Half-Finished Life

On the coast of Scotland in the town of Oban, there is a church—a cathedral, in fact. It’s the most unusually constructed building I’ve ever seen. It started as a simple little brick structure, and then some years later the leaders had a grand vision of expanding it into a massive stone edifice. They had more vision than they had money, though, and when funds ran out, they’d only partially begun the addition.

Today, when you walk in, you can clearly see where the old building and the new were awkwardly joined—there are huge steel girders holding up the new section, and while these beams were probably meant to be temporary, they’re now just part of the interior. So far the whole thing has held together. You can see what it looks like in the photo attached to this post.

I feel a bit like that church building, and maybe you have have, too, at various points in your life. I want to be polished and put together, I don’t want the ugly interior structures showing. I want to be all incense and candles and beautiful music. Instead most days I feel like a half-finished project cobbled together from bits of false starts and broken dreams.

But you know what? God is still present.

God is still present in that half-finished cathedral, and in my half-finished life, and in yours. God doesn’t care about smooth walls and cohesive aesthetics. God isn’t worried if all you can put together is a misshapen hovel, as long as it’s built with love.

This might be self-evident to you, but goodness is it hard for me to accept. I have sought love and validation in every place where it cannot be found. I have spent years trying to be a Grand Cathedral sort of person–perfect, alluringly ornamented, trying to stand out, trying to earn the approval of teachers and lovers and friends. Not because they demanded it, but because I was convinced of the ancient lie: you will be complete when…When you know more. When you create more. When you look better. When you are more sophisticated. When you are admired.

God doesn’t care about any of it. Christ didn’t live, die and rise again so that I could achieve social respectability or admiring glances. So why, oh why, do I keep wanting it? I am weak, Lord. Help me be happy in the permanent construction zone that is life.

These months at Mirfield, and the events of my life therein, have definitely stripped me down to the steel girders. But I’ve learned about the dignity of silence. I’ve witnessed the beauty of consistency, in both prayer and work. Yes, I’ve felt the sting of loneliness and rejection, which is a small death, but also the warmth of kindness, which is a bit of resurrection.

These are good things. Necessary things. I wish them for you, too, to the extent that they draw you closer to the God Who loves you regardless of how well put-together you are.

There is so much more to say, but not now. For now I’m looking at those unsightly cathedral girders and reminding myself that what is humble is often what is strongest.

Home in just over six weeks. Pray for me, as I am for you.

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Both Shepherd and Sheep: A Sermon

There is so much I could say and need to say about the experiences of the past few weeks, but I just don’t have the words at the moment. In the mean time, here is a sermon I offered yesterday, April 23rd, at my placement churches: St. Mary’s Mirfield and St. John’s Upper Hopton. The text is John 10:11-18, wherein Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd. 

As many of you know, I have been given the privilege of living and studying in the UK for the past few months as part of an exchange program between my seminary in California and the College of the Resurrection here in Mirfield. Getting to know the people and the landscapes of West Yorkshire has been a joy, but when we were given a break after Easter, I was eager to go a bit further afield.  And so I boarded a train to Scotland, determined to see as much as I could in a week.  And sightsee I did—I saw medieval cityscapes, glorious cathedrals and museums, Highland lochs, the holy island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides….and sheep.  Lots and lots of sheep.

Scottish sheep really have it made, as far as I’m concerned.  They are free to roam across those dramatic Highland landscapes, munching on wild grasses and heather, disturbed only occasionally by the odd passing tourist gawking out of a train window.  And while I was gawking at them, I noticed something interesting, which perhaps you have seen, too: the sheep are all marked.  They have splashes of color painted onto their fleece, some green, some blue, some red. I looked this up later, and I learned that these colors all have a practical purpose—they are called “Smit Marks”, and they are used by the sheep farmers to keep track of which sheep belong to them.  Since the countryside is open, and the sheep can roam wherever they like, these markings are a quick means of identification when it’s time for them to be gathered back in for shearing, etc.

