Letting Go of a Violent God

Does anyone happen to recall the first message proclaimed to the neighborhood on our beautiful new message board, after of course the “God Bless Our New Message Board” announcement? What was the first message Paula wrote? She wrote, “The God you don’t believe in doesn’t exist.” A very provocative statement. What does it mean? I think it means that the juvenile understandings of God which we learned and absorbed growing up and which many of us have come to reject are actually understandings of God that are worth rejecting; understandings that we would be wise to lay aside as we grow up and mature. You know that bearded, white-skinned, robed deity sitting on a throne in the clouds that you no longer believe in? Well, that’s good because that God doesn’t exist. Or perhaps I should say, that God image falls drastically short in conveying the infinite God who is beyond all understanding. Much of the spiritual journey involves letting go of our old and limited understandings of God and reaching out for new and wider understandings as we make new discoveries and have new experiences. In fact, I think one of the main differences between atheists and mature believers is that mature believers, who often reject the same God whom atheists reject, have reached out for a new understanding of God that makes more sense with reality and their experiences; while atheists tend to say, “Well, since that god I learned about in Sunday School doesn’t exist there must be no god at all.” Atheists throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak; while mature believers keep the baby while constantly replenishing the bathwater.

And forgive me for extending this metaphor, but some of that bathwater can get pretty nasty and that baby won’t get clean; that baby will get sick. What I mean is that our belief in God needs to be informed by mature and sophisticated understandings of God; otherwise, our faith will become unhealthy and sick and we will be part of a toxic religion.

Our story from the Hebrew Bible this morning, which is one of the most powerful and disturbing stories in the entire Bible and perhaps in all of western literature, recounts the spiritual journey of Abraham who lays aside an old understanding of God and reaches out for a new one, just as he lays down his sacrificial knife and reaches out for the ram in the thicket.

Abraham held an understanding of God which he learned and absorbed from his family, his parents, his culture and his neighbors in the ancient Near East. We have ancient Near Eastern textual references to the practice of human sacrifice and specifically child sacrifice. These texts imply an understanding of God as a deity who demanded that innocent blood be shed, a deity that required his followers to demonstrate their devotion by sacrificing that which was most precious to them. And what is more precious to a parent than a child? Anyone who may have participated in human sacrifice in the ancient Near East, including Abraham, would be someone who believed in a God that doesn’t exist. And thanks be to God that that God doesn’t exist.

We as Christians know that that bloodthirsty god doesn’t exist because God revealed himself to us fully as a vulnerable, non-violent human being who died on a cross not to satisfy a bloodthirsty deity – God didn’t kill Jesus—but rather to satisfy a bloodthirsty humanity. In Christ, God says to us very clearly that whenever and wherever there is religious and political violence—violence done in the name of God—that the God revealed in Christ is on the side of the victim, not on the side of the perpetrator. This realization comes to Abraham as an angel and then Abraham sees in the eyes of his beloved son Isaac, a new understanding of God. He realizes that God is not the violent and bloodthirsty deity; we are. God is the self-giving victim who lays down his life in order to free us from our addiction to violence.

Now we may be thinking that we are not addicted to violence and hopefully that is true, but we live in a world that clearly is addicted to violence. And we are all connected to and, in some ways, complicit in systems and social structures that continue to violently oppress and victimize vulnerable people. We are all probably somewhat horrified by this story of Abraham almost sacrificing his son Isaac, wondering how could someone even consider committing such a heinous act? And yet before we judge him, let us consider how many Isaacs have been sacrificed for us, for us to enjoy the many benefits we take for granted. When I read this story, I also wonder, ‘Where was Sarah, Isaac’s mother? What was she doing? Why didn’t she try to stop Abraham? Did she not know what was going on? If so, does her ignorance excuse her?’ Does our ignorance excuse us? Our ignorance of the many young innocent lives that have been sacrificed for us, for this country? In a couple days, we will celebrate our nation’s independence from an oppressive English monarchy and we know that many young Isaacs were sacrificed on the altar of the very freedom we enjoy today. And we honor them, we acknowledge Christ in them and in the many sacrifices of our nation’s founding fathers. And yet don’t we also lament? Lament the fact that so many innocent people had to die as a result of humanity’s addiction to violence? Don’t we lament with the psalmist who asks, “How long? How long? How long must violence triumph?”

We lament the fact that we are still addicted to violence and that many of us still understand God to be a very violent and bloodthirsty deity. Many Christians believe this. Many Christians in positions of great political power believe this. How long must this violent theology triumph?

Our Genesis reading this morning invites us to lay aside our old understandings of God as a violent deity, to lay them aside as Abraham laid down his sacrificial knife, to “lay down our sword and shield” in the words of the African-American spiritual, “down by the riverside.”

And as we hopefully do lay down our sword and shield and let go of our old understandings of God, I wonder what new understandings and images of God we are being invited to pull out of the thicket of our sacred Scriptures and our life experience. The God image that I have been pulling out with you at this pulpit ever since the Feast of the Ascension is the perichoresis: the circle dance of the Triune God; the same circle gathering that embraced Abraham and Sarah and then bubbled up within them as a giddy, joyful, and communal laughter and which gave birth to a baby boy named “laughter”: Yitzhak, Isaac, the very same boy that Abraham was about to sacrifice before he laid down his old understanding of a violent God. And it’s in Isaac, I see an invitation for all of us to pull out a new and life-giving understanding of God.

And I’m not alone in this. Out of all the characters in Genesis, the one character whom the early Christians thought pointed to Christ most clearly was Isaac. And although Isaac appears to be very passive in the biblical text, the Jewish rabbis described him as deeply pious and prayerful. Isaac would often meditate and pray and walk with God in the evenings. There’s even a Jewish myth of him studying Torah with his great grandparents in Heaven. And also, according to the Jewish rabbis, Isaac was not a young boy when he was bound to the altar by his father Abraham. Based on a close reading of the text, the rabbis conclude that Isaac was 37 years old when his very elderly father Abraham tried to sacrifice him. So just try to imagine a man who is over a hundred years old trying to bind a 37-year-old man with ropes to an altar. Since an elderly Abraham would not be able to overpower his 37-year-old son, the rabbis suggest that Isaac realized what was going on and instead of running away or even fighting back, he actually offered himself as the sacrificial victim. Now why would he do that? I don’t think he would do it because he was masochistic or suicidal or naïve to pain and suffering. If Isaac was indeed a man who spent decades in prayer, laughing and dancing with his God, then I like to think that he already held a mature understanding of God as one who is always on the side of vulnerable victims and always vindicating them, even when those victims appear to be at death’s door. I like to think that Isaac was so deeply rooted in the radical vivaciousness of God that he could stare death in the face and laugh, knowing that God would ultimately protect him and vindicate him, even if he were to die. Christian existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote a whole book on this story of the sacrifice of Isaac called Fear and Trembling, said, “The only intelligent tactical response to life’s horror (death, violence, bloodshed) is to laugh defiantly at it.” That’s exactly what I imagine Isaac doing, Isaac whose name means “laughter.”

