A Sermon: God, Our Lover

I preached this sermon at my home parish, Grace in the Desert Episcopal Church, Las Vegas, NV, on Sunday, September 2nd, 2018. The lectionary reading used is Song of Solomon 2:8-13. I offer it to you and to the heart of the God who loves and desires each of us.

“Arise my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.”

The Song of Solomon, a piece of which we encountered in today’s readings, has a rather controversial history in the Christian tradition. It is, on its face, an exquisite poem about the ecstatic love between a man and a woman—one that comes out of a long poetic tradition in the cultures of ancient Israel and the near east. It’s an unabashed expression of longing and desire between two people, and its heightened sentiments might sound familiar to those of us who have experienced the soul-stirring rush of romantic attraction.

At various points in the history of our faith, the Song of Solomon has also been reinterpreted as a metaphor of Christ’s love for His bride, the Church. The thought for some, I suppose, was that such a frank expression of bodily desire did not align with the sanctity and moral discipline of the Christian ethos, and so the Song was instead taught and understood as coded language that communicates God’s pure and holy desire for creation; the consummation of a bond between two lovers became an analogy for the Church’s mystical union with Jesus Christ.

So what do we do with this text, then? Do we stick with those Biblical scholars who read it as an ancient Israelite love poem, a beautiful erotic relic? Or do we cordon it off as a spiritualized metaphor, one that conveys a sanitized interpretation of Jesus’s bond with his Church?  Or is there something else here for us?

To answer this question, I want to tell you a brief personal story. Last year I was meeting with my spiritual director, a Franciscan friar, and we were talking about prayer—specifically, my prayer life while at seminary. I was telling him about the various ways that I was trying to relate to God, and how on some level I was more comfortable praying and talking to God the Father rather than directly to Jesus. I felt, quite honestly, like I didn’t know how to relate to Jesus. As a teacher or guru figure? An older brother? A King? (too intimidating) A close friend? (too familiar) As someone who is a disciple of Jesus, as someone who has pledged myself to serving this very personal God who is Son as much as Father and Spirit, I was troubled by my struggle to connect on an emotional level with Jesus, and not just a theoretical one.

And then my spiritual director said something surprising that I will never forget. He said, “why don’t you relate to Jesus as the one who is in love with you?”

I had two immediate reactions. First: my brain’s knee-jerk response: “No way! Jesus is God incarnate. I can’t think of God in the same way I would someone I am in love with. That kind of romantic love is only for human beings.”

And the other reaction, from a much deeper place in my heart: a door opening. The feeling of an unspoken, unrecognized truth suddenly brought to light: our God was also, somehow, human. Our God, in Jesus, had a heart and body like mine. And with this heart, God might not simply love me in a paternalistic way, or with a generic, impassive offering of good-will, but that God could be IN LOVE with me. That God could be IN LOVE with all of us.

“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

The Song of Solomon clues us in to something—that desire, that romantic love, as much as any other form of love, is a doorway to understanding the ways in which God relates to us. And that’s not in the detached, polite manner  of interaction that you might offer an acquaintance on the street. No. God loves us passionately, ardently, with a fury and a longing. God is the burning bush in the desert that calls out to us and burns and burns and burns and yet is never consumed.

And it’s with this insight that we come to understand that the romantic bond between two people—straight people, gay people, young lovers, or lifelong partners— this bond is bound up in the outpouring of divine love that permeates creation. It is our nature, it is a good thing, to long for each other, to yearn for the union of our body with another, because God longs for us in the very same way. It is this longing that erupted in the Incarnation, the Passion, and that brought forth the Resurrection. In the human heart, the divine heart, the beating and burning sacred heart of Jesus, God has not only sanctified our human love and desire—He has experienced it, as a human being, firsthand, coursing through Him.

This truth about the heart of God is what allowed the medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich, writing down heavenly visions in her monastic cell, to refer variously to Jesus as father, as mother, as brother, and as husband—the One Who fulfills every need, Who encapsulates every type of love we have been blessed to receive in this life, and every type of love for which we are still longing to find.

This truth about the passion of God is what St. Clare of Assisi was referring to when she wrote, of Christ: “Draw me after you! We will run in the fragrance of your perfumes, O heavenly spouse! I will run and not tire.”

