Where God Is, A Brief History

This article first appeared in the Pentecost 2018 issue of The Lion’s Tale, the seasonal magazine of my church, St. Mark’s in Mystic, CT.

This article starts way back. I mean waaaay back – over three thousand years ago, when two people left their home city and journeyed off into the wilderness. Their names were Abram and Sarai (soon to be Abraham and Sarah), and we read their story in the book of Genesis. The reason I need to start so far back is that Abram and Sarai discovered something that no one else in their land had discovered. They realized (a) there was only one true God and (b) God was already present wherever they went.

These were revolutionary ideas in their day. Most people in their neck of the woods assumed that each mountain and each river and each city had their own gods. Those gods stayed put: they were tied to particular places. Then Abram and Sarai ventured into the wilderness to find a new home, and they found God out in the wilderness. They set up altars to worship God wherever they found God, and soon the desert was littered with their shrines. God was everywhere! How amazing! Continue reading “Where God Is, A Brief History”

On the Holy Spirit (With Help From Obi-Wan Kenobi)

Sermon for Sunday, May 15, 2016 || Pentecost C || Acts 2:1-21

OntheHolySpiritI can’t tell you the number of times I’ve started describing God’s presence while writing a sermon and then realized that I accidentally quoted Obi-Wan Kenobi from the original Star Wars movie. It has happened at least a dozen times. So today, instead of accidentally quoting him, I’m just going to quote the dialogue delivered by the legendary Alec Guinness in 1977. He says this about the mysterious energy field that gives the Jedi their power: “The Force…surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” Continue reading “On the Holy Spirit (With Help From Obi-Wan Kenobi)”

Promise. Invitation. Mission.

Sermon for Sunday, August 9, 2015 || Proper 14B || John 6:35, 41-51

promiseinvitationmissionIt’s great to be back with you after three weeks away. I spent much of my vacation traveling to Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Tennessee. I visited a friend going through an agonizing medical issue and reconnected with an old friend from college. I got to shoot a bow and arrow, which I haven’t done since I earned the archery merit badge about twenty years ago. And I got to hang out with the now one-year-old twins and their mother a lot. It was a good vacation. But I’m glad to be back with you ready to preach a sermon about six of my favorite words in the Gospel. Those six words are: “I am the bread of life.” Embedded in these words are three things that so often dance beneath the surface of what Jesus says: a promise, an invitation, and a mission.

But before we get to these three things, we need to mention one of the idiosyncrasies of the Gospel according to John. In John, Jesus desires to tell everyone exactly who he is. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he is more circumspect about his identity: he keeps it secret for the most part, preferring instead to let others draw their own conclusions when they witness his actions and hear his words. But John’s Jesus keeps no secrets; instead, he presents truth wrapped in deep mystery and captivating imagery. The enigmatic quality of some of Jesus’ statements can make it seem like he’s keeping secrets, but the difference between secret and mystery is that secrets want to stay hidden and mysteries want to be revealed.

John lets us know of this desire for revelation right from the start with these poetic lines: “The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth… No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known” (1:14, 18 CEB). With these two beautiful verses of poetry, John presents Jesus’ task. Jesus Christ – God the only Son, the Word made flesh – came to make God known to us by making his home among us. By revealing his own identity, Jesus reveals God’s identity, and when we encounter this revelation, we discover who we are, too.

Jesus signals when he is disclosing this divine revelation with a pair of code words: “I Am.” He says these words a couple dozen times in the Gospel according to John, and each time they hearken back to God’s encounter with Moses at the burning bush. When Moses asks God for God’s name, God responds, “I Am Who I Am.” Jesus borrows these words in his conversation with the crowd the day after the feeding of the five thousand. Their minds are still on yesterday’s bread, so he runs with that image. “I am the bread of life,” he says. These words are so much greater than mere metaphor; they reveal a piece of Jesus’ divine identity. And remember: when we encounter this revelation, we discover who we are, too.

To make this discovery, let’s return to the three things dancing beneath the surface of Jesus words: “I am the bread of life.” There’s a promise, an invitation, and a mission all squeezed in those six words. First, the promise.

Jesus links his identity as the bread of life to his people’s communal memory of the flight from Egypt many hundreds of years prior. Reading Exodus Chapter 16, you might notice how the people begin complaining to Moses about their hunger as soon as the threat of the Egyptians has vanished. If the situation weren’t so dire, it would be comical: the moment the threat is gone, they realize their stomachs are rumbling. And then the histrionics start: “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt…You’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death” (16:3 CEB). Of course, God has other plans and begins providing for them immediately with manna that appears like dew six mornings a week. Each day they collect enough to sustain them for that day, and they receive a warning not to store up the manna for tomorrow because it will spoil. They had to trust the manna would appear the next day, too. And you know what? It did.* That’s the promise Jesus makes when he names himself the “bread of life.” He promises to be the daily source of nourishment for his people, as the manna was during the wandering in the desert.

We receive this daily nourishment when we respond to Jesus’ invitation. As he talks to the crowd, Jesus tries to move them away from focusing on their physical craving for the barley loaves they received the day before and toward a deeper craving – the desire for relationship. When we take in the “bread of life,” Jesus becomes a part of us, as close to us as we are to ourselves. He invites us into the intimacy of this relationship, a relationship built on daily trust that we stand in his sustaining presence whether or not we have the eyes and heart to notice it. Think of the manna clinging to the grass like dew. How easy would it have been to trample right over it, too caught up in our hunger to notice our nourishment all around us? When he says, “I am the bread of life,” Jesus invites us to stop, to notice, and to take him in.