This idea of Isaac having an understanding of God that gave him the courage to laugh in the face of death is an idea that I see expressed most beautifully in a painting by a Russian Jewish artist named Marc Chagall. I got to see the original painting at the Marc Chagall museum in Nice, France. And I brought a photograph to share with you that shows how huge the painting is because I’m standing right next to it. And if you look closely at Isaac’s face, which is upside down, you see two things: he is smiling and he is winking. He is winking at us, as if to say, “I am so confident in the loving vivaciousness of my God that I don’t even need to fear death, even at the hands of my father.” In Isaac’s wink, I see the God revealed in Jesus Christ, who could also stare down death and the grave and then re-emerge laughing. And Isaac’s wink invites me and us to continue letting go of our violent god images and to keep pulling out of the thicket of our Scriptures and of our lives the radical vivaciousness of God that can empower us to face death and violence and all the other wages of sin because we are participating in God’s free gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord. And that is a God we can believe in because, my brothers and sisters, that God does exist.

The Sound of One God Laughing

The Trinity is not so much a concept that we can explain as much as it is an experience in which we can participate. Every moment of every day we are invited to become part of the Trinitarian flow and to join in the perichoresis, which means what? Circle Dance! One of the most famous icons in Church History depicts this circle gathering of the Triune God. The icon is generally attributed to the 15th century Russian artist Andrei Rublev. The three persons are not so much dancing as they are sitting and gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes around a table. The Father is on the left, dressed in gold, representing heavenly perfection. The Son, in the middle, is clothed in blue, the color of divinity, and brown, the color of the earth, and is holding out two fingers representing the divinity and humanity that coexist in him. On the right is the Spirit, draped in green, representing fertility and fecundity. The 12th century female mystic Hildegard of Bingen expressed the healing power of the Spirit in plants and vegetation, by using the word veriditas, a poetic combination of the Latin words for “green” and “truth.”

If you look at the front of the table, you see a rectangular hole. “Art historians say that the remaining glue on the original icon (which is in Moscow) indicates that there was perhaps once a mirror glued to the front of the table,” inviting the observer to join the circle. We are invited to sit at the table with the Trinity, as beloved sons and daughters, as brothers and sisters of Christ. We are invited to be nourished and refreshed and transformed by sitting and resting in this circle of love. I sometimes like to imagine the three of them all turning their gaze towards me and you with tender love, bringing us into their fold and transforming us into one of them, because they see the divine in us. They see themselves in you and me.

For some of us, this might feel wonderful as well as slightly awkward. Sometimes we can feel somewhat uncomfortable when someone gazes at us for a long time, especially someone we might not know too well. We might even find it challenging to gaze for several minutes into the eyes of someone that we do know well. We might get a little uneasy and want to look away and maybe we laugh nervously. Or when it comes to imagining the Triune God gazing at us in love, we might even laugh in disbelief at the idea that we are inherently lovable, that the divine dwells within us, that God wants to make Godself known in us and through us.

This laughter of disbelief is similar to Sarah’s laughter in our reading from Genesis; a laughter of disbelief in the radical and seemingly impossible love and fecundity of God, laughter in response to something profoundly absurd, in response to a promise that does not make sense and that refuses to remain confined by our limited knowledge of reality.  Like the Trinity, many of the promises of God are not so much concepts to be explained as they are experiences in which we are invited to participate through faith.

Another name for Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity is The Hospitality of Abraham. This scene portrays the three visitors whom Abraham hosts by the Oaks of Mamre: the three angels that prefigure the three-personed God. As the text says, Abraham stands beside them, under the Mamre tree, waiting on them as a generous host to his guests. But the visitors invite him into their circle by engaging him in conversation. They ask, “Where is your wife, Sarah?” thus inviting her into the circle as well.

In Sarah, they see a generous, loving and powerful woman in whom they seek to channel and embody their divine power. As they enjoy the delicious cakes that Sarah made in record time, they promise that Sarah will soon be a mother and not just any mother, but the mother of the whole nation of Israel. How could she, an elderly woman, not laugh in disbelief at such an absurd statement? It would be like me saying that Church of the Redeemer will soon become the biggest church in the diocese. [Yeah, right.] The three-personed God says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”

When you gaze at this icon and imagine God gazing back at you in love, what promises do you hear him say to you? Are they hard to believe? Do they make you laugh? If so, I ask you, “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”

Sarah is so endearing to me as she seems so embarrassed about her laughter that she denies laughing at all. And God says to her, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” But in these words I do not hear judgement or condemnation. I don’t hear God saying, “Guess what? You can’t lie to me. I’m God. I know everything. You laughed.” I hear God doing something that he often does in the Hebrew Bible and that is play with words. In fact, this whole passage can be seen as one long pun on the word “laughter.” I hear God saying to Sarah, “Oh yes, you did laugh. And I’m going to teach you the true meaning of laughter. I am going to convert that laughter of disbelief and isolation into a laughter of communal joy and delight and ecstasy. I am going to teach you about the laughter that flows eternally within the divine circle dance.” 14th century German mystic Meister Eckhart wrote these words:

Do you want to know

What goes on in the core of the Trinity?

I will tell you.

In the core of the Trinity

The Father laughs

And gives birth to the Son.

The Son laughs back at the Father

And gives birth to the Spirit.

The whole Trinity laughs

And gives birth to us.[1]

 

Sarah no longer tried to understand or explain God’s impossible promise. Instead, she stepped into the circle dance and experienced the laughter that flows endlessly between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. “God has brought laughter for me,” she says, “Everyone who hears will laugh with me.” We all know the difference between laughing at someone and laughing with someone. Here that difference is underscored in the text, which describes Sarah as initially laughing to herself, in isolation, in disbelief, in resistance to the promise. After her encounter with the Triune God, she laughs with everyone, everyone who knows her and hears about her. Her God-given laughter deepens and expands her community. And just as the Holy Trinity laughs and gives birth to us, as Meister Eckhart says, so too does Sarah laugh and give birth to her son, Isaac, Yitzhak, whose name in Hebrew means, “laughter.” God-given laughter brings new life while deepening and widening the community.

Scientists who have studied laughter have concluded that the main reason we laugh is actually not in response to jokes or comedy. Only about 10% of our laughter is in response to jokes. The rest of our laughter comes from interacting in a seemingly mundane way with those whom we love and whom we feel loved by. We laugh at each other’s beautiful and vulnerable humanity. This communal laughter is the God-given laughter that Sarah experienced, the laughter of the Trinitarian flow, the divine circle dance. The laughter we experience when we see a friend whom we haven’t seen for a while.

