Holy Week at Home #8: Easter Day

The final installment of my “Holy Week at Home” posts; a meditation on happiness and joy in a season when both feel harder to inhabit. Yet still we say: Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

Something I am continuing to discover is how joy and happiness are not the same thing. And on this particular Easter, when the usual signs of celebration are absent or muted by grief, understanding that distinction feels more important than ever.

Happiness is precious and usually comes, in its purest form, unbidden, from humble things. A flower blooming, a familiar voice, a gentle hand outstretched. But happiness also vanishes as quickly as it comes, and cannot be pursued. We must learn to hold it gently, and then let it go.

Thus I think of Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus in the garden on Easter morning. There is a flower and a voice and an outstretched hand, yes, but also this: “Do not hold onto me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father, to my God and your God.” This happiness is only momentary. Resurrection is not just reunion. It’s also letting go.

So, we must consider what we mean by joy, and Easter joy in particular. Not mere happiness, but perhaps, instead, a fullness. Fullness of life. Fullness of presence, both God’s presence and our own. A fullness that contains happiness, yes, but also grief, and confusion, and wonder, and mercy, and everything else that emanates from the deep heart of Life. A fullness that sustains us even when our pleasures feel meagre, as they sometimes do.

As we live into the reality of this unusual Eastertide, I find myself kneeling in the garden with Mary Magdalene, having experienced such a collision of grief and happiness that my soul feels stretched beyond its capacity. But I am choosing to trust that in the stretching, there is the shape of joy. In the stretching, Christ is forming me into something new. Something that can contain a bit more of the vastness of God’s dream, wherein Resurrection finds its source and endpoint.

Blessed Easter, dear friends. I wish you happiness to soothe your spirit. And I wish you joy, that each of us might become who God made us to be.

Holy Week at Home #7: Holy Saturday

A continuation of my “Holy Week at Home” posts; on Holy Saturday we are caught in that space between grief and hope. I have a particular love for the Virgin Mary on this day, who is known on Holy Saturday as Our Lady of Solitude. She has been with me through many seasons of waiting and wondering, including this one. I dedicate this poem to her.

In between beginnings, I must learn to live in interims.

And today I am here, in that shadow-place at the intersection of memory and hope,
The dove-grey moment
when the past ebbs, unreachable
and the cloud bears no hint of light.

Where have you gone, my beloved?

I wait, and yes, I grieve
the yet-unsatisfied promise
But I also find that

shadows cast their own illumination over those who pause to consider–
who ponder in their heart–
the saintliness of not knowing;
The beatitude of contingency.

And as the night enfolds understanding
As your absence drapes over me like a mantle of fog
I perceive how needed it is
To say goodbye, and to mean it

To let this waiting be its own solace
Its own teacher
Its own revelation of the
unchanging liminality
at the heart of my restless heart.

After the going and before the coming
There is simply this,
The sufficient poverty of now,
And that must always be enough
Or nothing ever will.

Son, behold your mother
in repose
in recollection
in the resilience you required of her
wild as the sea-grass
Bending
in solitude
But rising
in strength.

Holy Week at Home #6: Good Friday

A continuation of my “Holy Week at Home” posts; on Good Friday we stand at the foot if the Cross as Jesus is crucified. 

Look up.

He is unfurled
aloft,

Like a flag of surrender,
So that you might see, and know
It is finished.

Like a scroll,
So that you might read the lines on his skin and find the place
where it is written in rivulets of tears:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.
I have been anointed to proclaim release.
And I am releasing—
I am giving up
my spirit.

A broken body
Arched like a question
inquiring into your frailty;
testing whether it is tolerable
For love to cost this much.

But if you will stay
In this place without answers
Then you will learn that the
rending and the mending of the world
are two notes of the same song.

You will learn that there is no such thing
as dispassionate salvation
or tentative redemption.

And how in the Divine economy
everything is given
And returned
Eternally.

You will learn that nothing is ever wasted
even when waste is the only credible conclusion.
Even when all the evidence suggests defeat.