Because we’re not too good at that stopping and noticing, the church ritualized this taking him in. We call it Holy Communion, and when we come to the altar rail in a few minutes, we’ll find that Jesus’ promise and invitation have blossomed into our mission. We kneel together as the Body of Christ to receive the Body of Christ. We are knit one to another and all to God through Christ who dwells in us as we dwell in him. We rediscover that we are stronger together than we are alone. The “bread of life” provides us nourishment in order that together we may become nourishment to a hungry world. In the book of Genesis, God blesses Abraham to be a blessing – not so that he can be rich and famous and secure – but so that he will be a blessing. In the same way, our relationship with Christ, our reliance on his sustaining presence, is not for ourselves alone. We are blessed to be blessings, as well. We are nourished to be nourishment.

When we encounter Jesus’ revelation of his identity, we discover who we are, too. Our identity is wrapped up in the promise, invitation, and mission Jesus reveals when he says, “I am the bread of life.” By naming himself the “bread of life,” Jesus promises to sustain us like the manna in the desert. By eating of his bread, we accept the invitation to be in relationship with him. By sharing it together, we participate in the deeper reality of being members of the Body of Christ. We remember we’re not in this alone. We remember that God calls us to serve and to be served. We remember that the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are participating in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in this world. That is where our true identity finds its home. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus promises. “Come to me. Be fed so you might feed others. Be blessed to be a blessing.”

* Well, there was one day a week (the day before the Sabbath) in which they collected two days worth so they didn’t have to work on the Sabbath. But explaining that in the sermon would have wrecked my flow.

God’s Presence: A Letter to My Children

Sermon for Sunday, July 20, 2014 || Proper 11A || Genesis 28:10-19a

godspresenceDear Baby Boy and Baby Girl,

Right now you are still in Mommy’s tummy, but only for a few more days. The doctors tell us everything is going well, and they are really excited that you’ve managed to stay inside as long as you have. As for Mommy and me, we can’t wait to meet you, now that you’re big enough to live out here in this messy, yet beautiful world. But before you arrive, there are a few things I need to tell you. You probably already know everything I’m about to say (you being so close to God and all), but at times, like the rest of us, you will forget. That’s why I’m writing this letter to you. It’s not just for you, but for me, and for everyone who hears it, as well.

This morning at church we read the story of a fellow named Jacob who camps out one night under the stars. Maybe we’ll do this someday, too, but Daddy doesn’t really like camping so you’ll have to persuade me. Anyway, Jacob dreams that angels are connecting earth to heaven, and he hears God speak promises to him. “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go,” says God. God had said something similar to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham, but before then people didn’t understand that “all of God was in every place.”* Instead, people thought there were all sorts of little gods who lived inside of things like rivers and mountains. They couldn’t take those little gods with them when they traveled. But Abraham left home and discovered that God was already present wherever Abraham went. It was a wonderful and staggering notion.

In fact, my children, even though thousands of years have passed since then, this notion is still so wonderful and staggering that even today we have to remember over and over again that all of God is present everywhere we go. When Jacob wakes up the next morning after his vision of God, he says, “Surely the LORD is in this place – and I did not know it!” I’ve said the same thing many times when I didn’t expect to find God only to be surprised when God showed up.

You two are smart, so you might be wondering why we have so much trouble noticing God’s presence even when that presence is everywhere all the time. Well, that’s the rub. The very constancy of God’s presence keeps us from noticing it. Let me tell you a quick story to illustrate this point. Mommy’s been having me read you guys a story every night recently, so I hope you like it when I tell you stories. Here goes: A long time ago our ancestors didn’t live in towns with grocery stores. They didn’t even have farms to grow vegetables and raise cows. (What sound does the cow make? Moo! You got it!) Instead, they had to go out into the dangerous wilderness to search for food. There were certain animals in the wilderness searching for food, too, and our ancestors were on their menus – animals like lions and tigers and…well, you get the idea. Our ancestors started noticing rustling in the underbrush and new odors coming to them on the wind. These changing signals warned them when they were in danger. The people who were best at noticing the changes in their environment flourished and passed their instincts on to their children.

We still have those instincts in us. Mommy and I passed them on to you. While we don’t usually have to worry about animals that have us on their menus, we do live in a world where things are changing all the time. Keeping up with everything that’s changing takes nearly all our attention. And so we forget to focus on the one thing that remains constant through it all, and that is the presence of God.

This is what I wanted to tell you in this letter, children: Sometimes you have to fight against your instincts. Sometimes you have to shut out all your distractions – all the change swirling around you – and just be. Just sit in a comfortable chair like your Daddy. Just lay on the ground at night under the stars like Jacob in the story. As you lay under the stars remind yourselves that you are in God’s presence. Acknowledge that it can be hard to notice because God’s presence is so constant, and we aren’t wired to notice constancy. But God knows this. God knows our instincts tell us to perceive change instead of constancy. That’s why God gave us the gift of memory.

As you lay under the stars reminding yourselves that you are in God’s presence, remember also that you were in God’s presence even when you didn’t notice it. Look back over your day or week or month or lifetime and start to uncover the footprints of God’s presence when you least expected to find it but needed it most.** You’ll be surprised to discover all the subtle and startling ways God was moving in your lives in the past. Doing this work of reflection will then help you see those same patterns of God’s movement in the future. And the more you do this work, the more readily you will notice God’s movement in the present.

I know it will be a long time before you, Baby Boy and Baby Girl, will have the ability or need to do this reflective work. But this is where the other facet of God’s presence arrives. Right now you two are reminders of God’s presence for your Mommy and me. As each day rolls into the next and your birth approaches, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is present in our lives because God has given us the gift of the two of you. The fact that God has also given us a beautiful community in which to raise you makes God’s gift even more wonderful and staggering.