Former Episcopal Priest Alan Watts said, “A priest once quoted to me the Roman saying that a religion is dead when the priests laugh at each other across the altar. I always laugh at the altar, be it Christian, Hindu, or Buddhist, because real religion is the transformation of anxiety into laughter.”[2] Real religion is about reconnecting with God and participating in the Trinity, who transforms our anxious, isolated, and nervous laughter of disbelief into the fruitful and joyful laughter of the beloved community, the kingdom of God. This is what Jesus called his disciples to proclaim in Matthew’s Gospel and what Paul boasts about in his letter to the Romans: this open invitation to participate in the divine circle dance. It is true that many may respond to this invitation with disbelief and condescension. In some ways, we are still indeed sheep among wolves. But the invitation remains for everyone to have their laughter of derision converted into the laughter of the dancing Triune God.  “In the core of the Trinity, The Father laughs And gives birth to the Son. The Son laughs back at the Father And gives birth to the Spirit. The whole Trinity laughs and gives birth to us.” As we experience holy and Trinitarian laughter together here, what will we give birth to? Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?

[1] Matthew Fox, trans. and ed., Meditations with Meister Eckhart (Rochester VT: Bear and Company, 1983), 129.

[2] Alan Watts, In My Own Way: An Autobiography (New World Library: Novato CA, 1972), 57.

Experiencing the Trinity at Standing Rock

Back in November, I had an experience that made me think, “This is exactly where I am called to be and what I am called to do right now as a priest.” It was not celebrating Eucharist or hearing confession or even serving the poor. It was the experience of participating in a dance. The night before Carol Ann and I and hundreds of other clergy stood in solidarity with the water protectors at Standing Rock ND, I stood by the sacred fire and listened to the “rumbling thunder sound” of the drums being played at the Oceti Sakowin camp. Nicholas Black Elk, who was a Lakota medicine man and Christian mystic, said, “The voice of the drum is an offering to the Spirit of the World. Its sound arouses the mind and makes [us] feel the mystery and power of things.” I remember feeling the mystery and power of things while hearing those drums pulse through my body, compelling me to move and to dance. In Black Elk’s words, “my legs seemed to be full of ants.”[1] Other people there also felt this pulse and began to organically and vulnerably reach out their hands to one another as we formed a dance circle that revolved around the fire. I specifically remember watching the smoke rise to the bright Dakota stars while my body moved naturally (and yet sometimes clumsily) to what felt like the heartbeat of the earth, or even the heartbeat of God.

I felt like I was fulfilling my call as a priest in that circle dance almost more than anywhere else. I initially thought that maybe it was a somewhat patronizing and condescending sentiment in which I felt that I, a privileged white male priest, was representing the church’s affirmation of Native American rights and indigenous spirituality, but I’ve come to realize it was something deeper than that. I felt deeply connected and even related to the Lakota Sioux through the bodily sharing of this earthy heartbeat. There is indeed something very powerful about being part of a prayerful and playful circle dance.

I reflected on this circle dance when I later read the words of Nicholas Black Elk who spoke about the spiritual significance of circles for Native Americans. He said, “You have noticed everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round […] The sky is round […] the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a [human] is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our tepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.”[2] Black Elk then lamented the fact that the Wasichus (us) had placed most of the Lakota in square boxes, much to the detriment of their spiritual growth and thriving.

I share this experience with you today, Trinity Sunday, because it is the mystery of the Trinity that invites us to let go of our tendencies to put God in our little boxes. In our tradition, it is the mystery of the Trinity that invites to dance and play and allow ourselves to be moved by the mighty drumbeat of God’s pulsating heart. The mystery of the Trinity invites us all to be poets and mystics as we reach for colorful metaphors that can help deepen and expand our understanding of the infinite God. I am sure you have heard many metaphors for the Trinity. Some of my favorites are water, which is one substance that can manifest in three forms: solid, liquid or gas. Or there is the metaphor of the egg, which contains the egg yolk, the egg white and the egg shell and yet is all one egg. Then there is of course the three-leafed shamrock, which St. Patrick used to explain the Trinity to the Celts back in the fifth century. All of these metaphors are limited, but I trust the creativity and the playfulness behind them. What are some other metaphors that you’ve used to understand and explain the Trinity?

What is the metaphor for the Trinity that I have mentioned in my last two sermons? It is the same metaphor that I felt I embodied with others at Standing Rock around the sacred fire: the metaphor of the perichoresis: the circle dance. In the fourth century, a group of theologians called the Cappadocian Fathers (Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Ceasarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and a woman named Macrina the Younger) described the Trinity using the image of a dance. They refused to put the Triune God in a box. Instead, they put God in a circle.

And this is significant because with this circle image, we do not necessarily emphasize or hierarchize one person of the Trinity over another. Rather the circle image emphasizes the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. And that might be the most important message of this greatest of mysteries: that God is Relationship. God is the love that flows between persons or even between entities in the great cosmic dance of all that exists. Atomic scientists and astrophysicists are discovering this power of relationship in subatomic particles and in stars, in quasars and in quarks. The atom is “most simply understood as the orbiting structure of three particles—proton, electron and neutron—in constant interplay with one another” (Rohr, 70), three particles in a kind of perichoresis, a kind of circle dance. And do you know where atomic scientists say that the power of the atomic bomb is found in the atom? Do you think it is found in the proton? The electron? The neutron? The power is not in any one of them alone but rather in “the interaction between them,” the relationship.[3] That is the source of nuclear power, which can change everything. It is no mere coincidence that Robert Oppenheimer named the final stage and site of the detonation of the atom bomb Trinity.[4]

God is the relationship that flows eternally like an endless waterwheel between absolute self-giving and receiving. Other faith traditions describe God as loving. We do too but the mystery of the Trinity pushes us a step further to identify God as Love itself. God is the love that exists within community. That’s why we talk about God being present here among us right now. Where there is love, there is God. And Christ’s promised presence in the bread and wine of the Eucharist is given to us so that we might train ourselves to see the presence of God, to feel the perichoretic pulse, in all loving relationships.

Part of why I think I felt like I was truly living into my call as a priest in the circle dance at Standing Rock is because I felt I was embodying with others the perichoresis, I was part of the dance. And that is the point of the Trinity. It is not so much a concept that we can explain. Metaphors are helpful and fun, but the Trinity as a theological and philosophical concept quickly becomes gobbledygook whenever we try to explain it and put God in a box with our limited language that can only capture the foam on the surface of life. The Trinity is not so much a concept that we can explain but an experience in which we can participate.

Cistercian author Carl McColman writes, “As members of the mystical body, Christians actually partake in the divine nature of the Trinity. We do not merely watch the dance, we dance the dance. We join hands with Christ and the Spirit flows through us and between us and our feet move always in the loving embrace of the Father. In that we are members of the mystical body of Christ, we see the joyful love of the Father through the eyes of the Son. And with every breath, we breathe the Holy Spirit.”[5]

We participate in the perichoresis whenever we gather here in love, in prayer, in reverence and thanksgiving for the sacraments. We are invited to feel the Trinitarian flow and the perichoretic pulse, which is more powerful than anything in the universe because it is the Source of the everything in the universe. It is the Source of “the Big Bang” or the “Let there be Light” moment that brought all creation into existence. It is the Source of the exploding power within atoms. That is why author Annie Dillard says, “On the whole, I do not find Christians […] sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT…. we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For… God may draw us out to where we can never return.”[6] That is the perichoretic pulse. Will we let it beat within you and move us to dance with the Triune God? To dance as a part of the Triune God? To dance as the Triune God? This might sound heretical, but this is deeply orthodox. We are invited to experience, participate in and eventually become the Trinity.

