The garden and the wasteland

(Sermon for January 3, 2010 || Christmas 2, RCL || Luke 2:41-52)

They say that every therapist should be in therapy. Likewise, every priest should participate in spiritual direction. Without trained professionals helping us priests notice God’s movement in our lives, one of two things happens. We either forget to rely on God, thus emptying ourselves of all nourishment even though a feast is perpetually spread before us. Or we decide we don’t need to rely on God, because we are doing just fine on our own (thank you very much!) and the same starvation results. We priests are a rather thick bunch, usually quite stubborn when faced with the Almighty, because the Creator-of-All-That-Is rarely seems to fit the predictions of our seminary studies.

When I was in seminary, my spiritual director diagnosed my particular case as a combination of failing to notice God’s presence and deciding I didn’t need God anyway. I’m glad I could offer her such a potent mixture of blindness and stupidity. Needless to say, our sessions were never boring. Over our two years together, she taught me many things, but one stands above the rest. You can basically separate the events of your life into two categories, she said. There are moments of consolation, and there are moments of desolation. Both will happen and ignoring one will make the other that much harder to define. In this morning’s Gospel, Mary runs the gamut from desolation when she loses Jesus to consolation when she finds him again. Then she treasures “all these things in her heart” because she knows that the emptiness of desolation and the joy of consolation combine to form the trajectory of her life.

(c) Wizards of the Coast

Usually, people want the bad news first, so we’ll begin with the emptiness of desolation. Desolation is the nuclear winter of the soul. Desolation makes the soul a wasteland – arid, parched, rendered uninhabitable by events in the life of the very person who must inhabit the internal desert.

Sometimes, we bring desolation on ourselves: a man cheats on his wife, and she doesn’t even catch him. He expects to feel the thrill of adventure, of subterfuge. Instead, he feels the pain of a broken promise. He doesn’t realize he is a moral person until he fails to live up to his own unexamined values. And his failure eats away at his soul. Sometimes, external events bring desolation upon us: the pregnancy has been difficult, but the doctors have managed to stay positive. If she can hold on just a few more weeks…but the contractions start, and she delivers a tiny life. The infant’s underdeveloped lungs struggle for breath. He lives for four days, and her soul dies with him. Sometimes, desolation happens not in these large events but in the accumulation of small frustrations and disappointments. They hired the other guy. The repair cost more than the estimate. Another D-minus. Chicken for dinner – again. Each frustration erodes the soil of the soul, nutrients leach out, and eventually only the wasteland remains.

In these times of desolation, we do not look for the presence of God because we think God can’t possibly be there. We abandon ourselves to despair, so we expect that God has abandoned us too. We may even stop believing in God, while paradoxically blaming God for our situations. When we are desolate, we don’t live: we merely subsist. And we fail to realize that our very ability to survive through the torment of despair is a manifestation of God’s awesome power and love.

While our desolation happens when we think God is gone, Mary’s desolate moment happens when she literally loses Jesus. The family has been attending the festival of the Passover in Jerusalem. They start their journey back to Nazareth, and Jesus is not with them. But they’re not worried because the caravan is peopled with family and friends; surely, he’s wandered off to chat with some favorite uncle. A day out, Mary and Joseph realize Jesus is missing. They rush back to Jerusalem, frightened, anxious. They search for three frantic days. As someone who has only experienced the combination of harsh words and fervent embraces that accompany a parent finding a lost child, I can only imagine the desolation that those three days brought to Mary’s soul.

On the third day, Mary’s search brings her to the temple. And there she finds Jesus, safe and sound and unaware of the years his absence has shaved off his mother’s life. Desolation gives way to the warmth, the electricity of consolation. What was lost, Mary now has found. They travel to Nazareth without incident, and Luke assures us that Jesus is obedient to his parents.

(c) Wizards of the Coast

Whereas desolation makes the soul a wasteland, consolation makes the soul a garden in full bloom. In consolation, the roots of our souls grow deep in the rich soil of God’s presence. We are aware of the persistent activity of creation, and we revel in the joys that life has to offer.