This is a love that enfolds us, no matter our gender, no matter our sexuality, or our relationship status. Christ looks upon us and loves us, He sees our longing to be understood, to be admired, to be held, and He says:

I’m here. I’ve always been here. I love you. I am in love with you, every part of you. Why else would I have endured the folly and suffering of the cross, if not for that burning love? Why else would I show up here at this altar, week after week, to kiss your lips with bread and wine, if not for an all-consuming desire to be one with you?

And the voice of the poet, who is us, sings in response,

“Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.”

“Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.”

The Song of Solomon, like all of Holy Scripture, is an invitation to love and be loved, in body as well as heart and soul. Those who would read the text as “only” an erotic poem AND those who would read it as “only” a spiritual metaphor are actually making the same mistake: they are constructing a false boundary between our bodily experience of human love and that of the divine love we participate in through Christ. The two are intertwined, and in our humble passions we find a reflection of the One Consummate Lover of all creation—the God we know in Christ, who calls out to us, wooing us, consoling us, as only a lover can do.

The only question that remains, then, is whether we will respond to the invitation to “arise and come away“. If your beloved calls to you, will you go running and cast yourself into their embrace?  Will you venture out with them, into that landscape of abundant possibility where “the fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom”?

I pray that each of us will take such a chance. I pray that we will respond with the same intensity of feeling that Jesus offers us, for it is He who will always be the Supreme Love of our lives. I pray for a world blessed by the consummation of our desire for God and for each other. I pray that such a world will give way to a new love poem, one that never ends. Its title will be the Song of the Kingdom of God.

“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away, for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come.”

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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.

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.

The Joy of Normality

Temperamental spring is flirting with the landscape in Mirfield. In the past two weeks we’ve had snow blanketing the hillsides, unannounced rainstorms that drenched me on the way to morning prayer, and profusions of purple crocuses and yellow daffodils carpeting the parish churchyards. A bit like life itself, the weather in England is unpredictable, occasionally frustrating, and always beautiful.

Having been here almost two months (!) I’ve settled into a rhythm of prayer, study, meals, and periodic frivolity that feels more like a new home than like a “trip”. Given how disoriented and adrift I felt in the first couple of weeks, this change in itself feels like a miraculous revelation. It makes me realize how infrequently I am grateful for normality in my daily life back in California: always hungry for what is next, not for what simply is.

There was a piece I read long ago by the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh that referred to this type of everyday gratitude as “the joy of no toothache.” In other words, it’s usually when we are in some type of acute pain that we finally recognize the joy that was already present in the pain-free status quo. Now that the discomforts of adjusting to life in Mirfield have mostly subsided, I am determined to relish the quiet happiness of simply being here.

But how to hold onto that sense of gratitude? For me, in this place, it has come about through a burgeoning sense of prayerful discipline. I am realizing more and more how the constancy of the Daily Offices (morning prayer, Eucharist, evening prayer, etc.) keeps me attentive to God and to the preciousness of the day at hand. Compared to my life back in the US, when I often let prayer become sidelined by academic anxieties, personal angst, and (let’s be honest) a lot of social media-driven idleness, now the rigor and structure of prayer is the framework upon which I build each day. I don’t always *want* to go and pray the Offices, but I must, and in maintaining that commitment, I find small but perceptible shifts in my heart, an accumulation of movements that are reorienting me towards the Divine presence in moments I might otherwise have missed it.

Robert Browning writes of this type of attentiveness in “Pippa’s Song”:

The year’s at the spring,

And day’s at the morn;

Morning’s at seven;

The hill-side’s dew-pearl’d;

The lark’s on the wing;

The snail’s on the thorn;

God’s in His heaven—

All’s right with the world!

 

The saints often express similar feelings about the miracle of the commonplace (think of St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun). It is a mistake, I think, to sentimentalize or trivialize these types of observations. Deep satisfaction and delight in the everyday is not the same as naivety, nor is it complacency. To marvel at the poignancy of God’s abiding in the present does not preclude us from clear-eyed hope, from the work of reconciliation, or from the pursuit of justice; instead, it grounds us in pursuing those aims out of love, rather than fear and stridency.