You will learn that victory is not the same as winning;
that truth is not the same as certainty;
And that peace is not the same as pleasure.

But all of this is offered now, only now,
On this desiccated and necessary hill,
The final bequeathment of a dying God
Who cannot teach you the secrets of eternity
Without entering finitude.

Look up, into his face.

Look up, and see how he is grieving all of your endings.

Look up, and see how he is dying all of your deaths.

Look up, and see the world pass into something new.

Look up. 

Holy Week at Home #5: Maundy Thursday

A continuation of my “Holy Week at Home” posts; on Maundy Thursday we commemorate Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, as well as Jesus’ anguish and arrest in the garden of Gethsemane. 

Before I must die, he says, let me show you what cannot be killed.

Always, your tyrants will stumble. Your temples will fall. Time and plague lay will lay waste. Enmity will wound.

But there is something else, something underneath and beyond the brittle, crumbling certainties of this (and every) age. Something eternal.

Let us gather together at this table so you might glimpse it, dancing in the shadows as your faces shine in the lamplight. Let me feed you here, let me cleanse you. Let me be with you forever in this moment, even when I must go.

Begin to understand, beloved ones, that there are things more precious than that which you can hold onto. You must begin to see the strange inversion of Truth: how service is power; how love is relinquishment; how death opens us to life.

I admit that I could never explain this to you adequately in words alone. So now I can only demonstrate. I can only *be* for you what is commanded for us all. My tools are bread and wine and water basin. And tomorrow there will be other instruments, but let us not speak of them yet.

Oh, beloveds, how I have loved you, ever since my breath first swept across the waters, ever since I molded you from dust. How I have longed to be known by you.

And so, as you have said to me so often through the cascading generations, I now say to you:

Here Am I.
I Am Here.

I have come from across eternity to kneel before you. To breathe across this water. To wash the earth from your feet of dust.

I am the unkillable offering. I give you myself so that you will know how, even if you do not know why.

Do the same, always, in remembrance of me.

Holy Week at Home #4: Spy Wednesday

A continuation of my “Holy Week at Home” posts; on Holy Wednesday, also known as “Spy Wednesday” we focus on Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus. His reasons for doing so have been long debated in the Christian tradition; the Gospels leave a number of possibilities open to interpretation. 

Facades are so tempting; they promise to make us presentable to the world, maybe even impressive. We plaster all the cracks, drape over the torn fabric of the heart. We adorn ourselves with fear and fig leaves, trembling and hidden like Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening, terrified of being truly seen. 

Thus we find Judas, the “spy” of Spy Wednesday, peering out from behind his mask of virtue while rage, or jealousy, or longing, roils deep within. We don’t know precisely why he betrays Jesus, and that unknowability, that unbreakable facade is, itself, part of his tragedy–and ours. Empathy is only possible when we see below the surface. Without it, we are lost to one another, as Judas is lost to us.

But we should not dispose of him so easily, lest we exempt ourselves from the questions his story poses. Do any of us fully understand why we harm one another? Can we ever discern the exact balance of love and fear that motivate our daily choices? Is there a way to break free from the artifice, the suffocating ornamentation, under which we have burdened and betrayed ourselves?

Following Jesus is partly an attempt to reckon with those questions, even if our answers are fumbling. He stands there in the night, ready to receive our kiss, asking whether we know why we offer it. He stands there, forgiving us for the paltry silver we’ve gathered to justify our unexamined lives.

And here, finally, in the cool of another evening, we experience the ultimate futility of hiding from him; there is no more time for our pitiable facades.

He understands, even when we do not: only love and death, now. Only the integrity of naked flesh, and wood, and stone, now. In them, we will finally face ourselves. In them, all truth will be revealed.

 

Holy Week at Home #3: Holy Tuesday

Our entire life can be spent waiting for something to happen. Waiting for *that* thing to happen, the one we can’t quite name: the consummation of an unarticulated desire; the answer to a half-posed question, caught in our throat like a crumb of daily bread.

