Spoken and unspoken

I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog lately. Like many of you, I have been sitting under the pile of stories avalanching over my newsfeed, uncertain whether to say, “me too,” or simply to bear witness to the pain that too many people share.

Some of the stories we could tell are too trivial for notice. Others stay buried because their bones come with too many pounds of flesh, which refuses to decompose even over the decades. I am not surprised that a 14-year-old would turn around forty years later to discover that her story of abuse is still hanging around her neck, its hand dangling over her breast, and that she is as unprepared as she ever was to swat it away.

I’ll tell you a funny one, because it’s painless, and has an ending, with a side order of satisfaction.

Like the punchline to a tasteless joke, we don’t remember the endings to them all.

Anyway, the funny one: I had just finished working in the pub kitchen by day, and I was a waitress at the nice hotel by night. There was melon on the appetizer menu. Cue much hilarity and many boob jokes among the large party table of men whom I was serving, and whose tip was definitely penance for the sins they knew they committed against me over the course of the evening to come.

The next morning, the pub job over, I started a fresh gig at the delicatessen across the street. The manager introduced me to my new co-workers, including a nice young man who had been out celebrating his birthday the night before with a dinner party at the nearby hotel. He had the decency to turn as red as a radish.

I tell you this one, so that we can laugh, and turn our backs for another century or so on the graveyards full of other, rotten bodies.

But late one night, by the full light of the moon, we will command them to rise and account for their stench.

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This world

What can we do when the Communion of Saints itself comes under fire?

This morning’s reflection for the Episcopal Cafe.

Sunday morning, and the church was dressed in white, an island hour between the green of Ordinary Time. We celebrated that extraordinary time, eternity, which spans here, now, and then, world without end. We remembered those who had opened our hearts to the eternity of love, grief, and gratitude that marks human existence. At one point in my sermon, I said, “We are the Communion of Saints” to those who pass by, waiting to be surprised by a glimpse of that which lies beyond the next breath.

Then, the news. Our candles were barely cold before the heat of grief, outrageous death, rekindled our cries, our prayer.

Quickly, the conversation in some church circles turned to our security, and whether it was time to join the American arms race, to defend ourselves, our prayers, our neighbours whom we love against acts of violence that, with their increasing toll, seem less and less random.

A word of scripture whispered in my ear, and would not let me go.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

It is not naiveté that invites me to open our doors, to welcome the stranger, to continue resolutely vulnerable to danger, as well as to epiphany. It is the way of the cross. It is the hospitality of the Communion of Saints. It is, if Christ is to be believed, the way of Life.

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Blessed saints

The readings for All Saints, Year A

I had a dream a few months after my mother died. It was the beginning of winter, as it is now. The holiday shopping season was getting underway. I haven’t started on that yet; but in my dream, I was loaded up with parcels and bags, waiting at a stop light for the pedestrian walk sign. My father was at my side. As we waited, I began to feel more and more burdened by all of the things I was carrying. My back ached; my bones hurt. As we waited, and a cosmopolitan crowd of people gathered around the light pole – “from every tribe, people, and language,” as one might say – I discovered that my aunt and my late uncle had made their way next to us. As the walk sign lit up, they began to lift the parcels and bags out of my arms as we crossed the road, until there was nothing left for me to carry, and I was able to walk easily and upright, to meet my mother, standing on the other side. The living and the dead were all jumbled together in that busy crosswalk, sharing the burdens of grief and love, lightening the load for one another.

There were no white-robed martyrs in my vision; my dreams have always tended to be a little more down-to-earth, and not entirely subtle. But the message was lighter than air.

If the vision of white-robed martyrs continually worshipping God before the throne of heaven is a bit of a disconnect from your daily life, then I would invite us to remember that our worship of God is rooted in love: in the love of God, which necessitates the love of one another.

Those who have gone before us have not turned their backs on us in order to turn towards God; rather, they now see us through the lens of God, seeing us as though through the eyes of God, with all of the compassion, forgiveness, grace that the gaze of God entails. One day, that vision will be ours, too.

But most of religion – any religion – has less to do with what happens to us when we die than what we do while we are alive. I read once, for my sins, the book 90 Minutes in Heaven. Towards the end of the book, when he is sufficiently recovered to get out and about, the author describes sitting in a restaurant with another man, a Baptist minister, who had the audacity to presume that most of the other people in it were on their way to hell.

Piper wrote:[1]

 … he paused to look around.
“Yet here we are sitting in this place, surrounded by people, many of whom are probably lost and going to hell, and we won’t say a word about how they can have eternal life. Something is wrong with us.”

I almost threw the book across the room. How the hell would this man presume to know, looking at a mess of strangers, what God intends for them? He knew nothing about them, except that each of them was an image of God, created by God for this life, on this earth, for the purpose first and foremost of God’s love.