Sometimes, our determination brings consolation to us: a young girl is told she’ll never become a concert pianist. Her hands are too small, her technique mediocre, pedestrian. But she practices and practices and practices. Her joy is in the vibration of hammer on string buzzing up through her fingertips, in the notes transferred from black dots and squiggles to tones of weight and beauty. She may never play at Carnegie Hall, but the music is inside her soul. Sometimes, as with desolation, external events bring consolation to us: the city-dweller finds himself in rural woodland at night. The sky is clear, the moon a sliver. He lies on his back and gazes up at the stars. He didn’t know there were so many. The subtle band of the Milky Way brings shape to the clutter. The innumerable points of light in the darkness bring light to his soul. More often than not, consolation happens when we gather together all of the small blessings in our lives. A good night’s sleep leads to energy and cheerfulness. An unexpected phone call comes from an old friend. The house is warm. Chicken for dinner again! Each blessing enriches the soil, in which our souls thrive, and our gardens bloom with unrestrained life.

In these times of consolation, we notice God filling us to overflowing. We cannot possibly hold any more grace, so it spills from us, hopefully landing on those around us. Our joy prompts us to invite others to gather up their blessings and notice God’s presence in their lives. We form communities to share our joy, and these communities help sustain those who inevitably fall into periods of desolation.

You see, desolation and consolation are the extremes of life – the subsistence and the abundance. Most of the time, we exist somewhere along the spectrum between the two. Luke tells us that Mary treasures “all these things in her heart” – both the empty time of desolation when Jesus was lost and the joyful time of consolation when she found him again. Mary takes both categories into her heart and ponders them. Her life, like all our lives, brings together experiences both of desolation and consolation. As faithful people of God, we try with God’s help to lead lives that trend toward consolation on the spectrum.

As we begin a new year and a new decade, I invite you to take stock of where you fall on the spectrum between desolation and consolation. If your trajectory is moving toward consolation, rejoice, and continue to gather your small blessings and keep a weather eye out for God’s presence in your life. If your trajectory is moving toward desolation, I pray that God grants you the courage to turn around. You may still be stuck in the wasteland, but you will be facing the right direction – out of the desert and toward the garden.

Finally, may God grant you the grace to survive when you are desolate, to thrive when you are overflowing, and to treasure all these things in your hearts.

The decade (or) when God found me

God has known me since I was in my mother’s womb, so at least since 1982 (though there is that whole eternity thing to take into account). I have known God for somewhat less of an interval — only ten short years. My knowledge of my own walk with God began in the year 2000. And because Y2K forgot to blast us back to the Stone Age, I have this handy Internet thing to tell you all about the last decade. What follows is (and I’m well aware of the cliche) a top ten list of my journey with God. I offer these moments in hopes that they serve you as a guide for reflecting on the last decade of your life. What are the moments of consolation; that is, when did God find you? On the flip side, what are the moments of desolation, or when did you lose God? You will notice both appear in this list because both are important in shaping you and me, the people God is creating.

#10: The first baptism (2006) My summer as a chaplain at a children’s hospital is drawing to a close. In fact, I am working my final overnight on-call shift. This night, I have already been present with two families as their children died. It is 2am. I am trying to catch a few minutes sleep. The pager assaults my eardrums. A nurse on the sixth floor needs a chaplain. I grumble during the elevator ride because no one really needs a chaplain at 2am on a non-ICU floor such as the 6th. The nurse brings me to the room of a three-month-old baby. In a mix of Spanish and English, his parents ask me to baptize him in preparation for surgery, which the infant will have in the morning. After some halting discussion, I agree. The godparents have brought a small bottle of water, filled at their church’s baptismal font. The mother holds the infant. I sprinkle water on his head and say: “Yo te bautizo en el Nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo. Amén.” And God finds me.

#9: The funeral (2009) Some situations are just so big or so brutal or hit so close to home that reliance on God is a requirement and not the fallback position (which too often is my default setting). This is one of those situations. I get a call that a parishioner’s daughter has died suddenly in the night. I rush to the house and stand outside the door trying to find the courage to knock. God finds me cowering on the front stoop. I take a deep breath and enter the house. Every day for a week and a half, I spend time with the grieving parents, and I know without a shadow of a doubt that my normal strength is unequal to the task. I officiate at her funeral, my first for someone my own age. And God is there.