It is all-too-easy, though, to let this waiting be sufficient. To exist in a state of vague expectancy, neither starved nor nourished, having grown accustomed to glancing at life–at ourselves and one another–indirectly, furtively, never head-on.

But today we must let that go. We must risk an encounter with the emerging fullness of God’s purpose for us.

In Tuesday’s Scripture, Jesus does this. He accepts his own, pivotal role in that mysterious purpose: to be lifted up and poured out, revealing an unending effusion of mercy sourced in the headwaters of creation.

It is not the answer he wanted. Not the path he might have chosen. But we come to understand, in time, that our lives, lived most deeply, are not completely our own. And when the hour comes and the wait is over–when that existential answer arrives–it will inevitably lead us out, beyond the familiar and deadening malaise, beyond safety, to the place where our heart will be pierced and our eyes will be opened. The place of pure, unmediated Life.

Holy Week at Home #2: Holy Monday

A continuation of my “Holy Week at Home” posts; on Holy Monday the Gospel reading depicts Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus with precious ointment (John 12:1-9).

Spring is a season of guileless generosity. The trees and flowers cry abundant, blossoming tears of gratitude for the gentle return of warmth to the earth. The soft evening air feels gently magnanimous, like new love, or a reconciliation.

On Holy Monday we are told of Jesus’ anointing at Bethany; how Mary, the sister of Martha, pours precious fragrance on his feet and wipes them with her hair. Extravagant and unnecessary, says Judas, who cannot see beyond the imperatives of his limited, grasping imagination.

No, says Jesus, she has done this out of deep wisdom, for my burial approaches.

Extravagance is only harmful when it gathers bounty toward oneself, into the bottomless void of a misunderstood hunger. The extravagance of giving is the only possible satiation.

So, like springtime, like the exuberant wildflowers bending to kiss the dark soil, with the gratitude of one who has perceived the true cost of Love, thus has Mary poured out her gift. Thus has she anointed God with her necessary offering, for his necessary offering which is to come.

Help me now, Lord, in my fear of your Cross, and of my own. Allow me to rest at your feet. Allow me to gather what beauty I can, and then to offer it back; to let the blossoms loose and fall, as they must: an anointing of the earth, a making way, so to bear the fruit not yet tasted.

Holy Week at Home #1: Palm Sunday

With liturgies suspended for this (most unusual) Holy Week, I wrote some brief daily meditations/reflections/poems on social media as a way to navigate the passage from Palm Sunday to Easter without the usual guideposts of communal worship. 

The process of daily writing and posting was a reminder for me that our praise of God is just as much about what we offer–the oblation of our hearts–as it is what we receive. So even now, when we are separated by circumstance and the usual blessings of the liturgy feel distant, we can still present our humble gifts with gratitude. With this in mind, here are the posts I shared last week.

PALM SUNDAY: 

You know that anxious feeling of entry into something unfamiliar and inevitable, like the first day of school or that difficult conversation you simply can’t put off? The dry mouth and the churning gut? The sweat on the back of your neck?

Such is Palm Sunday. Bright, dizzying, crystallized, expectant, palm leaves that scratch your own palms, cries of praise that leave you hoarse. The big event that doesn’t quite satisfy.

Palm Sunday has a feverish quality, like infatuation that has convinced itself that it’s love. It is desire without generosity. Longing without trust.

As we stand at the roadside, or peer from our windows, at the man who enters our midst on a donkey, let us be mindful of all that we still project onto him, all the ways we demand him to solve the heartbreaks and hatreds of our own creation. He comes to illuminate suffering, but not to erase it. He comes to show us life, but we must still traverse through the narrow gate that leads there. When we cry Hosanna, when we wave the branch, we are greeting a very different sort of salvation than the one we privately hoped for. If we truly understood it, its magnitude and its cost, we would likely fall silent as he passed by.

Palm Sunday is                                                                                                                                   the irony of ripping branches                                                                                              zealously;                                                                                                                                                to kill the tender green                                                                                                    prematurely–                                                                                                                                         a misguided homage to the One
Who would not break a bruised reed.
In our plundering jubilation we are convicted–
but soon
he will gather the trampled fronds and
mend the broken branches back
onto the Tree of Life.