But how? I want to briefly offer one practice and then invite you all to ask three questions altogether, questions you may have about the Trinity or about what I have just said.

The practice is an ancient one that goes back to probably the fourth century, around the time of the Cappadocian Fathers. It is the practice of making the sign of the cross, which we often do throughout our worship. We begin at the head, saying “In the Name of the Father.” And although we begin at the head, our first move is to get out of our heads and into our bodies, where we can experience the perichoretic pulse more powerfully. We go down to our belly, our solar plexus and that is where we say, “and the Son,” the embodied one. And last Sunday, I explained that we cross ourselves when we receive the asperges in order to remind ourselves that we are Christ’s. And what I meant by that is that we are Christ’s own, we belong to Christ. But the other meaning of what I said is equally true: We are Christs, in the plural. We are anointed ones. That’s etymologically the meaning of “Christian.” We are all “little Christs.” We are called to embody the Source of love.  And then we move to our left shoulder and sweep across our chest saying “and the Holy Spirit.” And I then often like to end at the heart, thus integrating the trinity of the mind, the body and the heart. By doing this, we our blessing ourselves and implanting in our muscle memory the connection between the vertical and the horizontal, our vertical relationship with God is connected to our horizontal relationship with others. It is by being part of the circle that we become part of God and it is by being part of God that we become part of the circle. So let’s try: “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”[7]

[1] John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks: The Complete Edition (Bison Books: Lincoln NE, 2014), 151.

[2] Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks, 121.

[3] Richard Rohr and Mike Morrell, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation (New Kensington PA: Whitaker House, 2016), 72.

[4] Rohr and Morrell, The Divine Dance, 70.

[5] Lay Cistercian and teacher Carl McColman, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality (Newburyport MA: Hampton Roads, 2010), 165-166. Cited by Rohr and Morrell, 64.

[6] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 52-53.

[7] Rohr and Morrell, The Divine Dance, 105-106,199-201.

Pentecost Sermon

Today is the fiftieth day after Easter Sunday and the Greek word for “fiftieth day” is pentecoste hemera, which we abbreviate as “Pentecost.” This is the name that Greek-speaking Jews gave to the Jewish holiday Shavuot, a holiday that commemorates the giving and receiving of the Torah to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai over 3,000 years ago. Many of our Jewish brothers and sisters continue to celebrate this holiday today. In fact, it was the holiday Shavuot that the Jewish disciples of Jesus were observing when they were all gathered together in one place at the beginning of our reading from Acts this morning. The author writes, “When the day of Pentecost had come [or in other words, when Shavuot had come], the disciples were all together in one place.” So as the disciples were remembering God’s gift of wisdom to them in the form of the Torah, God crashed into their lives again with a wisdom that now rushed through their bodies as a violent wind and stormed their souls like a holy inferno, empowering them with the gift of tongues to share the good news of Christ to all peoples and to reverse the curse of the Tower of Babel. The disciples were so enthused with the Spirit that onlookers thought they had consumed other kinds of spirits; that they were drunk. And I love how Peter responds to this accusation by saying, “Come on! It is only nine o’clock in the morning!” He then reminds them all that God promised to pour out his spirit upon all flesh, empowering everyone to experience and embody God’s reconciling love to the world. It is this generous outpouring of the Spirit that marks the birth of the Church, at around the year 33 AD (at 9 AM on Shavuot), making the Church 1,984 years old today, which is why we celebrate with birthday cake, balloons and a bounce house!

Now in John’s version of this Pentecost, we are given a deeper understanding of the meaning and implications of the Spirit’s outpouring upon all of us who are baptized. In John’s version, we read about Jesus breathing the Spirit upon his disciples, bestowing his peace, commissioning his disciples (us) out into the world and empowering us with the authority to forgive sins.

When Jesus says, “Peace be with you” he is giving his disciples (including us) the peace which the world cannot give (John 14:27), the peace which flows between the Father and the Son, the peace which sweeps us into the unity of the Triune God, which the early church fathers described using the word perichoresis which means “circle dance.” When Jesus says “Peace be with you” he invites us into that divine circle dance so that we may experience the loving unity of the Godhead and embody that unity as God’s beloved community, as God’s church. Jesus’s final prayer before his Passion was that we might be one as he and the Father are one. This oneness is only possible by the power of the Spirit, which the Risen Christ breathes upon his disciples, and which we all receive at our baptism and which we all can cultivate within us through a discipline of daily prayer and weekly worship.

Jesus then says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” With these words, Jesus empowers us to be to the world what Jesus was to the world: a healer, a liberator, a redeemer. In John, Jesus certainly stresses the importance of loving one another within the community when he says, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (13:35).” However, Jesus refuses to stop there. The Spirit is given not only for us to love one another within the church but also to go out into the world and serve the last, the lost and the least. Former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said, “The Church is one of the only societies on earth that exists for the benefit of its non-members.” The Spirit empowers us to work for the benefit of those outside of the church, especially the sick, the poor and the needy.

Finally, Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Now here it sounds like Jesus is giving us the power not only to forgive sins but also to withhold forgiveness: “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Now why would Jesus tell us to withhold forgiveness? In Matthew, Jesus says, “If you forgive others their trespasses your heavenly Father will forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Or as author Anne Lamott puts it: “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”  If withholding forgiveness from others is poisonous and results in the Father withholding forgiveness from us, then why would Jesus give us the spiritual power to withhold forgiveness?

Although there may indeed be times to temporarily withhold forgiveness (especially from someone who remains unrepentant and unapologetic and abusive), I do not see that as Christ’s main point here. What we have here in our Bibles again is a mistranslation and misinterpretation of the Greek text. The translation of the first clause (ἄν τινων ἀφῆτε τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἀφέωνται αὐτοῖς) “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” is fairly accurate, but the translation of the second clause demands a closer look. The Greek word for sin is ἁμαρτίας which you may have noticed when I read the first clause in Greek. Now listen to the second clause in Greek: ἄν τινων κρατῆτε κεκράτηνται. Did you hear the word ἁμαρτίας? Sin? No, because it’s not there. It was added by the translator.[1] A literal translation of the Greek would be “Whomever you embrace they are embraced.” The direct object in the first clause is sin, which is forgiven. The direct object in the second clause is the person who is embraced. You may have heard the adage “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” But here, Jesus is saying “I’m giving you power to forgive the sin and to embrace the sinner.”