But once I had swallowed my anger and my judgement of his judginess, here’s where I think Piper and his friend might be veering in a right direction. We live in this world as Christians, in the full and at least occasionally certain knowledge of the love of God, which is a help in our heavy times, and a joy in times of delight. We are surrounded by people, many of whom feel lost and heavy, and we often fail to share their burdens, and to offer the relief that we have found in the company of the living God, to share what we have heard and known; what might be called eternal life in the here and now.

This is the life which God has created especially for us, so that we might become fully human, creatures made in the image of our Creator, learning to reflect and resemble the divine. It is in this life that we are commanded to see one another through the lens of God’s compassion, justice, and love, to the very best of our ability.

In this life, we are the Communion of Saints to those around us, and it is our duty and our blessing to help to carry their burdens.

In this life, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” says Jesus, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed are those who know that their riches come not from the world and its baubles, but from the righteousness and love of God. Blessed are those who know how to live already as though “thy kingdom” has come, doing God’s will on earth as they do in heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for even though the pain of grief and separation, the sting of loss is sharp and deep, there is comfort in finding a way through to a life that can still encompass love. There is a sad sweetness in memory, and hope in each new day.
Blessed are the meek, for in their patience, while others fight over scraps, they will inherit the goodness of creation, as those who appreciate its gifts.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will find it and be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for by their own example they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for with the eyes of their hearts enlightened, through the lens of love, compassion, and grace, they can see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who do not seek war for the sake of dominance, nor who preach peace where there is no peace. Blessed are those who do not paper over violent cracks but who open a way of safety for the oppressed, who support the cause of justice for the downtrodden, who show mercy to the penitent, and promote a lasting peace; for they will be called children of God.
When all else fails; when all the goodness of this life is exhausted, then blessed are you even when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on account of your lived-out faith in Jesus. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.

For those of us who are not persecuted nor reviled, then the blessings of this life are sufficient to know that God is good, that God created this life especially for us to live in love for our Creator and for one another, carrying one another’s burdens so that our days may be light, and easy to walk over, and without fear.

The promise of heaven is a reminder that we are not the first to have walked this way, nor do we journey alone, but with the help and comfort of the great Communion of Saints who regard us now through the eyes of God, and whom we shall one day see face to face, joined in wonder, love, and praise around the throne of heaven.

Amen.

[1] Don Piper and Cecil Murphey, 90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life (Revell: Grand Rapids, 2007)

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Reading the road signs

Emerging from the mist of the mountain road, a yellow caution sign:

Warning: tree on the way

One would think that the first clue to this well-rooted obstacle would be the presence and stature of the tree itself, growing out of a grassy, shrubby island, large, looming, and presumably predating the road.

If it were dark, or the monsoon rains were overwhelming one’s windscreen wipers, perhaps the addition of a couple of reflectors to pick up approaching headlights might be helpful. If the tree were not otherwise able to attract the attention of the headlong driver, though, would the appeal of language really help? Was it necessary to spell it out: “There is a tree in the way”?

Of course, there will always be those who drive anyway as though the signs do not apply to them, as though they own the road, as though the trees should shuffle off to one side to let them through. As a cishet affluently educated white woman, I’ll admit to failing to check a few blind spots. Sometimes, I need to be told.

But whether or not I read the sign; even whether or not I have begun to understand the languages in which it is written, the tree is still there, in the way, and unmoved.

 

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Timely: a psalm

Save me, O God,
for I am a woman out of time.

I step out in the sun,
and end up running in the rain.

There is no one to dry my eye;
my calls go all to voicemail;
there is no train that I can catch
to take me home.

But You, O God, created time;
You only are the author of my days.

As a chiropractor adjusts the spine
of one bent out of joint,

bend my time back to the moment
when You are ever present,
and let it be now.

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Rendering repentance

The readings are for Year A Proper 24

Does your phone know your face? I find it really freaky when Facebook looks at photos I’ve taken and tells me who is in them. It’s a little worse when it gets it wrong. Recently, Apple brought out an iPhone that uses facial recognition technology to unlock the home screen, as an alternative to the thumbprint technology we’ve only just got used to. But when the phone was launched, at the public demonstration, it failed to recognize its owner and open up. It turned out that so many people had been playing with it behind the scenes, trying to get it to open up for them, that it went into lockdown and refused to play when its actual owner showed his face.

To whom do we belong? To whose face do we respond, and open up? How easily or otherwise are we misled, or overwhelmed, by distractions that do not belong in the place of that face?

The question that the Pharisees and Herodians ask Jesus is not really about the Roman taxes themselves, and the answer he gives them has very little to do with them. It’s really a question, both sides recognize, about authority, allegiance, and idolatry.