 

To Bite the Fruit: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, March 1, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 (Eve & Adam’s temptation in the garden) and Matthew 4:1-11 (Jesus’ temptation in the desert). 

It is Lent, and Eve is standing in the garden. 

Eve, our primeval mother, the original bearer of our human bodies and our human longing, has paused under the leafy boughs of a tree laden with promises; the tree that offers the one thing she and her companion Adam do not already have: the ability to share fully in the mind of God. The ability to understand, from God’s perspective, the nature of all things. The ability, as the serpent suggests, to not simply be in relationship with God, but to be like God.

And although in the Eden narrative we often focus on themes of wickedness and disobedience, we should not forget that in this crucial moment of decision–as her hand reaches out toward the tantalizing object of her desire–Eve still loves God. She loves God so much, in fact, that she wants something beyond intimacy, something that can never be taken away. As she and Adam bite into the ripe flesh of the fruit, they are hungering for God’s very being to become part of them. They are seeking a perfect, indissoluble union with their Creator. 

There is a problem, though, with trying to consume the things we love: they tend to get destroyed in the process. And in a flash of insight, all too late, Adam and Eve realize a fundamental truth: loving God is not the same as possessing God.

How often we confuse these two things: loving and possessing. If we are to speak of original sin, we might consider it as the seemingly irresolvable void between the two—the former being the dynamic truth of a relational God, and the latter the constricting delusion of the crafty serpent.

I think of the people in my life whom I have loved most deeply and enduringly, and I realize that one common thread in those relationships is a certain sense of freedom—a freedom to be myself, and for the other person to be themselves. No agenda of control imbuing our time together. No manipulation masquerading as affection. Just two people, supporting one another in our mutual growth and inevitable failings.  And, sometimes, parting ways when life makes that necessary.

To love like this is harder because it is far more uncertain. We can’t control its outcome. And I would be lying if I said that I had never seen fruit on the tree and longed to devour it. We are all Eve and Adam on some level; we are all caught in this tension between the need to love and the compulsion to possess.

This is partly what makes Lent so valuable. We enter into this season and we are invited to take a hard look at all the relationships that comprise our lives: our relationships with people, with things, and with habits. And in each instance, we might consider this question: where am I practicing love, true, selfless, life-giving love; and where am I merely trying to possess, to consume, in order to satisfy a deeper, insatiable hunger within myself? 

It is with these questions in mind that we must journey into the desert alongside Jesus in today’s Gospel, out to the place where the devil awaits him. 

When we hear the story of Christ’s temptations: to turn stones into bread; to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple; to trade his relationship to God for earthly power; I think we would do well to picture him also, standing alongside Eve at the tree in the garden, as the eternal, fundamental questions reverberate between them and down to us through the ages:

Do you love God, or do you want to be God?

Do you love the world, or do you want to possess the world?

And maybe, just maybe, in his hunger and his isolation, Jesus saw the fruit of the tree, and perceived how good it would be to bite it, to possess it, to rule the world on his own terms, to be a king like other kings, to feed people with the bread they already knew.

Perhaps for a moment he, like Eve, thought that loving God and claiming God were the same thing. 

And perhaps, for a moment, every creature in the garden held its breath, waiting for a recapitulation of the original mistake.

But then, he speaks:

       ‘One does not live by bread alone,  but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’

        ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’

        ‘Worship the Lord your God, 

        and serve only him.’

With these ancient words, drawn from the depths of the Law, Jesus is saying: It is in relinquishing power that I find true strength. I only need to trust, and to serve, for this is what love looks like: mutuality, freedom, vulnerability. A hand outstretched, not to take, but to offer itself. 

He says: I do not need to control the world in order to love the world; in fact, loving it means the exact opposite: it means accepting creation in all its finitude, serving humanity in all its frailty, and giving my life for its healing, and its redemption.