Being a reminder of God’s presence in the life of someone else will not only make that person’s life better, it will also help you discover God’s presence in your own. When you serve as such a reminder you trick your instincts into thinking God’s presence is one of the things that is changing, which helps you notice it. But what’s really changing is you. As you grow up, you will have the opportunity to be signs of God’s presence in so many ways. Grab hold of those opportunities with both hands and with your heart. Never let a chance to serve God by helping someone pass you by. Never assume you are too small to make a difference because assuming that makes you much smaller than you are. Know that you began your lives as reminders of God’s presence, and you will continue to be your whole lives long.

Your Mommy and I love you very much, and we can’t wait to meet you. In a few days, we’ll be in the hospital. We’ll be waiting for you. And then, suddenly, you’ll be there. And when I hold you and smell the tops of your heads and touch you to my skin, I will know that I am in the presence of God through God’s gift of you, Baby Boy and Baby Girl. We are in God’s presence all the time, yet we rarely notice it. But on that day, I will say, “Surely the LORD is in this place – and I do know it.” May you have many days when you can say the same thing.

With all the love in my heart,

Daddy

* Quoted from “The Great Family” Godly Play story by Jerome Berryman (my favorite story to tell)

** Borrowed from my father. It’s his favorite thing to say.

Being Found

Sermon for Sunday, September 15, 2013 || Proper 19C || Luke 15:1-10 )

Have you ever been found before? I know this is an unusual question. A more normal one might be: “Have you ever been lost before?” but I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that one. I want to know if you’ve ever been found. I have. Let me share with you a quick story from the “Stupid Things Adam Did as a Child” file.

dad and adam at campMoundville, Alabama is so named for the Native American burial mounds that dot the landscape. The mounds are both eerie and fascinating, which makes Moundville a great place for Boy Scouts to go camping. Well, the camping trip ended, and I was waiting for my father to pick me up. I was twelve or thirteen at the time. We had agreed he would meet me at the parking lot closest to our campsite, so that’s where I waited. And then I waited some more. He was running late, so I decided we could save a few minutes if I met him at the entrance to the park instead. (This was in the days before cell phones by the way. Ancient history, I know.)

I walked for a few minutes to the front of the park and perched myself on a stone sign with a good view of the road so I could flag down my dad’s car. But unbeknownst to me, he had already entered the park from a different direction. An hour later, I still had my eyes on the road when my father’s car came screeching to a halt behind me. He jumped from the car and ran to me, yelling my name all the while. Suffice it to say, he was not happy.

Where were you…Didn’t we agree to meet…You scared me half to…I’ve been looking everywhere…

All of this spilled from him as he approached me. His eyes blazed with anger – I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so upset, before or since. But then his hand touched my arm, and everything changed.

Now, parents out there, you might be able to identify with what happened next. When he touched me, it was as if he confirmed that I was really, truly there, that I wasn’t merely a figment he had been chasing through the mounds for the last heart-pounding hour. All the scenarios of kidnapping or being mauled by a wild animal or getting lost in the forest – all these scenarios that had been shuddering though his mind vanished when he touched me. And with the touch came relief. And with relief came joy. And with joy came an embrace brimming with all the spoken and unspoken love of father for son.

I was still in trouble. I was chastened for my foolhardiness. But above and beyond that, I was found. Have you ever been found before?

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus responds to his opponents’ critique of his unsavory dinner companions. “He told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.’ ”

Now, for Jesus’ opponents it was quite easy to separate the sinner from the righteous. The system of sacrifice and purification allowed people to proclaim themselves blameless before God – indeed, even Paul does this in his letter to the Philippians. This system created an in-group and everyone else. But by eating with “tax collectors and sinners,” Jesus proclaims that God doesn’t just move in the lives of the so-called “in-group.” In fact, God is present in the lives of all people. God seeks out and finds all people. Let me assure you, this was a radical claim in Jesus’ day.

And I think it remains a radical claim. How many of us have heard one religious group or another claim that God is on their side and no other? How many of us have been jealous of other people, who we assume God has favored because, darn it, everything seems to go their way? In our fallen state, we have a kneejerk reaction to exclude, to isolate, to create cliques and in-groups just to make ourselves feel better. But when Jesus sits down with all the wrong people, he punctures the false assumptions that God belongs to any one group and that God seeks to find only one type of person, the kind with white teeth and perfect cheekbones.

In truth, each and every person on this earth is the sheep who has gone astray. We have all wandered off alone and gotten lost. The path is there – perhaps a bit overgrown, but there. And yet, something shiny catches our eye and we strike out for it. But it’s just a trick of the light, and now it’s growing dark and the path is away to the left somewhere but good luck finding it. We stagger around in the gathering gloom, hoping against hope we are going in the right direction.

Into this gathering gloom, the light of Christ shines. Into the underbrush, Jesus tramps. Onto his shoulders, he lifts us up and carries us back to the path. And guess what? Tomorrow he’ll do the same thing again. Last week, Margot invited us each to go deeper in our commitment to God’s work in our lives. This week, Jesus invites us to celebrate God’s commitment to do whatever it takes to remain in relationship with us, no matter how often God has to find us and return our meandering feet to the path.

This commitment is no idle tale. God’s presence in the lives of all of us lost sheep gives us the hope that we are being found each day. And in being found, being nourished. And in being nourished, being molded into the people God calls us to be.