The Scottish sheep, with their vibrant Smit Marks, were lingering in my mind’s eye as I pondered this week’s Gospel passage from John, in which Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd caring for his flock. It’s such an evocative image, isn’t it? One that is deeply ingrained in our idea of relationship with God—through the recitation of the beloved 23rd Psalm, in church art and in hymnody. It is an image of protection and guidance and self-giving love: the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. For us.

And we are marked, too, are we not?  Not with a streak of color on our backs, of course, but we have our own Smit Marks, indicating to whom we belong—they were placed on us in the water of baptism and the oil of anointing.  As it says in my favorite line in the service for Holy Baptism that we use in the Episcopal Church, we are “sealed by the Holy Spirit…and marked as Christ’s own forever.” No matter where we wander, no matter how far we stray into shadowy valleys or foreboding wilderness, we bear the mark that tells us who we are, and by Whom we are guided—Christ, the Good Shepherd, who stands on the brow of the hill at dusk and calls us home. It can be hard to see and the path is often rocky, but His lantern is lit for us to follow—it burns in the sanctuary of every church where his Eucharistic presence is encountered, and it illuminates every place where we, the people of God, pray and minister in His name.

It’s remarkable what you can discern from looking at a field of sheep!

There’s a catch, of course. If we were to simply bask in the image of Christ as the loving Shepherd and ourselves as his beloved flock, we’d only be getting part of the picture. Because Jesus is more than a model of a capable guardian and overseer; in fact our faith depends on the fact that he is much more than this.  As Saint Augustine asked, “What sayest Thou, O Lord, Thou good Shepherd? For You are the good Shepherd, who art also the good Lamb; at once Pastor and Pasturage, at once Lamb and Lion.” In the mystery of his death and resurrection, which we continue to marvel at this Easter season, we cannot forget that Jesus the Shepherd is also, paradoxically, the paschal lamb who was slain, who was given, if you’ll allow me to stretch the metaphor, his own Smit Mark by the Father to fulfill the plan of human salvation, and who was called home through the valley of the shadow of death in his glorious rising to new life.

This is the One whom we encounter in sacrament and prayer and service. The Shepherd who is the Lamb. The Lamb who is the Shepherd. Whose death was, in the light of the Resurrection, not a demonstration of God’s failure to care, but proof that God will do anything to gather us close into a merciful embrace.

If we follow this train of thought, though, there is one missing piece. Because if Christ is both the Good Shepherd AND the Lamb of God, then we, as people who share in his life, also share in this dual identity. We cannot merely see ourselves as sheep to be protected. As much as I envied those Scottish sheep in their pastoral idyll, I knew I had to continue on my journey, that I could not linger in the field. There was much to see, and much yet to be done. So it is for all of us. If we believe, as St. Paul claims, that it is not we who live but Christ who lives in us, then the Good Shepherd is the One who lives within us. The One Who must guide, and seek out, and yes, even lay down their life at the feet of those whom they serve. He is the one who animates our very beings. In the same moment that we are the beloved flock, you and I are also the brave, good shepherds of God’s mission. We were marked as such on the day of our baptism, when we were knit into Christ’s body, and it is an indelible mark. It cannot be undone. It is our vocation, each and every one of us.

So as we approach the table to take part in the banquet feast of the Lamb who was slain for us, let us remember the deep bond that has drawn us here, the bond of a Good Shepherd calling his flock back to him for rest and renewal. But let us remember, too, that by taking Him into ourselves, we have been transfigured by His abiding presence into shepherds. And so we, too, must seek the flock. We too must measure the worth of our lives by the amount of love we are willing to risk pouring out. We, too, must walk the landscape, lighting the way to guide others into safety.

The world is vast, more vast even than those Highland valleys, and there are many who are seeking home. Let us take up our staffs, light our lanterns, and call out. And may the Good Shepherd within each of us provide the words to pierce the silent gloom, to bring near those who wander towards the light.