And in that moment the devil departed, for he knew that that this time the fruit would remain on the tree. This time, this Son of Man, this Firstborn of All Creation, had made the proper distinction between love and its counterfeits. 

We are, each of us, through our baptism, both children of Eve and Adam and children of God. That ancient temptation still pulses in our veins every time we feel the longing of desire and reach out to grasp at things not meant for us. And in today’s world, with its many promises and perils, giving into this impulse can feel quite natural, acceptable, even noble.

But in Lent, at the edge of Eden and deep in the desert, we are invited, instead, to let go. To leave the fruit untouched. To let the stones remain stones. To turn and face the world in all its terror and promise trusting in God alone. And trusting that somehow, at the end of our long journey, we will be ushered into someplace altogether new.  Another garden, perhaps, but one with an open gate, and an empty tomb. The garden where Eve stands once more, singing a song of redemption, basking in a love that feels, finally, like freedom. 

 

Dancing Alone: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, February 16, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 5:21-37, wherein Jesus speaks about the radical demands of the Law upon the heart.

In the California desert, along a lonely highway that cuts through the merciless expanse of Death Valley, there is a town. It’s hard to call it a town, really; it’s more of an outpost—a cluster of low buildings huddling together in the searing, shimmering vastness of the Mojave, the only sign of human habitation for miles and miles in any direction.

Death Valley Junction, it is called—built in the 1920s by a mining company that has long since disappeared. There is an abandoned gas station, and a cafe that never seems to be open, and an old hotel with an empty parking lot. Driving past, you would be forgiven for thinking that it is just a ghost town, a dessicated relic, like so many other ruins that dot the western landscape of the United States.

And in some ways it is. On most days in Death Valley Junction, the only sound you will hear is wind raking over the scrub brush, whistling through the empty buildings. But I urge you: if for some odd reason you are ever passing through this place, stop the car and get out. In fact, if you are ever near Death Valley at all, make your way to this forgotten corner of the desert. Because hidden among those decaying buildings is a miracle.  A strange, wonderful miracle.

It’s called the Amargosa Opera House. From the outside it is unremarkable, just a white stucco structure in a dusty lot with a simple wooden sign above the doors. You won’t find any big headliners performing here, nor throngs of eager patrons lining up outside. But the Amargosa Opera House contains something better, something far more precious, inside its walls. Because when you step into it, as your eyes adjust to the dim light, you will encounter a vision: a vision of truth, a vision of authenticity, a vision of what I think love really looks like. 

You see, in the early 1960’s, a successful ballet dancer and artist from New York City by the name of Marta Becket was traveling through Death Valley with her husband on a camping trip. They got a flat tire and had to stop in Death Valley Junction. Even then it was a largely empty place, and as she waited for the car to get fixed, Marta wandered among the decrepit buildings, pondering their history.  And then something happened.

As she peered into the windows of an abandoned community hall, with its peeled paint and its battered old stage, she had a revelation.  Marta knew, in a flash of insight, that somehow she belonged there. 

“My life split in two at this junction,” she later told a newspaper reporter. “I looked at the stage and knew it was my future. I knew I’d perform here the rest of my life.”

And that’s exactly what she did. Marta left New York and moved to Death Valley Junction with her husband and fixed up the old performance hall. She rechristened it the Amargosa Opera House. She started performing one-woman ballets of her own creation. As you can imagine, given the location, the audiences were not large.  A local rancher or two; some workers from a nearby brothel; the occasional traveler. Sometimes, quite often in fact, no one would show up for the performance, but Marta would dance anyway–for an empty house, in the empty desert. 

Later, Marta and her husband divorced. And despite the protestations of her friends back east, she remained there alone in the Opera House, in the middle of Death Valley, now the sole inhabitant of the town, restoring buildings, welcoming the occasional visitor, and dancing, always dancing, through the decades, for anyone or no one at all. 

At some point, she had another inspiration: if no audience would come to her, she would create her own. And so she painted the interior of the Opera House with murals filled with people—huge, vivid murals that make you feel like you are standing inside a grand European theater, with gilded balconies and elegantly dressed figures and a big blue sky overhead with billowy clouds and laughing cherubs. 