Now being found takes on all shapes and sizes, so I invite you to be aware of the unique ways God is actively finding you. Perhaps you are sitting in your pew and the choir’s anthem pierces your heart with the truth of God’s majesty. And God finds you in a moment of pure delight.

Perhaps you are holding your mother’s hand as she lies dying. She holds your hand back…until she doesn’t. You don’t think you have any more tears, but you are wrong. Your deep grief reveals not how deeply you loved her, but how deeply you love her, and you realize your love will never become a past tense thing. And God finds you in the continued connection between the living and the dead.

Perhaps you are waiting for your father to pick you up and you wander off and when he finally reaches you, you feel his desperation and anger melt into relief and joy. And God finds you in the fervent embrace of father and son.

God finds us every single day of our lives, no matter how far we have strayed from the path. We participate in this reality when we notice God finding us, when we realize just how God is weaving the strands of our lives together, and when we act as the vehicles of God’s finding in the lives of others.

After the service, I invite you to go to the Bartow Room and look at Ann Musto’s beautiful painting hanging over the fireplace. In the foreground, sheep gambol on a sun-drenched field bisected by a dusty path. In the background, there is a small, red figure walking up the path, walking towards the viewer. He’s small enough to miss unless you’re really looking at the painting, unless you’re paying attention, unless you really take the time to notice. Jesus is walking towards us from the back of the painting. He’s walking toward us, his lost sheep. He will seek until he finds us. He will find us wherever we are. And wherever we are, he is there already, inviting us to open our eyes and find him, even as we are being found.

First Time, part 2 (Davies Tales #9b)

(For part 1, please click here.)

Aidan Davies and his father walked out of the sacristy. “Wait a moment,” said Alastor. “Let me look at you.”

Aidan stopped and turned in a circle. He had on more layers of clothing than any sane person would wear in the month of June. But he always joked that the psychological testing that candidates went through before becoming priests was done to make sure you were crazy. On top of his suit trousers and black shirt, Aidan wore a white alb, a garment which he used to pretend was a toga when his childhood fantasies built ancient Rome in the churchyard. On top of the alb, he wore a green stole, which more than a handful of people had called a “scarf” when they paid him compliments for its subtle patchwork design. And on top of the stole, he wore a green and gold chasuble, which weighed on his shoulders like a down comforter. Aidan flapped his arms to move the chasuble off of his hands. Of course I’m going to spill wine on it today, he thought. It’s a good thing, then, that it cost more than my first car. Aidan smiled ruefully and gave the chasuble a quick once over, looking for previous stains. There weren’t any.

Alastor stepped to his son and straightened the neckline of the ornate garment. Then his hands suddenly went to Aidan’s shoulders and his father gathered him into a strong embrace. “I remember when you wore a chasuble on Halloween. Your mother had to pin it to keep it from dragging.” He pushed Aidan back to arms length. “Now look at you.”

Alastor choked off the last words, seemingly as surprised as Aidan at his sudden show of emotion. Alastor kept his hand on Aidan’s shoulder as they walked to the back of the church where the early service crowd was trickling in. Churches fill up like movie theaters, Aidan thought.

His father stuck his head outside and clucked good-naturedly at a few stragglers. As they settled in to their pew, Aidan made a quick head count. Two dozen or so. Pretty standard for an early service in the summer. Well, if I do trip and hit my head on the altar only a few people will see it. He glanced at his watch and gave a thumbs up to his father. Alastor led the way as they entered the nave and processed down the center aisle. Aidan had never walked behind his father in procession. This is something new, indeed.

The first half of the service came and went. Aidan kept stealing glances at the altar, wondering how something he used to play under could seem so imposing now. At the Peace, he shook hands with the two-dozen parishioners and embraced his father once again. Then he turned to face the altar and his parents’ advice from earlier that morning came to him. Go to the bathroom before you put your chasuble on. Check. Remember that God’s there too. Aidan looked at the cross and out the window to the misty morning sky. He looked back at the altar and at the people assembled. His mother’s advice had seemed so obvious when he sat perched on the edge of her bed. She might have said, “Remember that gravity will keep you from floating away.” But here in the church, with that special table in front of him, Aidan could not remember, could not see how he could go and stand behind that table and invoke God’s presence.

Aidan pulled his father to one side. “I don’t think I can do this,” he said. He tugged at the collar of his alb. “I don’t think I can consecrate communion.”

Alastor steadied his son with a look. It was the look the veteran paratrooper might give the new recruit before pushing him bodily from the plane. “And what makes you think that you’re the one doing anything,” he said simply.

Aidan stared blankly at his father. “You’re just the hands and the mouth,” said Alastor. “No delusions of grandeur. God’s doing the heavy lifting.” Aidan nodded and turned back to the altar. Alastor stepped up behind him and whispered, “And God does the heavy lifting whether or not you realize God is here.”

Once again Aidan let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. God is here. God is here and that truth has nothing to do with me. No delusions of grandeur. “Okay. I’m really ready this time,” he said.

He mounted the steps to the altar and unwrapped the chalice. He folded the veil and laid it aside. He put the burse on top of the veil. He dumped a few dozen wafers onto the paten. He took the two silver cruets from the credence table and set them next to the chalice. Then he froze and his eyes went wide. He looked at the two containers: they were identical and they were solid metal. One held wine and one held water, but there was no earthly way to tell them apart. He pulled the stopper from one and glanced inside. Too dark. The liquid could have been either. He checked the other. Looks the same. He picked them up to feel the weight, hoping the cruet containing the wine would be fuller. No such luck. He put them down and gave his father a sidelong glance, along with a half grimace that he hoped communicated, “Help me!”