So with these words Jesus does not empower us to withhold forgiveness. Instead, Jesus empowers us to forgive and to embrace and include and welcome others into the circle dance of love that flows between the Father, the Son, the Spirit and the Church. Through these words, the Holy Spirit empowers us to let go of that which we need to let go and to hold onto and embrace that which we need to embrace. One of my favorite poets Mary Oliver concludes one of her poems with the following words:

“To live in this world

you must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.”

Reconciliation involves holding and embracing that which needs to be embraced and those whom need to be embraced and also letting go of that of which we need to let go. The Holy Spirit empowers us to do this: forgive and let go of our anger and frustration towards others so that we can truly embrace and welcome them into the beloved community, the divine circle dance.

So today we celebrate the birthday of the Church when the Holy Spirit empowered all of us to forgive, embrace, heal, and serve others in our own unique and beautiful ways; and to embody the love that flows through the perichoresis (the circle dance) of the Triune God. We all tap into this divine power through the sacrament of baptism and our baptismal vows, vows which we will be renewing together today, as we also celebrate our own spiritual birthdays as full members of God’s Church and as participants in the divine dance of the Lover, the Beloved and the Love Overflowing. Amen.

[1] ἄν τινων ἀφῆτε τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἀφέωνται αὐτοῖς, ἄν τινων κρατῆτε κεκράτηνται. If we were to translate the Greek of the first clause literally it would read something like this: “Of whomever you forgive the sins they are forgiven to them” and so the translation “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” captures the meaning quite well.

 

Overcoming Ascension Deficit Disorder

This last Thursday was the 40th day of Easter which meant it was Ascension Day, a day that commemorates a truth we proclaim every Sunday when we say, “I believe…in Jesus Christ…who ascended into heaven.” According to Luke-Acts, Christ was lifted up to heaven and a cloud took him away. Honestly, my left brain (my logic and reason) has difficulty accepting this part of the Creed and the Scriptures. I have what one of my colleagues jokingly refers to as “Ascension Deficit Disorder.”[1] My problem with this “ascension” is that the author was writing according to an ancient worldview, which held that Heaven was physically above us and Hell was physically below us. Modern science and space exploration have challenged and shattered this worldview. The first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin is purported to have said regarded his experience in space in 1961, “I looked and looked but I didn’t see God up there.” This thus begs the question, “What really happened to the Risen Jesus?”

My left brain is partially satisfied in thinking that Jesus ascended into another dimension since String Theorists suggest that there are at least 10 dimensions in physical space that our limited, three-dimensional minds cannot perceive. But then that makes me feel like I’m reading a science-fiction story. And why did Jesus have to ascend in order to enter another dimension?

It always helps me to remember that these Scriptures are not scientific documents but rather stories attempting to communicate supernatural phenomenon. Spiritual author Karen Armstrong calls theology “a species of poetry,” employing metaphor and imagery to convey spiritual truth. Luke was using this “species of poetry” when he wrote about the Ascension. So what spiritual truth is he trying to communicate?

The authors of the Christian Scriptures often allude to stories and scenes from the Hebrew Scriptures in order to express a truth about Christ. Here, Luke is alluding to Elijah’s Ascension in II Kings (2:1-12). Before leaving his faithful disciple Elisha, Elijah says to him, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha responds with a bold request: “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” Elijah, willing to grant his disciples’ request, tells him to watch him as he leaves. So Elisha watches Elijah leave but he also screams and cries out while watching Elijah leave because of the whirlwind and fire and flaming horses that snatched Elijah up into heaven! But it worked. After Elijah’s ascension, all the prophets declared, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha!”

So according to Hebrew tradition, a disciple receives the spirit of the master while watching the master ascend to heaven. That is why Jesus said, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). In fact, Jesus said his disciples (us!) will do even greater things than Jesus since he is leaving! (John 14:12) It’s almost like we will get a double dose of Jesus’s spirit!

When Jesus’s disciples received the spirit of their master at Pentecost, they also got caught up in a fiery whirlwind not too unlike Elijah’s chariot and began speaking in other languages and preaching and behaving in such a way that others thought they were drunk! And so the Church was born. (And next Sunday we celebrate this birthday of the church, the day of Pentecost.)

Now that same Spirit that empowered and seemed to intoxicate the apostles is available to all of us through our baptism. Just as the disciples received the Holy Spirit after the Ascension so do we receive the Spirit of the master through our baptism. And the Spirit of the master guides us into all truth and empowers us to do even greater things the master himself!

As we learn from Jesus’s final prayer in the Gospel of John (which we just read this morning), the Holy Spirit’s mission is to make us one as the Father and the Son are one. And just as Jesus prays to include and welcome us into that loving union (and yes, he specifically prays for us!) so are we called to include and welcome others into that same loving union. In other words, the Holy Spirit’s mission is to sweep us all into the loving unity that flows between the Father and the Son while empowering us to welcome others into that same love. And how do we tap into that powerful Spirit of our master and allow ourselves to be shaped and formed by the divine union, the same divine union that the church fathers described as a holy circle-dance (a perichoresis)? How do we abide in the Triune God?

The readings this morning offer three ways that we can be caught up into the divine union through the Holy Spirit and welcome others into that same union.

First of all, according to Acts, the disciples kept their eyes on Jesus as he ascended. In fact, the author emphasizes the fact that the disciples watch Jesus ascend by saying, “as they were watching, he was lifted up” and then reiterating it by saying again, “While he was going up…they were gazing up toward heaven.” In order for Elisha to have received the double dose of his teacher’s spirit, he had to keep his eyes on Elijah as he ascended. Elijah told him, “If you see me as I am being taken from you, [your request for a double share of my spirit] will be granted you; if not, it will not.” We inherit the Spirit through our baptism but we also tap into the power of the Spirit by keeping our eyes on Jesus as he shows up in our lives, as he shows up in our weekly worship, in the bread and wine made holy, in the Scriptures, and in the faces of those around us, especially the poor and the vulnerable.

Another way to tap into the power of the Spirit of the master is through humility. As the apostle Peter writes in his first epistle, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time.” In today’s collect, we prayed that God “exalt us.” And in order to be exalted as participants in the divine community and invite others to join us, we must be humble. These last two Sundays I have preached about 14th century English mystics (Julian of Norwich and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing). There are others including Margery Kempe, Richard Rolle and Walter Hilton and they all insist on the necessity of humility for mystical union with God. According to the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing, the only way to comprehend and attain union with the incomprehensible God is through charity and humility.