Of all the things I am discovering at Mirfield—the joys of community, the need to take a more holistic view of priestly formation—one of the simplest and best is this experience of inhabiting the day prayerfully, non-anxiously, without a lot of worry about the future. This hasn’t come easily, but it is a change I have experienced quite dramatically in the past few weeks. I told someone recently that there is a bright line around my time here; beyond June 1st I am unsure of what life will hold, and I am suddenly, truly all right with that. If “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1) then I am experiencing faith anew here.

So, if I could offer any bit of advice for the perpetually stressed, among whom I have counted myself for many years, I would say this: forget dramatic transformations, and give yourself over to a gentle discipline of prayer. Focus less on an idealized, perfect end result, which is forever beyond our grasp anyway, and find something simple and immediate that will ground you in this day which God has made for us. It might be the Daily Offices, if you are Episcopalian/Anglican, or it might be something else. If you are already engaging in a practice along these lines, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Please know that in my daily prayers I am constantly lifting up your names. It is a great consolation to think of all the love that has permeated my life thus far, and I can only hope to give some of it back to God, through my relationships with you and through the worship that I offer up each day.

Peace, dear friends. You are in my heart always.

The Ancient and the New

It’s been one month since I arrived in Mirfield; as such, one quarter of my time here is already done. I can already sense little shifts in the landscape. The dawn is brighter as I walk up the hill to morning prayer; dusk lingers a bit longer in the church as we chant the psalms at evensong. There are changes inside of me, too. A bit less disoriented, a bit more confident of how I fit into this place.

So much has gone on since my last post. There was the somber and beautiful Ash Wednesday liturgy, when the priest drew a cross on my forehead with cool, damp ashes that had been sprinkled with holy water. A day of silent contemplation at the College to usher in Lent, during which I alternated between stillness and dizzying anxiety. A weekend trip to the ancient city of York, where I wandered alone through the medieval streets looking for a glimpse of a ghost or two. At the massive and magnificent York Minster I was stunned into silence, not simply because of its visual grandeur, but in recognition of the centuries and centuries of prayers that have been offered up into its lofty heights.  I felt alone, and yet deeply connected to that never-ending litany.

This journey thus far, with its ample opportunities for reflection, have made it very clear to me how I am still learning to be a disciple of Christ on the most basic levels: to look kindly upon myself and my flaws, and those of others; to trust that God actually loves me, personally, and not just as an abstraction; to recognize that grace is imbued into everything, whether I see it or not, because God is far more than I can see, or feel, or guess at. These are simple, incomprehensible truths. I know how much I still have to grow, and yet I am also seeing more clearly how becoming a priest is less about growth and more about fully inhabiting myself as God made me. We are not asked to be perfect as priests, but we are asked to be deeply, authentically ourselves, and that is the hardest thing of all sometimes. That goes for non-priests, too, of course.

Lest you think my entire month has been pensive introspection, there have been tons of joyful moments, too. Case in point: on Sunday afternoon I went to lunch with a classmate; we drove out into the countryside and the hills were so green and vast I wanted to cry. Afterwards we drove up to the Victoria Tower, an old observation structure perched far above the town of Huddersfield, and the wind was blowing and the clouds were scudding across the sky and I thought, yes, to be alive is a very good thing. To be here, breathing and breathless and crying from the wind and the wonder is exactly as it must be.  Come, Lord. Come, spring. I am broken open, and I am ready.

Preparing for Lent

The season of Lent is almost upon us. The preparations at Mirfield have me learning about some very old customs that are quite new to me. Today, for example, is Collop Monday.  What’s a collop, you might ask? Apparently it’s a word that refers to bits of leftover meat, often bacon, which are traditionally eaten up on this day before the Lenten season of fasting begins on Ash Wednesday.  The grease from the meat (at least, if Wikipedia is to be trusted) is then used to fry up the pancakes that are traditionally eaten tomorrow, Shrove Tuesday. Mmmm, pancakes.