Perhaps, his father didn’t understand his attempt at telepathy. Perhaps, his father was trying to loosen him up some more before the Eucharistic prayer began. Perhaps, his father was getting him back for all those times that Aidan held up his watch to signal that a sermon had gone on too long. Whatever the reason, Alastor Davies gave his son a shrug, and not just any shrug, a comically expansive shrug, like one you might use while playing charades.

Aidan did his best to hide a scowl. Then he did the last thing he could think of. He tipped just a bit out of one cruet. Water. Of course. He switched cruets and poured. A more experienced priest wouldn’t have panicked. A more experienced priest would have known that less than ten percent of the congregation would have any clue that something was amiss at the altar. But Aidan had been a priest for less than twenty-four hours.

And yet, as his panic subsided, Aidan noticed something else filling its place. What is it? Aidan searched within himself before beginning the prayer. Ah, there it is. Peace. And what’s that next to it? Yes. Joy. Aidan lifted his head and smiled at the two-dozen people scattered around the church. “The Lord be with you,” he said.

In the end, he didn’t spill wine on the chasuble. He didn’t trip and bang his head on the altar. He didn’t have a panic attack. All he had to do was jump and pull the ripcord. And the wind caught his chute and brought him safely to ground.

Back at the kitchen table later that day, Aidan paused in the middle of eating his grilled cheese sandwich. Aquinas was curled up on his lap, sleeping soundly. Lucy and Alastor sat across from their son. They hadn’t stopped beaming at him since they arrived home. “So, Dad, I have a question,” he said.

“The Sox have a day game. Starts in about half an hour,” Alastor said.

“No, that’s not it.” He took a bite. The cheese stretched as he pulled the sandwich from his mouth. “How do you tell which cruet holds wine and which holds water?”

Alastor smiled at his wife, who reflected it back at him. He put on his best professorial tone and said to his valedictorian, Bachelor of Arts summa cum laude, Master of Divinity, seminary-trained new priest of a son, “You smell them, of course.”

First Time, part 1 (Davies Tales #9a)

On the third Sunday in June, Aidan Davies woke up in the bed in the guest room of his parents’ house. This was not his room, though it featured several artifacts from his childhood like a haphazardly designed display at the natural history museum. This is where young Aidan struggled to open the broken drawer of his bureau for his entire childhood, he mused, looking at the dingy piece of furniture. If you’ll direct your eyes above the dresser, this is where he simply had to own a poster from each Star Wars film, even The Phantom Menace. And now, if you’ll look to your right…

Davies’s thought trailed off as he examined another cheap piece of furniture that had been in his room for as long as he could remember. Since his contact lenses were bathing in solution in the bathroom, he couldn’t really see the squat shelving unit. But he could tell you exactly how much the middle shelf bowed under the weight of old books and how many CD cases would fit up top. However familiar the furniture was to him, though, the room itself was not his. His parents had moved when he was a junior in college, and he had needed directions to find his own house when he came home for Christmas that year. The move had happened five summers ago, and during that interval, most of Aidan had stopped grieving the loss of his bedroom. But the part of him, the part that would rather root around in the closet under the stairs for his old LEGO sets rather than go through with the events today held in store for him, still cherished the memory of the sky blue walls and beanbag chair reading nook of his old house.

Today. Sunday. He glanced at the clock on the bedside table. He didn’t have to get up for another hour, but he was restless. Today was an important day. He rose, brushed his teeth, and showered. He pulled the dark suit off the hanging bag and laid it on the bed. He donned his black shirt and snapped the white collar in place around his neck. He looked in the mirror. Yesterday morning, he was a deacon; today, he was a priest. A dozen other priests and Davies’s bishop had laid hands on him and prayed to God to make Aidan a priest, too. I suppose it took, he thought as he reached around and touched his left shoulder blade. His father had laid a firm, yet trembling, hand there yesterday, and Aidan could still feel a faint echo of the blessing held in Alastor Davies’s touch. He traced the lines of a cross, imagining he could feel the relief carving of his tattoo through his clothing. Then, picking up his jacket, he padded out of the room.

“Aidan?” The door to his parents’ room was cracked to let the cats in and out and his mother had spotted him.

“Morning,” he said as he poked his head around the doorframe. Lucy Davies was up to her chin in sheets and blankets, despite the early summer warmth rising with the sun. Anselm had annexed most of Lucy’s pillow, while Aquinas staked his claim to the foot of the bed.

Aidan’s father began the tradition of naming the family’s cats after medieval theologians during his time in seminary. Lucy took Aidan and his older sister Brigid to the animal shelter, and they argued all the way home over what to call their new pet. The argument continued inside the house, making Alastor look up from his reading. He tapped the cover of the book: “How about Bernard?” he suggested.

“But it’s a girl kitty, daddy,” Brigid said.

“No problem, dear. Bernard was from Clairvaux, so we can call her “Clair.”

Brigid beamed at him. Aidan, at age three and a half, hadn’t followed the conversation very well, and he thought his father had said “éclair,” which Aidan had recently discovered to his delight, so he beamed too. Clair was with the Davies family until the summer before Davies himself began seminary, but she had succumbed to a combination of old age and fear of the vet’s office. Six months later, Lucy and Alastor brought home two new cats. “Who are you studying in systematic theology right now?” Alastor asked Aidan over the phone.

“Anselm. Aquinas is next,” came his son’s reply. Luckily, the cats were both boys.

Aidan sat on the corner of the bed and scratched Aquinas behind the ears. “Nervous?” his mother asked.