And finally, we tap into the power of the Spirit through prayer. After Jesus tries to communicate the meaning of his immanent death to his disciples in the upper room discourse, he finally looks up to heaven and prays. And his prayer (of which we read only a part) is considered the “Holy of Holies of Scripture” and is called the High Priestly prayer of Jesus, in which Christ articulates perhaps most clearly his hopes and dreams for his disciples, for us. And his hope and dream for us is not that we become rich or famous or even successful in the eyes of the world. That is not Christ’s prayer for the church. In fact, that’s what he is trying to protect the church from; he’s trying to protect his followers from getting caught up in that anxiety and “tangle of fear-thinking.” Instead, his prayer is that we, as a community, experience and then embody the love that flows between the Father and the Son, between Christ and his Abba, his Daddy. The love between the Father and the Son is personified as the Spirit, which has been generously poured upon each of us. And we can access this Spirit through prayer. Last Sunday, I invited us all to practice 10 minutes of prayerful silence each day. In order for us to grow spiritually, we need a daily discipline of intentional prayer. Dr. William Spohn, a Professor of Theology at Santa Clara University, writes, “Historically, spirituality has insisted that individuals and communities will not be transformed by the Spirit without committed practices. People may shop around for spiritual experiences, but without regular, intentional practices there is no real spirituality. Although peak experiences can make us see the possibility of change, it takes a life of regular spiritual practices in response to grace to yield a new character” (Spohn, 275).

In the last verse from our first reading, we learn that all of the apostles “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14). And the reading from 1 Peter calls us to “discipline ourselves,” which means “practice the spiritual disciplines regularly.” And two essential spiritual disciplines for us as followers of Christ are prayer and worship. We made a vow to keep these practices at our baptism, “to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” By prayers, we mean daily prayer, at least 10 minutes a day. (If you’re already doing that, try 15). And by worship and breaking of the bread, we mean at least one hour of communal worship a week, as we are doing now.

This is how we can experience and embody the love that flows freely and generously between the Father and the Son: by practicing humility and daily prayer, and by keeping our eyes on Christ as he continues to show up in our weekly worship and in those who are poor and vulnerable. These are the ways that we can overcome Ascension Deficit Disorder and allow ourselves to be transformed by the Spirit of our master, our Lord and our Savior who dreams that we (as the beloved community) do even greater things than he. Amen.

[1] Cuyler Black of https://www.inheritthemirth.com

Praying Silently with the Cloud of Unknowing

There is a story from India about four blind men who were asked by a king to describe what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant’s body. One blind man felt the leg and said the elephant is like a pillar. Another felt the tail and said the elephant was like a rope. Another one felt the belly and said the elephant was like a wall while the other felt the tusk and said the elephant was like a solid pipe. The king then said, “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each of you touched the different parts of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all features you mentioned.” Based on their own unique experiences they each arrived at their own different conclusions about the elephant.

This story is often used to help explain different understandings of the divine espoused by different major faith traditions. We are all accessing and touching different parts of God and, as a result, Christians experience God one way while Muslims experience God in another way and Hindus in yet another way. We all have limited vision and limited experiences and we all see “through a glass darkly” as St. Paul says (1 Cor 13:12). We are invited to be careful in not insisting that we have a monopoly on understanding God in God’s fullness. As Desmond Tutu says, “God is Not a Christian.” Although the fullness of God is indeed revealed in Christ in bodily form (Colossians 2:9), our human and finite vision is certainly not wide enough to comprehend the infinite and ineffable God. God is beyond our knowing. God “surpasses our understanding” as we just prayed in our Collect this morning. So it is indeed appropriate that we open ourselves up to multiple perspectives on God, whose fullness we cannot comprehend on our own. For this reason, I appreciate our newly articulated mission statement for Church of the Redeemer, understanding our church as “a sacred space for sharing individual gifts and diverse views [about the God who surpasses all understanding] as we seek to embody Christ [who represents our understanding of God].”

This mission statement was perhaps not too unlike the mission statement of a place called Areopagus in first century Athens, which we read about this morning in our reading from Acts. Now in order to get a broader context for our reading this morning, let us open our Bibles to Acts chapter 17 verse 16. “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” First of all, Paul was waiting for his missionary partners Silas and Timothy, with whom he had been sharing the Gospel across the Mediterranean, causing all kinds of trouble. While waiting, Paul notices how crowded the city of Athens is with idols. And he looks carefully at them and discovers one altar dedicated to an unknown God. Because Paul is an evangelistic genius and the Christian missionary par excellence, he knows that all cultures have within them already seeds of the Gospel (logoi spermatikoi) that need to be affirmed and watered and grown in order to challenge the violent and oppressive aspects of the culture that our counter to the Gospel. So Paul starts preaching and telling people that this “unknown God” this “God beyond all knowing” has made himself fully manifest in Christ.

Verse 17: “So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Other said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ Now all the Athenians and foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.’ Eugene Peterson translates this verse in saying something like, “The Areopagus was a great place for sharing ideas. There were always people hanging around, natives and tourists alike, waiting for the latest tidbit on most anything.” The Athenians of Areopagus were open to new ideas and wanted to hear Paul’s spiel.

So Paul tells them, “You Athenians have an altar to an unknown God, the God beyond all understanding. And I’m here to tell you that that God has revealed himself to us in Christ. That God who has given you the gift of life and existence, in whom you live and move and have your being, is the God revealed in Christ, who has risen from the dead. And through Christ, we can tap into that divine Source of Being and participate in resurrection ourselves.”

And then how do they respond? let’s continue our reading and see how the Athenians respond in verse 32: “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.”

I want to highlight this character Dionysius the Areopagite. Although he doesn’t show up anywhere else in the Bible, church historian Eusebius claims he became the first bishop of Athens. But more importantly, this character Dionysius evolved in the Christian imagination and became the great Christian icon for accessing the God beyond our understanding.

In the fifth century AD, a Syrian monk used this character Dionysius as a pseudonym for some short books he wrote on mysticism and accessing the God beyond our knowing. This author chose this pseudonym because he imagined Dionysius being moved by Paul’s sermon and then coming to experience, through Christ, the God beyond all knowing.

This author is now referred to as “Pseudo-Dionysius.” I would honestly be surprised if any of you heard of him, because I didn’t learn about him until my third year in seminary. But Pseudo-Dionysius is considered to be one of the most influential theologians in all of church history, even on par with St. Augustine of Hippo, Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther. Almost all of the Christian mystics after the 5th century have been influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius in one way or another. One mystic who is particularly indebted to Pseudo-Denys is the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a text written in Nottingham England (the old stomping grounds of Robin Hood and the Westmorelands) in the 14th century, around the same time and place as….Julian of Norwich.

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing, also known as the Cloud author, uses images to describe our relationship with the God who is beyond all thoughts. He explains that between ourselves and God there is a cloud of unknowing, which we cannot penetrate with any thoughts, but which we can penetrate through love. The Cloud author invites us to “shoot humble impulses of love” like arrows through the cloud and thereby access God not with our thoughts but with our love. And he offers a practical way to do this, that has come to be known as “Centering Prayer.” This fairly ancient prayer practice involves using a sacred word like “God” or “love” or “Christ” to help quiet the mind, to detach ourselves from our thoughts, to tame what the Buddhists call the “monkey mind.” This word is meant to repeated as a kind of mantra, as an anchor in the stream of consciousness. Whenever we find ourselves getting caught up in our thoughts, we return to the word and let go of the thoughts. By returning to the word, we return to our love for God, through which we can pierce through the cloud of unknowing.

