Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Core Reality

The Core Reality
Psalm 19
Third Sunday after Epiphany
24 January 2010

One of the things our boys are learning in kindergarten is that everybody can be a scientist. They are learning to be curious, to be open-minded, and to investigate the world around them. Their teacher tells them that when they encounter something that looks or smells disgusting, instead of responding with, “Eww, yuck!” a scientist says, “How interesting!” It is their new favorite phrase. For them, every day has become an opportunity for scientific investigation, and there is no realm of life that cannot be approached with a scientist’s quest for knowledge.

Our contemporary culture, which excels at compartmentalization, prefers to divorce science from other facets of life. The most famous such split is the supposed divide between science and religion, which are seen to be not just distinct from each other, but in conflict. Science and poetry are also seen as completely separate fields, but this can’t really be the case, can it? There is an inherent poetry in equations, for instance – rhythm, symmetry, something like rhyme, and certainly beauty. When science shows us something new about the human body, or about the earth, or about the skies, we are brought into new awareness of how vast is the mystery of life. It is hard not to be struck by wonder and by awe, at such new discoveries. These are the same responses that poets are going for. And of course mystery, wonder, awe – these also lie at the heart of faith.

A few nights ago, one of our little scientists approached us and asked if, for his birthday, we would let him take a special trip. When we asked him where, he answered matter-of-factly, “To the center of the earth.” When I asked him how he would get there, he had an answer for that too, “A rocket drill.” His brother chimed in, “That sounds exciting. I want to go. I’m dying of curiosity to see what’s at the center of the earth.”

We know what science teaches us about what is at the center of the earth. And of course we know that it would be not only impossible but also unpleasant to attempt to take a little day trip there. But the impulse behind this birthday request is possibly universal and certainly profound – the desire to know what is at the core of reality. What is the center of life? What lies beneath that part of reality we can see? What holds everything together?

Our psalmist has some thoughts about that. He has a poet’s sensibility, a scientist’s quest for truth, and the attentive delight of a child. He starts not by pondering the center of the earth, but by pointing our gaze towards the edges of the universe.

The heavens are telling the glory of God;

and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.

Day to day pours forth speech,

and night to night declares knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words;

their voice is not heard;

yet their voice goes out through all the earth,

and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens God has set a tent for the sun,

which comes out like a bridegroom

from his wedding canopy

and like a strong man runs it course with joy.

Its rising is from the end of the heavens,

and its circuit to the end of them;

and nothing is his from its heat.

On a January weekend in Michigan, we might not agree with that bit about nothing being hid from the sun’s heat. But even grey skies and barren trees and icy wind tell of God’s glory, though for some of us it may sound more like tiny whispers than like a voice that goes out through all the earth.

The psalmist here is reflecting an ancient belief that the sun, and the moon, and the stars produce a harmony of tones by their movements, and that this harmony is sounded day and night from one end of the earth to the other.[i] The voices of the universe are not in human language – as the psalmist says, “there is no speech, not are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth.” And what they are telling is the glory of God.

The psalmist knew that creation is gorgeous enough in its own right, but there is a gift beyond that gift – what creation teaches us about God. Beauty, power, persistence, whimsy, usefulness, harmony, fierceness, interdependence, wildness – all of these will teach us about who God is, all of these will teach us how to praise God, if we pay attention.

And yet we know we cannot look at creation and see only good; there is tragedy and terror in it too. The horrific damage of the earthquake in Haiti is too fresh on our minds to be glib about how pretty nature is. Creation deals cruel blows. Theologian Paul Tillich once wrote, “Praising the glory of nature does not mean speaking of the beauty of nature alone and forgetting its overwhelming greatness and terrible power. Nature never manifests shallow beauty or merely obvious harmony.”[ii]

How do we reckon with the wild and terrifying freedom of creation? Natural disasters leave us horrified, bewildered, and enraged. They lead some of us to question God, and some of us to question if God even exists. It is the central perennial question of faith: how can God be both all-good and all-powerful and still allow such terrible things to happen? It’s a problem that cannot be settled, not entirely, and not entirely satisfactorily, not on this side of eternity.

But we can learn something from the psalmists about engagement with cruel realities. The psalms speak of God as refuge in times of destruction and distress. The psalms tell us that in response to fire and earthquake, in God’s temple all say, “Glory!” The faithful did not deny evil or tragedy, but even those things led them towards humility and reverence. It caused them to bow before the great mystery of a God who has set such a complex and uncontrollable universe in motion. It led them to respond with praise to the fierce, untamable nature of a God who is beyond our understanding or control.

But God wants more than our reverence; God wants a relationship. The psalmist, who had us looking up to the skies, now directs our eyes toward the Torah, God’s instruction. Like the sun in the sky, the Law of God revives the soul, rejoices the heart, gives light to the eyes. God’s instruction, which has been built into the very structure of the universe,[iii] has been made more explicit in Scripture.