To give some context to this exchange, Jesus is telling parables in the Temple at Jerusalem. Only yesterday, just the day before, he had caused a commotion by turning over tables and spilling the small change of the men turning secular money into currency free from graven images and other signs of corruption; currency more acceptable for the purchase of sacrificial animals, and donations to the upkeep of the Temple.

Coins that celebrated Caesar, with his graven image and the inscription that named him, the emperor god of the Romans, had no place in the house of worship for the one and almighty God. That’s why there were moneychangers.

But when Jesus asked his religious inquirers to pass him a coin of the realm, inside the precincts of the Temple, they had no hesitation. They were carrying.

Jesus’ response to their trick question is to confront them with the reality that they have introduced the image and title of a false god into the house of God. They are asking the wrong question, he implies, asking what it is that is owed to Caesar, and what (remembering where you stand) belongs to God? Here’s a hint: everything. Everything belongs to God; even Caesar himself.

In essence, instead of answering their question he was inviting them to take a good look at themselves, and the compromises they had made in their lives that nibbled away at the “all” with which they meant to love God. It is his old theme, the one with which he began his mission and ministry among them: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

We all make compromises in order to get along in this life. We all have competing demands on our time, our attention, our loyalty and our love. But we have been charged first to love God, with all of our heart, and mind, and strength, and soul; and then to love our neighbours as ourselves. These are the faces that should open us up, unlock our compassion and our humanity. Repentance involves taking stock of the distractions that keep us from true love, and the compromises that diminish our ability to respond to the face of God when it is right in front of us.

Repentance means doing the hard work of recognizing when graven images, which have no place before the throne of God, have been allowed to undermine the work of love.

I can’t help but think of the stories that have come out in the past weeks and months about widespread sexual harassment, abuse, and worse at the hands of powerful men whose faces were recognized everywhere; whose images commanded plenty of currency; who came to believe, one can only imagine, that they were owed whatever they could lay their hands on. Whomever they could lay their hands on. Their crimes are easy enough to recognize, once the story is told; but what about the silence and the whispers that helped to keep their currency flowing? I am not talking about their victims; no one except the one who has endured it knows how hard it is to talk about sexual violence, and no one should undergo the violence of being forced to tell her or his story. But there were others. There were those who were in a position to see the writing on the wall and the hands where they shouldn’t be and who failed to turn the tables, who turned their faces away for the sake of keeping the money moving, or for the sake of their own stock.

[I said a moment ago that no victim of sexual harassment or abuse has to tell her or his story; but I would add that I am available, if you have found the past few weeks triggering. I am not a licensed counsellor, but I am available to listen, and to pray, and to seek alongside you healing grace in the face of God.]

We all make compromises to get by, and we all have competing demands on our loyalty, our time, but we have committed first to love God, with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul; and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Part of our repentance has to be an examination of our complicity in situations, relationships, systems that permit the sacrifice of individuals, even entire groups of people, for the sake of the status quo; for the sake of keeping the money moving; for the sake of our own social currency.

When we see corruption entering the realm that should belong to God – remembering that everything belongs to God – then I pray that we have the courage to turn the tables, to respect and to protect the dignity of every human being, as we have promised in our baptismal covenant; to convert our culture to one that can stand without shame before the throne of God.

If we are not in a position to turn over tables, we can still follow Jesus’ example here, use his questioning technique. It can be as simple as interrupting an off-colour, sexist, racist, homophobic, or demeaning remark with a question: “Excuse me? What did you just say?” Inviting the Pharisees, the Herodians, the hypocrites to own up to the currency they are using; idolatrous coinage that does not belong before the face of God. Of course, first, we had better clean out our own pockets and purses, make sure that the currency we carry is clean.

There is an irony to be admitted in talking about the face of God, when we have just read from Exodus the story in which God refuses to show God’s face to Moses, but only the divine backside. It is a strange enough story to break the tension and restore us to the remembrance that God’s love is not only serious, but that God delights to play with us, in the most divine way; truly to love us. I don’t know how Apple technology would deal with recognizing the back end of God, but it is God’s love that is designed to open us up, to invite us into love, into grace, into mercy. It is the economy of grace that comes to us with Christ’s face, asking nothing in return but that we recognize him, follow him, turn our faces toward him, unfurling our hearts like flowers that open to the sun.

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Render

Render
at a recent Apple launch, the phone was supposed to recognize its owner, but too many people had been playing with it backstage, and by the time of the public demonstration, it no longer knew whom to trust, nor which was its owner’s image

Render
a bruise on the skin of an apple, dented slighted by somebody’s thumb; marked out

Render
a bruise on the skin of an arm, bleeding gently from the needle. He has his father’s eyes, but the DNA goes only gene-deep

Render
to no one evil for evil

Render
to Caesar that which bears his image, but to God everything that God has touched

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