

“Great!” says Abram. “But how can I know for sure?”

So God makes a covenant with Abram––a promise binding Abram’s story to God’s story, a promise to be with Abram’s people through the long journey of time.

Now we may find their covenant ritual pretty weird: cutting three large animals in half––a heifer, a goat, and a ram––but that was a common practice in the ancient Near East. The two parties making a covenant would walk between the cloven parts of animals, as if to say, if either party severs the covenant binding us together, there will be blood.

If one of the parties is human and the other is divine, we should not be surprised to find an uncanny dimension to the ritual, as there is in this story. Abram falls into the altered state of a deep sleep, and then God seems to pass between the cloven animals in the form of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, anticipating the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud which will one day lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

This sense of covenant with God, a binding relationship enduring through all the ups and downs of Jewish history, is the central dynamic of the biblical narrative. And by the time of Jesus, twenty centuries after Abram looked up at those stars, the city of Jerusalem had been well-established as the geographical and spiritual center of that ancient covenant, because it contained the Holy of Holies, the enclosed void believed to be the earthly dwelling place of the Eternal. The Holy of Holies, situated within the Temple on the city’s highest place, was so sacred that it was forbidden to everyone except the High Priest, who could only enter it once a year, on the Day of Atonement, to offer sacrifice to the Most High.

Jerusalem’s sacred stature is affirmed many times in the Hebrew scriptures, especially in the Psalms:

Blessed is the Lord out of Zion,
who dwells in Jerusalem. (Psalm 135:21)

As the hills stand about Jerusalem,
so does the Lord surround God’s people,
from this time forth for evermore. (Psalm 125:2)

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. (Psalm 137:5-6)

Jesus shared his people’s devotion to Jerusalem as central to both their self-understanding and their ultimate destiny. It was the place where earth meets heaven, where the blessings of God’s ancient promise would be most clearly manifested and fulfilled. And however Jesus thought his own mission would work out, he expected its definitive climax to come in the holy city.

Jerusalem is mentioned 139 times in the New Testament, and 90 of those mentions occur in Luke. His gospel might be called The Journey to Jerusalem. During Jesus’ entire ministry of teaching and healing and proclaiming God’s kingdom, Jerusalem is so often on his mind. Every step of his itinerant life takes him closer and closer to that place of destiny. As Luke puts it, “his face was turned toward Jerusalem.”

But when he draws near his goal, some Pharisees try to warn him away. “King Herod wants to kill you,” they said. “Get out of here while you still can.” But for Jesus there is no turning back. “It is necessary for me to journey on,” he tells them. “today and tomorrow and the day after that, because Jerusalem is where a prophet must go to meet his fate.”

So on he goes, eventually making the long climb up from Jericho, through a series of barren hills, until he reaches the Mount of Olives, a high point where suddenly the holy city and its great Temple come into view, stretching across a ridge on the opposite side of a ravine called the Kidron valley.

Have any of you been there, and seen that view? It is a stunning sight. And we might imagine the thrill that Jesus and his disciples must have felt at seeing the end of their long pilgrimage, right there in front of them.

Five years ago, I walked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago across northern Spain, and I remember vividly the moment when I first saw the goal of my journey, the towers of Santiago’s cathedral, from the top of a hill a few miles away. Pilgrims call that hill the Mount of Joy, because joy is what you feel when you see for the first time the place which has pulled on your soul for so many days and so many miles.

So as Jesus descends the slope of the Mount of Olives toward the eastern gate of Jerusalem, he stops for a moment to take in the view. But joy is not what he feels. According to Luke, “as he came near and saw the city, he wept over it.”

Why does Jesus weep? Is it for himself, because he knows that this is where he is going to die? Or is he weeping for Jerusalem, because it is the killer, instead of the fulfiller, of God’s dream for human flourishing? The name Jerusalem means “city of peace”––salem means peace, like the Hebrew shalom and the Arabic salaam. God desired it to be a place of loving community, a just community, a neighborly community where divine blessings would be freely and gratefully shared with one another.

But the holy city was in fact closer to hell than heaven––divided by warring factions demonizing one another, distorted by vast inequalities of wealth, poisoned by fears and tribal hatreds, governed by political and economic forces resistant to change, and blinded by an obsolete pretension of being the greatest nation on earth.

From his vantage point on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gazes upon the broken and faithless city––and he weeps. Then he says, “If you had only known the things that lead to peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42)

This compelling moment is commemorated by a tear-shaped church erected on the slope where Jesus had stood. Most churches are designed to face east, toward the rising sun, but this one faces west, toward Jerusalem, as Jesus did when he lamented the sad state of the City of Peace. The window behind the altar is made of clear glass, so that the worshipper can contemplate the same view which filled Jesus’ eyes with tears. The name of the church is Dominus Flevit: The Lord wept.

What if Jesus had not wept there? What if he had looked at the faithless city, so unloving and so unjust, and been filled with anger and judgment? What if the church were called, The Lord raged? There was plenty to be angry about in the way people lived together and treated each other in that city. But the heart of Jesus was all compassion. He came to show us the God of mercy.