#8: The first two months of seminary (2005) I go to chapel every day for two months. I read the prayers in the book. I recite the psalms and the creed. But I’m not praying. Something is missing: faith? passion? conviction? Ironically, I lose God when I first arrive at the place to study God. Then one evening at the end of September, I am leading a prayer at an evening worship service. I say, “Assist us mercifully, O Lord…” I read these five words and everything changes. I realize to whom I am addressing my speech — the Creator of all that is. How could I ever forget? But I did.

#7: I love you (2004) I am sitting with my girlfriend watching a movie. My arm is around her, and she is resting her head on my chest. It’s an ordinary, everyday kind of moment. And without warning or forethought or the classic over-thinking which I could patent, I whisper, “I love you.” She looks up at me, smiles, and says, “I love you.” We hold each other just a bit tighter. And the burning glow in my chest tells me that this is right.

#6: Breakdown in the office (2008) I have been at my first church for three months. A few days before, I had visited my seminary and saw many of my friends, who dispersed to the four winds after graduation. It is Sunday morning, and I have just finished celebrating the early service. I walk back to my office, remove my vestments, close the door, shut off the lights, fall to the floor, and crumble. I sit with my back to the door so no one can come in. And I cry and cry and cry. I can’t stop, and I can’t figure out why I started. I quietly hyperventilate, hoping that the coffee-drinkers in the next room can’t hear me. I can’t stand the thought of smiling and chatting and handshaking. I want to be anywhere but where I am.

#5: Confession (2007) I ask my spiritual director to hear my confession in preparation for my diaconal ordination one week later. I clean out my closet and bring a heaping box of clothes to the church’s opportunity shop. We enter the sanctuary. I kneel at the altar rail. I have written some notes on yellow legal sheets, and they are crinkled from being in my pocket. I begin my confession, and quickly the tears begin to flow. I confess the big things like my presumptuous reliance on myself above everything else. And I confess the little things like cheating on that math quiz in fifth grade (sorry Mrs. Goldberg!) I am utterly exhausted when I finish. I feel empty, but in a good way, like there is more space in me for God to fill.

#4: Laying on of hands (2004) I am a camp counselor. It is the second to last day of camp, and I am helping one of the priests during a healing service. The teenagers coming for healing have wounds beyond their years: broken families, eating disorders, depression, suicidal thoughts, anger, pain, disease. I ask God to use me as a channel. Fill me to overflowing, I pray, so you spill through me into these children. And God does. I am so full that for twenty minutes after the service, I weep the excess Spirit from me. (If this sounds familiar, you may have read about it here.)

#3: Ordination to the priesthood (2008) My family arrives at the church early and discovers it has no air conditioning. It is June and blistering outside. I am glad to be wearing seersucker. A few hours later, I am kneeling before my bishop and his hands are gripping my head firmly. The rest of the priests are touching me lightly. I can feel my father’s hand on my shoulder. I am overwhelmed. At the end of the service, people come to me for the customary blessing from the new priest. I don’t know what to say, but the words come anyway.

#2: The year (2006) For several months, I ignore God’s prompting to examine the state of my relationship with my girlfriend. I refuse to notice that love has already eroded into convenience and is well on its way to indifference. In mid-May, we attend a Red Sox game. They lose. That night, she proposes the end of our relationship, though it takes another month to dissolve. I push away the abyss threatening to engulf me because I need to focus on my chaplaincy at the children’s hospital and there’s enough pain there for several lifetimes. When the chaplaincy ends, I let myself feel the effects of the breakup. At the beginning of my second year of seminary, I fall into despair. I isolate myself, presumptuously assuming that none of my friends has ever felt this way. I escape into the fantasy world of an online video game. I don’t surface again for many months.

#1: The moment with God (2000) I visit my college for the first time in October of my senior year of high school. I step onto the quad and know in the deep place within that I am walking ground being prepared for me. The following Sunday, I am in church. My father is preaching. I realize that I can’t hear him. Then I realize I can’t see him. But I know what he’s saying. The same deep place within is speaking his words directly into my soul. I am with God for an indefinite moment. My senses are overloaded. I am made anew. A few days later, I sit with my mother on the couch. I say, “I have something to tell you.” She waits patiently while I try to form words. Suddenly, I burst into tears and cry for an hour. She holds me. When I finally stop, she looks at me and says, “I know, love, I know.”