He looked at her. When his mother asked him about his emotional state, she was usually reflecting her own feelings. What does she think is going to happen? Maybe that I’ll trip on my vestments and bang my head on the altar, he thought. Lucy had always had a fairly vivid imagination about how his various sporting engagements could end in brain damage or missing fingers. Perhaps, she’s confusing church with soccer. “Mom, the words are printed, I took a class in this, and I’ve been watching Dad do it my whole life,” he said. “I’ll be fine.”

The last three words sounded hollow, even to him. Lucy eyed him appraisingly. “If you say so, dear. Just don’t forget that God is there, too. That’s the whole point.”

She spoke the last words in the middle of a yawn, rolled over, and began rhythmically breathing a little too convincingly to be properly asleep. Aidan took that as his cue and left the room while Anselm resettled himself on Lucy’s pillow. As Aidan shut the door, Lucy’s breathing slowed, and Aidan wondered if anyone in the history of the world had ever feigned realistic sleep. It’s like wondering if the refrigerator light stays on when you close the door, he thought.

He moved down the hallway, passing the collages of his and Brigid’s infancy, of his childhood athletics and Brigid’s recitals, of their prom pictures and graduations. He arrived in the kitchen to find his father sitting down to his ritual bowl of oatmeal. You could set your watch to his Sunday morning routine. Aidan sliced off two thick pieces of the banana bread Lucy had made yesterday and sat down opposite his father. Always the sports section first. “Did the Sox win?” Aidan asked.

“Walk off double in the tenth. Hit the top of the scoreboard just out of reach of the left fielder’s glove,” said Alastor without looking up from the paper. “But they blew the save in the ninth so the extra inning heroics shouldn’t have been needed.”

“So the musical chairs at closer continues,” Aidan said. During the spring and summer (and into autumn if the Red Sox made the playoffs), baseball accounted for about eighty percent of the conversations between Aidan and his father. Even on a day like today we’re talking baseball. Aidan picked up the discarded sports section as Alastor moved on to the comics. I find that oddly comforting. Aidan’s hand strayed once again to his left shoulder blade. Alastor looked up. “Nervous.”

The word wasn’t a question as it had been when Lucy had asked. It was a statement, one that a veteran paratrooper might say to a new recruit before his first jump. It was the kind of statement that gives permission to feel the emotion but withholds permission to remain safely in the aircraft. “A little, I guess.”

“Just remember,” Alastor began.

“I know, I know,” Adain cut him off. “Mom already reminded me. God is there, too.”

“That’s true.” Alastor suppressed a smile, the crinkles around his eyes growing heavy. “But that’s not what I was going to say.” Aidan put down the sports section. “What I was going to say was: don’t forget to go to the bathroom before you put on the chasuble.”

Aidan let out a breath he didn’t realize he had been holding and started laughing, first quietly to himself and then louder and louder. Alastor joined in, and soon they were laughing just for laughter’s own sake.

An hour later, Aidan left the restroom at the church. He thought he might vomit like he had before many a high school soccer game. But he didn’t. His father was waiting for him, an ornate poncho draped over one arm. Aidan took the chasuble, put his head through its hole, and smoothed out the sleeves over his alb. He turned to the mirror in the sacristy. Well, you look like a priest, he told himself. You’re first celebration of Holy Communion. Are you ready?

Aidan put a hand on his father’s shoulder and pushed him toward the doorway. “I’m ready,” he said.

(…to be continued.)

The Autonomic Spiritual System

(Sermon for Sunday, July 17, 2011 || Proper 11 Year A || Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23)

What would your life be like if you had to think consciously about every breath you take? What would your life be like if your brain had to work your lungs like your hands might work a bicycle pump? What would your life be like if you needed to be aware of each of those millions of oxygen atoms that squeeze their way into your red blood cells for their continual circuit around your body? Well, for starters, you would never be able to sleep. You might be able to get a little work done by holding your breath for thirty seconds at a time and then concentrating furiously at the task at hand. You certainly wouldn’t be able to pay attention to this sermon. But that’s okay because I wouldn’t be able to preach in any coherent fashion either.

We are blessed, therefore, that God created us with “an autonomic nervous system,” which removes breathing from the list of bodily functions that require conscious thought. Of course, you might notice your breathing after walking up a particularly long flight of stairs or during a brisk run or when you are in labor. But for the vast majority of our lives, we simply breathe and never give the miracle of respiration a second thought.

I bet your high school anatomy class covered the wonder of the autonomic nervous system. Our bodies do so many things involuntarily, and the autonomic nervous system takes care of each one of them. What I’m sure the anatomy class didn’t cover, however, is the fact that, in addition to our bodily ones, every person here also has an autonomic spiritual system. God’s presence is even more constant than breathing, and so each of us has developed an autonomic spiritual system in order to handle our relationship with God during the vast majority of our lives when we are not consciously responding to that relationship.

Unlike the autonomic nervous system, which controls breathing and other things, none of us is born with an autonomic spiritual system. When you see a child’s eyes go wide at the splash of a stone in a pond or at the scurry of a squirrel on a branch, the child is experiencing God’s presence unfiltered by the involuntary sifting of the autonomic spiritual system. As we grow up, we develop this involuntary filtration, preferring the concrete stuff of the world over the spiritual substance of God’s presence. This is why the children in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia cannot return to Aslan’s domain once they’ve reached a certain age. The cares of the world keep them from wishing to go back to Narnia, and so they never find another gateway.