Now this is a difficult prayer practice that requires significant commitment from its practitioners. Most Centering Prayer leaders advise practicing this prayer for at least twenty minutes at a time, twice a day. Personally, I have enough difficulty practicing it for ten minutes once a day. However, I have found it to be deeply beneficial and transformative. I find that it deepens my love for God who is beyond all knowing while also helping me develop a healthy detachment from my own thoughts. This healthy detachment has all kinds of benefits: decreased anxiety, lower blood pressure, better sleep.

Although I encourage you all to develop a habit of Centering Prayer (if you haven’t already), I also want to invite you to practice something that might be a little bit more accessible; and that is simply sitting in prayerful silence for just ten minutes a day, every day. That might look different for each of us, but I encourage you to make sure that time is both prayerful and silent. This practice of prayerful silence is a tried-and-true method for experiencing and abiding in the God beyond all knowing. It is a way to deepen our love for Christ while also expanding our experience of the infinite fullness of God. Returning to the story of the blind men and the elephant, it is a way to touch different parts of the elephant while remaining true to one’s own tradition and understanding.

I have offered this invitation to churches in the past and I have had congregants approach me months afterwards explaining how beneficial and transformative it has been for them to simply carve out this time, ten minutes of prayerful silence each day. At my commencement, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry invited us to abide in Christ by delving deep into the ancient Christian spiritual practices. Without connecting to our roots, he said, we produce no fruits.  Jesus said, “If you abide in me, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). I invite us all to abide in Christ in whom the fullness of the infinite and ineffable God dwells. We can experience this today by sitting together in prayerful silence for just two minutes right now…

 

Praying “Interly” with Julian of Norwich

Happy Mother’s Day! There is much to celebrate today. Along with Mother’s Day and some celebrations and thanksgivings, today we also celebrate the Feast Day of my favorite English mystic. She is the author of the first text written in English by a female that we know of; and, according to Thomas Merton, she is the greatest English theologian.[1] Her name is Julian of Norwich.

She was a 14th century English anchorite, which meant that she lived enclosed permanently in a room (called an anchor-hold or anchorage) attached to a church with one window facing the altar and another window facing the world outside. It would be kind of like converting our sacristy into a small apartment, where someone has chosen to live for the rest of her life. (So next time you think you’re at church too often, think of Julian of Norwich who was at church 24/7 for her entire life.) During an extreme illness, she experienced a kind of near-death experience in the form of sixteen visions, which she called “Showings.” She wrote about these visions and understood them as revelations from God. While receiving these divine revelations, Julian was not simply a passive recipient but rather an engaged participant, praying boldly, seeking God’s face, asking questions, not holding anything back. And Christ seemed to appreciate this and continued to draw her deeper into his love, encouraging her to pray with all that was within her. In one vision, Christ spoke to her and said, “Pray interly.”[2] The word “interly” is a Middle English hapax legomenon, which means it is a word that only occurs once in all of the Middle English literature that we have. It is a powerful word with polyvalent meaning.[3] To pray interly means to pray inwardly or interiorly, with all of the emotions and questions of the inner life. And praying interly also means praying entirely, with the whole self, with the body, with the physical life. When Christ said to Julian “Pray interly” he was saying, “Pray entirely, wholeheartedly, earnestly, even if you feel nothing. Bring that nothingness to me in prayer. If you’re feeling dry, barren, empty, weak or sick, bring all those parts of yourself to me. I want it all.”[4]

The Scriptures we just read also invite us to pray interly. The passage from Hebrews calls us to enter the Holy of Holies “in full assurance of faith,” with “confidence” and courage, knowing that God loves and accepts us and wants us to bring our whole selves to Him in prayer. The Psalm calls us to “seek God’s face”; and the Gospel this morning provides an example of someone praying interly, recounting the climax of a long conversation between Christ and a feisty Samaritan woman, to whom we were introduced a few weeks ago, during Lent (4th Sunday). Does anyone remember the name that Church tradition has given to this feisty Samaritan woman? Photini, which means the “Enlightened One.” Photini boldly brought her questions and confusions to Christ and Christ responded to Photini with an invitation for her to bring even more of herself to him, even those parts of which she was ashamed. And when she did bring her whole self to him, warts and all, he lovingly revealed his divine self to her: a revelation of love: “I am he, the Messiah, the one speaking to you.” The Scriptures invite us to bring our whole selves to God in prayer, even those parts of which we might be ashamed, to pray interly as Julian prayed.

Now during Julian’s lifetime, the Black Death (the Bubonic Plague) was wiping out more than a third of England’s population (and more than half of Norwich!); the Hundred Years’ War (between England and France) was well underway, claiming young people’s lives; and followers of the heretic and Bible translator John Wycliffe (known as the Lollards) were being burned at the stake all throughout England. Climate change, famine, and peasant protests and revolts convinced many that the world was nearing its apocalyptic end. And on top of all this, the people were quickly growing disillusioned with the Church and her leaders, who were proving just as power-hungry and abusive as the political leaders of the day, squabbling over rights of succession. [5] In this context, Julian prayed interly, which meant bringing to Christ her doubts and questions, asking God, “Why is there so much suffering? God, why do you allow such disturbing people to be in positions of power?” Often, we ourselves can be timid or afraid of asking God such questions, but if these are our questions then praying interly means bringing these questions to God, the way Julian did. And God held Julian lovingly in all of her questions, not giving her pat answers, but offering her images and invitations into deeper love and trust.

One invitation into deeper trust repeats like a refrain throughout her visions. Numerous times, God gently reminds her, “All shall be well. All shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.”[6] Authors such as T. S. Eliot,[7] C.S. Lewis,[8] Annie Dillard,[9] and Thomas Merton have found immense comfort in these words and have cited them in their own spiritual classics. However, what I love so much about Julian, is that she still is not satisfied with this. She looks out her window and sees that all is not well. So she continues to pray interly, saying, “Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?” She continues, “And here I wished, so far as I dared, for some plainer explanation through which I might be at ease about this matter.”[10] Julian dares to talk back to God, telling God that his response isn’t good enough. And God, who appears to appreciate her authenticity and her commitment to pray interly, responds with more revelations of love. God continually points to the Cross, the central image around which all of sixteen visions revolve. Yet through the visions, Julian interprets the Cross very differently than previous theologians like Anselm of Canterbury who understood Christ’s work on the Cross as essentially paying a debt that humanity owed to God, a debt made when humanity insulted God’s honor by sinning. For Julian, however, there is no wrath in God. She writes, “For I saw most truly that where our Lord appears, peace is received and wrath has no place; for I saw no kind of wrath in God.”[11]  She writes, “I saw no wrath except on man’s side, and he forgives that in us.”[12] If there is no wrath in God, then the work of the Cross is no longer about the paying of a debt to a dishonored (and apparently insecure) deity. Instead, the Cross is God’s compassionate response to our own wrath and violence, which we so often tend to project onto God. The Cross, instead, is God’s willingness to hold us with love no matter what, even if it means receiving our wrath and violence.