And so, with her painted audience cheering her on, Marta danced, night after night, on her desert stage, dedicated fully to that vision, to the calling she felt when she first peered through the dusty window: unashamed, unafraid, utterly devoted to her singular vision of creative expression.  Utterly in love with her unusual life. Utterly authentic. 

I met Marta just a couple years before she died at the age of 92. She had continued dancing until she was 87. And ever since I stumbled upon the Amargosa Opera House, and saw her murals and learned about her story, it has been something of a beacon for me in moments when I feel lost. Each of us, in our own way, comes face to face with the question: who am I? What am I supposed to do with this life I have been given? How can I live purposefully, courageously, authentically?

I tell you this because I am convinced that’s what God desires from each of us, my friends: to be authentic. That doesn’t mean moving to Death Valley, necessarily. That was Marta’s story, her particular calling.

But God does ask us to show up in the world as fully and deeply ourselves as possible; to share our gifts for the betterment of the world; and to trust that this alone is enough, that we are enough, even if nobody else understands us, even if we end up dancing onstage alone.

That is what it means to be the bearers of God’s image: to discover what is true, what is sacred—in ourselves and in each other—and to love it, tenaciously. 

And so when we hear Jesus teaching in today’s Gospel about the intense, seemingly impossible demands that the Law places on our hearts—when we learn from him that the kingdom of heaven looks something like those rare moments when our inner motives are in perfect alignment with our outward actions—I believe we are hearing his invitation to a brave, self-giving, authenticity. 

It is not enough, Jesus tells us, to go through the motions of virtue if you are harboring fear and anger and covetousness deep within you. It is not enough to proclaim peace with your lips if there is war in your heart.  It is not enough to fulfill the legal and ceremonial obligations of your culture if you are not also attentive to the injustices that your culture perpetuates.

Because in that gap between the person God intends for us to be and the person we might have allowed ourselves to become—that is the void where sin and despair creep in. The Law, which Christ fulfills, beckons us beyond despair, into the glory of God, and, as St. Irenaeus writes, “the glory of God is the human person, fully alive.” Fully oneself.

True life, true blessedness, Jesus tells us, will only come when there is an integration between humanity’s heart and its hands; when we need not swear by any power beyond ourselves–by heaven or by earth— because we are so fully, authentically present to each other and to the world that Yes truly does mean Yes, and No truly does mean No.   To know ourselves, and to be ourselves, unvarnished, unapologetic, humble, rooted—this is what it means to know peace, and this is what it means to be a peacemaker.  This is what we are offered when we follow Christ.

But make no mistake; this much easier said than done. The embrace of authenticity always has a price in this broken world of ours. Sometimes a very steep one. The world is not always kind to the vulnerable, the meek, the open-hearted.

And each of us, looking back at our lives, can probably recognize a juncture when embracing the true and necessary thing might have cost us a great deal. Our sense of security. Or our livelihood. Or maybe friends and loved ones who have rejected us.

The road that leads deep into the heart of life can be lonely.

Like Jesus, and like Marta, it might lead us far out into the desert, where the evil one whispers in the Valley of Death that we are lost, that we are living with ghosts, forgotten, and that our fragile dreams are not worth tending, that nobody cares enough to come join us in the dance that we were born to do. 

But I have stood in the Amargosa Opera House, my friends. I have seen its vivid colors swirling and laughing defiantly in the heart of emptiness, and I can tell you that God shows up when we inhabit the places we fear the most. There is abundant life, abundant truth, when we allow God’s grace to form us into ourselves.

Because somewhere out there, in the vastness, in the kingdom of heaven, at the center of our deepest longings, Marta is still dancing, shrouded in lamplight and smiling mysteriously, knowingly, like a saint who has glimpsed the secret.

She is silent; silent as the desert. But her art, her life, her story speaks for itself. 

May the same be said for each of us, whoever we are called to be.