In today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, Jacob demonstrates that even someone a mere two generations removed from Abraham has developed the problem of the autonomic spiritual system, this involuntary sifting of God’s presence from our daily experience. Jacob is on the run from his brother Esau, whose birthright and blessing Jacob has stolen. On his way to Haran, Jacob beds down in a certain place, which must have been quite rustic considering he uses a rock for a pillow. During the night, Jacob dreams of a ladder filled with angels going back and forth between earth and heaven. The Lord stands next to Jacob in this dream and says to him, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”

Jacob wakes up and proclaims to the sky and to the rocks: “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” Jacob’s involuntary filtration had prevented him from noticing that presence when he went to sleep, but his dream alerts him to override his autonomic spiritual system. Just like during the brisk run when you notice your breathing, Jacob wakes up dazzled by God’s presence.

And then, as so often happens, Jacob makes a common mistake that turns the autonomic spiritual system back on. He says, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Jacob’s mistakes his physical location as the catalyst for his spiritual awakening. By assigning spiritual meaning to that particular rock-strewn piece of ground, Jacob fails to remember the words that God spoke to him in his dream: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” God doesn’t say: “Know that I am here. God will bring Jacob back to that land, but in the meantime, Jacob will be in God’s presence wherever he goes.

The psalmist may have had Jacob’s mistake in mind while writing Psalm 139:

Where can I go then from [God’s] Spirit?
where can I flee from your presence?

If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there your hand will lead me
and your right hand hold me fast.

The psalmist understands that God’s presence is everywhere we might go because God’s presence is everywhere. These verses, then, are the psalmist’s way of remembering that God’s hand leads us, that God’s right hand holds us fast, no matter how often we might forget to search for God. The good news is that our autonomic spiritual systems do not define our spiritual existence. We can override them by accepting the ever-present help of God. There have been people throughout time who never developed the involuntary filtration: the Church calls them saints. I’m sure you know someone the church hasn’t canonized who lives a life fully present to God, a life without an autonomic spiritual system.

But for those of us who have difficulty overriding the system, we can take solace and strength in holding fast to an essential truth: God’s presence is not dependent on our awareness of God’s presence. Our awareness only matters insofar as we are present to God. We practice this awareness by taking on disciplines that slowly wean us from our reliance on the autonomic spiritual system: counting blessings, praying at times we might otherwise not pray, appreciating the majesty of the simplest created things, loving each other without thought of reciprocation, serving those in need.

Think about the last time you were stressed out – I mean really stressed out – I mean “I have four papers due on Monday and I washed a red shirt with the whites and I’ve been stuck on the tarmac at Logan for two hours for no discernible reason” stressed out. What did your friends do? They took you for coffee or for ice cream or, perhaps, for coffee ice cream. They told you to take a couple deep breaths. They told you to focus on breathing. Everything will be alright, they said. They knew that breathing, like God’s presence, is a constant in our lives. They knew that we don’t have to focus on constant things in order for those constant things to continue happening. But they also knew that when we do focus on those constant things, we often find peace – peace and new beginnings.

Three squares a day

My friend Paula, who writes the blog Welcoming Spirit, recently challenged her readers to take on a discipline for thirty days. I am a week into mine and I’ll tell you, it’s not going so well. You’d think a priest would be better at remembering to pray at meals. I mean, look at the Eucharistic meal — I pray for a solid five minutes before anyone gets to eat anything. But for some reason or other, I’m just not that disciplined at praying before my three squares a day.

Well, not “some reason or other.” Honestly, I know the reasons. When I lived at home with my parents, we had our dinnertime rites. We tried not to answer the phone, though the thirty second pause to listen for the machine made that rule laughably futile. We always put our napkins on our laps and kept our elbows off the table. And we always prayed. (My father usually tapped the person who unsuccessfully failed to make eye contact with him. If everyone succeeded, he led the prayer.)

Now that I live on my own and take most of my meals alone, I have yet to develop the discipline of thanking God for all of God’s blessings, of which the meal is a palpable reminder. I am one week into my intentional practice, and I am doing dreadfully. I’m two for two today, but over the course of the week, I can’t have remembered more than three out of ten. That average would be great if I were a baseball player, since no other job in the universe measures success at thirty percent.

But I’m not a baseball player. I’m a priest. I’m supposed to be the one who remembers to pray — 100% of the time. Prayers should be the first words that spring to my lips in the morning and the last ones to whisper out when I fall asleep. Prayer should be as natural as breathing, should happen with each of my breaths.

It doesn’t, God knows. Too often, I just forget to pray. Not the best example, I know. Neither were the disciples, and from them I take a measure of hope. They follow Jesus around, they hear his words, they cast out demons and heal the sick. But they only get it three out of ten times. They bicker about which is the greatest, they bar people’s access to Jesus, and they abandon him.

I’m not saying that the disciples’ example gives me a free pass. They mess up, they misunderstand, but Jesus stays in relationship with them. He even repairs his relationship with Simon Peter after this most adamant follower denies him three times. Peter, do you love me? You know I do, Lord. Then feed my sheep.*

Jesus has invested way too much time and energy in me to give up now. Indeed, his resurrection shows me that he’ll never give up on me, even after I die. Everyday, he invites me into a deeper relationship with him, and  I usually ignore the invitation. I prefer, instead, to wade in the shallow end, to make sure my feet can touch the bottom.

But there are those days — few and far between — that I acknowledge my apathy and ask God to help me float into the deeper waters. And I find the strength to accept the invitation.

As I write this, one of my favorite songs from my college years is playing on my Itunes. The chorus of Jennifer Knapp’s “Hold Me Now” goes like this: “I’m weak, I’m poor. I’m broken, Lord, but I’m yours. Hold me now.”