Throughout her visions, Julian experiences God in the joy of laughter, in bodily pain and sickness and even in the wondrous process of human digestion! She experiences God as a close friend, a lover, a king, a kind nurse, a courteous knight, as clothing, as a castle, as a cave, as a brother, as a father, and most of all, she experiences God as a mother, as the one true Mother. Although not the first Christian theologian to describe Christ as Mother, Julian is the first to make the Mother Christ image central to her understanding of God. In fact, Julian’s view of motherhood is so elevated that Christ is the only One who truly embodies it, no matter how wonderful our earthly mothers might be. Julian’s own mother was present to her when she was severely ill and some scholars think that Julian herself was a mother whose husband and children died from the plague before she took her anchoritic vows. Julian knew motherhood well and knew that even mothers are fallible human beings. She writes, “This fair and lovely word ‘mother’ is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or to anyone except of him and to him who is the true Mother of life and of all things.”[13] Julian understood Christ and even the Trinity as a whole as our mother and this understanding reminds us of how God reveals Godself to us as a mother in the Scriptures. Jesus himself identifies as a mother when he longs to gather the children of Jerusalem together as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings (Matthew 23:37). And in the Isaiah passage we read, God describes how He carries His people in his womb and how He will continue to preserve His fragile and vulnerable people because He made us and because He loves us.

In one of her visions, Julian experiences the tender love and maternal protection of God through a tiny hazelnut-sized object. She writes, “[God] showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand. I looked at it and thought: What can this be? And I was given this general answer: It is everything which is made. I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that it was so little that it could suddenly fall into nothing. And I was answered…it lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God. In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it.”[14] In a hazelnut-sized object, God shows Julian the universe and assures her of His love and protection.

On this Mother’s Day, Julian of Norwich invites us to pray interly, pray entirely, wholeheartedly, with our whole selves, our physical bodies, our doubts, our questions, and our emotions. Whether we’re feeling sick or bored or frustrated or disappointed, we are invited to give it all to God in prayer. If we have big, burning questions about the problem of suffering or about the current presidential administration or about the future of this church or about difficulties in our own personal lives and families, Julian’s example encourages us to bring all of that to God. Although we might not get the rational, watertight answers that we might be seeking or expecting, I promise that we will get revelations of love. As the 20th century Anglican philosopher Austin Farrer put it: “God does not give us explanations; God gives up a Son.”[15]

Finally, I want to invite you to take a hazelnut. You may take it as a reminder of God’s revelation to Julian that all creation is held within the palm of his hand. You may also take it as an invitation to appreciate God within your body by simply eating the delicious hazelnut. And you may also take it as a reminder that our true Mother God holds all that is within you and invites you to pray interly, with your whole self because if our Mother God can hold the entire universe in the palm of his hand he can certainly handle all that is within us. In the loving embrace of our Mother God, Julian tells us that “all shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” Amen.

 

Prayer for Mother’s Day:

Mother God, we give thanks for the special women who have born us, who have nurtured us, and who have prayed for our well-being. And we give thanks for all who have been mothers to us in their own unique ways and also for the opportunities for us to embody maternal love to others. May our hearts overflow with gratitude to them and to you, who formed and knitted each of us in a mother’s womb.

 

 

The Lord’s Prayer for Mother’s Day and Lady Julian Day

 

Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,

Source of all that is and that shall be,

Father and Mother of us all,

Loving God, in whom is heaven:

The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!

The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!

Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!

Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.

With the bread we need for today, feed us.

In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.

In times of temptation and testing, strengthen us.

From trials too great to endure, spare us.

From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever. Amen.

[1] “There can be no doubt that Lady Julian is the greatest of the English mystics. Not only that, but she is one of the greatest English theologians.” Thomas Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967), 140. Also see Merton, Seeds of Destruction (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1964), 275.

 

[2] Julian of Norwich, Showings Long Text, Ch 44 in Colledge and Walsh, Julian of Norwich: Showings (Paulist Press: Mahwah NJ, 1978), 249.

[3] See Daniel London, “‘Pray Interly’: Julian of Norwich’s Spirituality of Prayer” in Compass: A Review of Topical Theology. Vol 49. Issue 3. Spring 2015, pp. 14-24.

[4] Colledge and Walsh translation: “For he says: Pray wholeheartedly, though it seems to you that this has no savour for you; still it is profitable enough, though you may not feel that. Pray wholeheartedly, though you may feel nothing, though you may see nothing, yes, though you think that you could not, for in dryness and barrenness, in sickness and in weakness, then is your prayer most pleasing to me, though you think it almost tasteless to you.” (Ch. 44, 249)

[5] In what is known as the “Babylonian Captivity” or the “Great Schism” of the Western Church, Pope Urban VI claimed to be pope in Rome while Pope Clement VII claimed to be pope in Avignon. In a failed attempt to resolve the conflict, church leaders elected a third pope, Alexander V at the Council of Pisa in 1409. Finally, the conflict was resolved at the Council of Constance in 1414 with the election of Martin V.

 

[6] Julian of Norwich, Showings, Ch. 27. Colledge and Walsh, 225

[7] “And all shall be well and All manner of things shall be well When the tongues of flame are in-folded Into the crowned knot of fire And the fire and the rose are one” T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: “Little Gidding” V:255-259.

[8] “‘Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions.’” C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce: A Dream (HarperCollins: San Francisco, 2001, originally published 1946) , 140.

[9] See Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (Harper and Row: New York, 1977).

[10] Julian of Norwich, Showings Ch. 29, trans. Colledge and Walsh (Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), 227.

[11] Julian of Norwich, Showings Ch. 49Colledge and Walsh, 264.

 

[12] Julian of Norwich, Showings Ch. 48Colledge and Walsh, 262.

[13] Julian of Norwich, Showings Ch. 60Colledge and Walsh, 298-299.

[14] Edmund Colledge O.S.A and James Walsh S.J. trans. Julian of Norwich: Showings (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1978), 130. Chapter 4, Short Text.

 

[15] “The Word of God brings upon human pain and strife the consolation of eternal love. It is often thought that the Christian preacher is called upon…somehow to prove that the intolerable evils which ravage the earth are only the price of greater good. But the answer naturally provoked by such explanations is that of the suffering woman: ‘That makes it no better; it hurts just the same.’ Or even: ‘If that is what God’s love does, then for God’s sake let me have a taste of his wrath.’ No, God does not give us explanations; we do not comprehend the world, and we are not going to. It is, and it remains for us, a confused mystery of bright and dark. God does not give us explanations; he gives up a Son. Such is the spirit of the angel’s message to the shepherds: ‘Peace upon earth, good will to men…and this shall be the sign unto you: ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.’ A Son is better than an explanation. The explanation of our death leaves us no less dead that we were; but a Son gives us a life, in which to live.” Austin Farrer, The Essential Sermons (SPCK, 1991), 204.