And in today’s gospel, when he responds to those Pharisees who urge him to avoid Jerusalem at all costs, Jesus gives perhaps his most startling self-description in all the gospels:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one killing the prophets and stoning those sent to her, how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”

Altar mosaic, Dominus Flevit church, Jerusalem

Look at the image of the altar mosaic  in Dominus Flevit. Notice the golden halo behind the hen’s head. This is a holy creature, showing us God in a new way, as a maternal figure, protective yet vulnerable. Not the lion of Judah, or a mighty eagle, but a barnyard chicken! Her chicks don’t seem to be paying much attention to their mother. They are liable to wander off at any moment and get into all sorts of mischief. But Jesus their mother spreads her wings wide, trying her best to gather them in and keep them safe.

There’s another animal in today’s gospel––the fox. That’s what Jesus calls Herod––a fox. Now as leaders go, Herod was pretty deplorable. He was an insecure bully who didn’t care much about the divine covenant or the holiness of Jerusalem. He only cared about himself. And he was little more than a puppet, easily manipulated by a foreign power (it begins with an “R”).

Why does Jesus call him a fox? Did he mean that Herod was cunning? Perhaps. But in such close juxtaposition with the hen and her chicks, it seems more likely that Jesus was describing Herod as a predator. What a predator does is find a way to isolate and attack the most vulnerable. He divides his victims from the wider community, and then he attacks. If you’re a defenseless chick, a fox is very bad news!

Jesus wants to protect the chicks from the fox, but he refuses to do that with violence. That would only make him a mirror image of the fox. As Episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says in her memorable commentary on this passage:

“Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.”

For God so loved the world, that he gave the dearest portion God’s own self, that we might not perish. Self-offering for the sake of others, however costly, is the divine way.

When I first heard about the New Zealand massacre, I had just been reading a gospel commentary comparing the protective hen to Vicki Soto, the first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook who died while shielding her little students from the bullets with her own body.

In times like these, the gospel gets very real, and we are confronted with an immediate choice: do we stand with the fox, or with the hen? God forbid that any of us should ever be in the line of fire, but even at a safe distance, we can raise our voices to resist violence, hatred, bigotry and fear. We can spread our wings to shield the vulnerable.

When our leaders echo the rhetoric of white supremacists by referring to immigrants as “invaders,” we need to shout, “No more!” When defenseless children are taken from their parents and put into cages, we need to insist, “Not in our country!” When the toxins of tribalism inspire violence even in havens like New Zealand, we need to confess our divisive ways and beg forgiveness.

As St. Paul urges us, let us all be imitators of Christ, spreading our wings in welcome, offering warmth, protection, shelter and love without qualification. The foxes of the world want to scatter us, but God yearns to gather every single one of us from the places of isolation, alienation, division and rejection, and bring us home to the welcome table.

Look again at the mosaic of the Christlike hen. She is circled by the Latin text of Jesus’ saying, “how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” At about 10 o’clock on the circle is the verb congregare, “to gather.” You see, a congregation consists of those who have been gathered safely under the wings of Christ. You have been gathered under the wings of Christ. And we have all committed in our baptism to spread our own wings in turn, and offer our own selves––our souls and bodies––for the sake of the world.

Now just beneath the chicks, there is one more phrase. It is what Jesus says just after the text in the outer circle: et noluisti (“and they were not willing!”). Jesus wants to gather the scattered, but they refuse. For whatever reason––obstinance, foolishness, blindness, or plain old sin––they just won’t be gathered. They were not willing. And that troubling phrase, et noluisti, explains why Jesus wept as he gazed at Jerusalem, Those word are set apart from the rest of the text, and instead of swimming in the gold of eternity like the other words, they are drenched in a deep red color, the color of blood––echoing the message of that primitive covenant ritual with the butchered animals in Genesis. If you don’t find a way to live together in love, there will be blood.

Jesus offers a better way. He did it in his life and teaching, he did it on Calvary’s hill. The hen’s outstretched wings are like the arms of Jesus on the cross, still trying to gather us in with his last breath. “Father, forgive them,” he prays. Even as he is dying on the cross, Jesus is trying to gather God’s children and bring them home.

In Franco Zefferelli’s 1977 film, Jesus of Nazareth, there is an extraordinary moment during the crucifixion sequence. It is not literally scriptural––the screenwriter invented it––but it expresses so well the heart of the gospel message.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is allowed by a centurion to pass through security to approach her dying son. Then Mary Magdalene tries to follow right behind her, but the centurion stops her.

“Please,” says Magdalene. “I’m one of the family.”

Hearing this, the mother of Jesus turns around sharply, clearly stung by the impudence of this outsider, this woman of questionable reputation, pretending to be related to Jesus. We imagine her thinking, “How dare she try to intrude on our intimate circle!” The centurion asks Mary, “Is she family?” And at that moment, the mother of Jesus has to decide whether she’s going to be tribal and exclusive, or whether she is willing to embrace the welcoming way of her son.

After a brief hesitation, she nods, but it’s not easy for her. “Yes,” she says. “She is one of the family.” And at that moment, at the foot of the cross, beneath Christ’s outstretched wings, the welcoming and sheltering community of mutual and unconditional love is born into the world.