My apathy and forgetfulness about praying before meals (among other things) stem from my grasping, prideful illusion that I need not rely on God. Perhaps, deep down, I don’t really believe that God will claim me if I’m weak or poor or broken. But that’s not how God operates. Nothing I do will elevate me past weakness or paucity or brokenness. Only when I allow God to hold me in the palm of God’s hand can I find strength. Only when I take part in the relationship into which Jesus calls me can I find abundance. Only when I let go the illusion can I see the reality of God making me whole.

Praying before meals may seem like a small step, but it is an essential one. It creates a pattern, a practice, a discipline. If I remember to pause even three times a day to thank God for God’s presence in my life, then perhaps my illusory self-reliance will begin to fall away. Perhaps I’ll remember that God has blessed me to be a blessing to others. Perhaps I’ll hear Jesus ask, “Adam, do you love me?”

And I’ll be able to say, “You know I do, Lord.”

Then feed my sheep.

Footnotes

* John 21:15-17

Run home, Jack

(Sermon for January 4, 2009 || Christmas 2, RCL)

In the 1991 movie Hook, the nefarious captain who lends his name to the film abducts Peter Pan’s children and brings them to Neverland. Once there, the pirate attempts to condition Jack and Maggie into thinking that their parents don’t care about them and that they are better off away from home. Maggie resists Hook from the start, but Jack, who is angry at his father for always missing Jack’s baseball games, falls victim to Hook’s indoctrination. To show his feigned appreciation for Jack, Hook organizes a ballgame.  When Jack comes up to bat, it becomes apparent that none of the pirates knows a thing about the sport. Instead of cheering for Jack to hit a home run, the crowd mixes up the words and chants “Run home, Jack! Run home, Jack!” For an instant, Hook’s spell is broken, and Jack remembers who he is and where he belongs.runhomejack

We live in a world of dislocations and disenchantments, and too often we forget where home is. We are constantly on the move from here to there or are stuck in traffic on the way from here to there. We are constantly harvesting the disappointments of a world that makes rash promises and fails to deliver. We are constantly sprinting, speeding, gorging, guzzling – but we rarely stop to catch our breath. We rarely pause to find our bearings. We rarely go home.

Few undeniable truths remain in this world, but one is this: you’ve got to know where you are to figure out where you are going. Look at any map at a rest stop or fire safety plan on the back of a hotel room door, and you will find a dot and the words “You are here.” Your destination is 140 miles up I-81. Your nearest exit in case of emergency is the stairwell at the end of the hall. These maps come in handy when you are trying to find your physical location.

But there are so many other ways to become lost, for which “You are here” stickers are nowhere to be found. You used your credit card to make your mortgage payment last month and now the Visa bill is due. Your new relationship burned fast and hot for a few months and now you are wondering if there’s anything left to fuel the fire. Your job is eroding your will to exist, but there’s nowhere else to work. I doubt none of us has to dig too deeply into his or her own soul to find a similar situation. When we are lost, retracing our steps to home will help us find ourselves again.

But only in the narrowest definition of the word is “home” a physical place. More expansively, home is where we center ourselves. Home refreshes us and reintegrates us. Home propels us to where we are going next by being the one space that assures us of where we are now. Do you remember that old keyboard tutor, Mavis Beacon? She teaches you to type by keeping your fingers on the middle row of keys, the “home keys.” With your fingers on A-S-D-F-J-K-L-semicolon, you always have a reference point for finding the rest of the alphabet. Your left index finger knows to go up for “R” and “T” and right for “G.” You don’t have to look at the keyboard with your fingers centered on the home keys. When we find ourselves “at home,” we allow ourselves the space to breath, find our bearings, and achieve the quiet stillness that nurtures new possibilities.

The people of Israel have been in exile in Assyria and Babylon for a long time – decades stretching into centuries. Their home is their identity, an identity they lost when they were taken by force to their conquerors’ kingdoms. They weep by the rivers and hang up their harps. They cannot sing the songs of Zion in the strange land. But in this morning’s reading, we hear a note of hope from the prophet Jeremiah: “See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth…With consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble…They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion…I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”

The prophet tells of the imminent return of the people to their own lands and homes, where they will reclaim their identity and sing once again on Zion’s height. Today’s psalm would not be out of place on that long journey back to their home: “How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord.” The psalmist sees the sparrow and swallow making nests and reflects on the happiness of those who dwell in God’s house: “For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room.”

The psalmist longs to be in God’s presence. In our world of dislocations and disenchantments, some deep, inexplicable energy drives us to seek this same presence. When we pause long enough to figure out where we are, we open ourselves up for an encounter with the presence of God. This presence constantly encounters us, but we rarely tear ourselves away from our sprinting and guzzling long enough to notice. But when we do, when we accept the God-given gift of stillness in our souls and embrace the encounter with God’s presence, we will find ourselves at home. St. Augustine says, “You have made me for yourself and my heart is restless until it finds rest in you.” We find that rest when we are at home in God’s presence, which refreshes us and creates in us the space to figure out where we are going next.

The wise men in this morning’s Gospel find this presence when they follow the star to Bethlehem. They enter the home of Mary and Joseph and find the Christ child with his mother. In the presence of the infant King, they offer their gifts. Like the wise men, when we notice the signs pointing to an encounter with Christ, we too can find ourselves at home with Jesus. In that shimmering moment of encounter, God gives us the opportunity to discern the gifts we can lay at Christ’s feet. Centered and nourished by God’s presence, we go out, use our gifts, and join in the work of building God’s home here on earth.

So run home, Jack. Run home and find Jesus Christ awaiting you there. Run home to God’s presence and find your rest. Come and sing aloud on the height of Zion. Let your heart and your flesh rejoice in the living God. Encounter that one day in the courts of the Lord that is better than a thousand elsewhere.