All the students at the College went up the hill to the monastery house this afternoon to eat Collop Monday lunch with the brethren. It was a feast, although sadly no bacon to be found. BUT there was brisket, roast chicken, stuffing, and tons of dessert. Gotta get those calories in before the menu is pared down for Lent!

Lent is taken quite seriously here, and many of my classmates have been pondering what sort of discipline they are going to adopt starting Wednesday. If you have been part of any liturgical church tradition, you are probably familiar with the question, “what are you giving up for Lent?”  The idea is that in the relinquishing of a particular habit, or in the adoption of a new spiritual discipline, we are creating space in our hearts to listen to God as we approach the commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection in Holy Week. It’s 40 days of soul-searching, and I could sure use it.

At Mass this morning the homily talked about how in our soul-searching we tend to bargain with God, usually petitioning for favors or for the cessation of misfortune. I do this all the time, frankly, even though I don’t necessarily think God relates to us in that way. I’ve been doing a lot of imploring to the heavens lately as I adjust to life over here and battle some inner and outer demons. Maybe you can relate.

Truth be told, I get really annoyed by people who sneer at anyone who prays with a desperate heart. “Well, he only prays when he wants something!” Come now, we all want something–don’t kid yourself that you are holier just because you pray at other times, too. The fact that we are compelled to cry out to God in any circumstance is a sign of grace to me; it just so happens that our need and our fear is usually the hollow space in which God can enter us, if we let God do so. (See Luke 18:9-14)

The challenge, at least in my case, is to remain open–to allow God to dwell in the space that’s usually cluttered up with the distractions and novelties that pervade my life. And so Lent is a little bit like spring cleaning for the heart; it’s an intentional effort to clear out some room and prepare a seat for the Holy One to come and abide with me as we wait together for new life to emerge.

I’m pretty sure what my Lenten discipline is going to be, but I’m going to pray on it a bit more between now and Wednesday before committing. If you’ve already settled on something for yourself, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

God bless you, friends. If you’re reading this, I am grateful for your companionship on this journey. I’ll write in a couple of days to describe the Ash Wednesday liturgy, which I’ve heard is beautiful.

xo

Fire or Fire

This morning I woke up far earlier than I needed to after a night of troubled sleep. In one of those “God, give me a message” moments, I grabbed a book of poetry from my desk and opened it by chance to this:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre–
To be redeemed from fire by fire

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

These words, part of “Little Gidding” by T.S. Eliot, inhabited the dark room with me like a corporeal presence. I have been struggling mightily with things I’ve lost and left behind and the fear of other things I might yet lose. The gratitude that I feel for this three-year seminary journey has often been tinged with sadness, and there have been moments when it all seems bleak and futile. The “flame of incandescent terror” is exactly what answering the call to priesthood has sometimes been for me: a burning away of old comforts and the scorching of my blithe naiveté about what priestly formation would entail, all carried down on the wings of a fearsome Love that feels more like grief. I think that anyone who seeks to follow God, no matter their path or vocation, has at some point felt the sting of what Bonhoeffer calls the cost of discipleship. Who we were must be relinquished for who God asks us to become. The fire of the Spirit is not for the faint of heart, and it demands everything we have to give.

It seems impossible sometimes. But what is the alternative? If Eliot is right, and we must choose to either be burned on the liberating pyre of faith or on the suffocating pyre of our own hardened hearts, then the choices are not in fact equal. Any fear I might feel about following Christ is still preferable to a life of deadening self-interest, and so I continue to turn my face toward the flames of God–however tentatively–and they continue to sting my eyes with their heat.

But how does one make a life of this? How do I let myself be kindled by God’s Love rather than fall back on the same old habits and neuroses that have gotten me by in life thus far? How to die to my old self and yet recognize that I remain a person who wants to be carefree, to laugh, to not trudge along in dreary self-importance? How can I be fully myself–complicated, vulnerable, earthy, needy–in a world (and even a church culture) that sometimes corrals people into a stultifying role that values piety and assurance more than raw presence?

These are some of the questions I’ve brought to Mirfield. I don’t know that they can be answered. But if “Love is the unfamiliar name,” I want to learn how to speak it with greater confidence. I want to adopt it as my own. Even if it burns, as it does, as I know it will.

God, give me the courage to be consumed by you.