What the psalmist is trying to help us see is that the same God whose power is proclaimed by the cosmic witness of the universe has also directed a personal word to humanity. The implications of this are staggering. The God who set the stars in the farthest galaxy also address us intimately, warmly, directly. The God who created the whole vast universe also came seeking a relationship with each of us.

God’s instruction, in creation and more overtly in Scripture, is meant to draw us into that relationship. The psalmist declares that what God’s Word accomplishes in our lives is all the good things God wants for us: vitality, wisdom, joy, enlightenment. Creation’s voice goes out over all the earth, and yet we do not hear it. But we have been given this book, and if we listen deeply, we do hear God speaking words of life.

The problem is, we’ve treated Scripture more like rules that we can’t live up to than like a relationship we’re willing to embrace. We find ourselves unable to do the things we know would keep us in harmony with God, or with each other, or with the world, or even with ourselves. We fail, and we hurt each other, and we do great damage to other people and to ourselves. And so the psalmist acknowledges our faults, and makes a petition for forgiveness. A psalm that started at the outer edges of the cosmos bends down now to the one place that matters most to God – the human heart.

Whereas creation is for us music without words, the Scriptures have been for many of us words cut off from music. Not because the music isn’t there, but because in our human limitation we have not been able to hear it, and accept it, and dance with it. So finally, God brought the music and words together for us, in the life of Jesus. His life, and death, and resurrection said the Word we needed to hear, the Word that is already written in the skies, and in our Scriptures, but that we couldn’t seem to see, couldn’t hear – that Word was Love, and only Love.

This is the core reality. This is what holds at the center – God’s love for us, and for our world, from the expanding edges of the universe to the shifting floors of the sea. When we turned away, and our love failed, God’s love remained steadfast.

We look at our creation and divorce it from any sense of reverence and connection with our creator. We look at our Scriptures and we read judgment. We read constraint. We read irrelevance. But the only thing God has ever been trying to say was, I love you. The only thing God has ever wanted is for us to live in the freedom and the refuge of that love, that we might honor and care for each other and our world.

I love you! he tried to tell us through the stars and the moon and the sun and the trees. But we couldn’t hear it. I love you! he tried to tell us again through the Scriptures. But we couldn’t accept it; we thought it was only a law we couldn’t keep. I love you! God told us one more time in Jesus, and tells us still.

In the 14th century, a 30 year-old English woman named Julian of Norwich received the first of several revelations from God. The most famous one, and the one you’ve probably heard quoted, was about a hazelnut. Her visions went on from there, for 15 years, and she continued to ask God what it all meant, when finally she received this answer:

What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end.[iv]

Love. If we yield to it and embrace it, we will know more of the same. But we will never know different, without end.

That Sacred Word, the Word that spans the universe and stretches across the pages of Scripture and finally took on flesh to reach down to the depths of our sad dark hearts – that Word is saying just one thing, and always only one thing, and never anything different, only more and more of that one word. I love you! I love you! I love you!

It only says that one thing, and it only wants one thing in return – to shine like the sun over your whole life.

[i] Paul Tillich. “Nature Mourns for a Lost Good.” The Shaking of the Foundations. 80.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] NIB. 750.

[iv] As quoted in An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. Barbara Brown Taylor. 34.

Saturday, January 9, 2010



Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Baptism of the Lord

10 January 2010

If you had gotten to be the one to pick the name on your birth certificate, what name would you have picked? Would it be something more original that what your parents chose? Or maybe less original? Is there some name you have thought would fit you better than the one they picked?

[I went through a period in my childhood when I insisted that my friends and family call me “Lisa.” I’m rather glad it didn’t stick, since about 10 years later a juggernaut of a television show debuted, with a main character named Lisa Simpson.]

I knew a woman who went through a divorce in her early 40s and changed her name. Not her last name – her first. She had been called “Susan” all her life, but suddenly she felt like her real name was “Sophia,” which means “wisdom.” Her children had given her the name when they were playing make-believe, and she embraced it as her true identity, letting herself be named by her children instead of her parents. She felt like it gave her a fresh start on a new life following the breakdown of her marriage. I only met her after she was already going by Sophia, and I thought it suited her perfectly – she was wise, and her wisdom was hard-won. But I understand that the change in her name was rather difficult for her friends and family to adjust to. Claiming who we really are can be hard on those who thought they already knew who we were.

Most of us don’t get to choose the names that other people call us. Our parents name us something, and that’s what we go by, or some variation of it. Along the way, we pick up other names, too. Smelly Elli. Fatty Patty. Spacey Stacey. Schoolmates think they are so clever in their cruelty.

Most of the names we live under are a little more subtle than that. To name something or someone is an act of creation – it creates a reality. People in our lives say things to us or about us, and those things help create our sense of our identity. Stupid. Ugly. Lazy. Failure. We don’t choose these names either, but if we’re shackled with them long enough, we begin to consent to the truth in them. We begin to see ourselves through those lenses. We will never be smart enough, or good-looking enough. We don’t deserve to be happy or successful. We can never work hard enough or accomplish enough to get the approval or love we seek. We can never throw off our old names. Or at least it seems that way – in part because those names have sunk down into our hearts. We have let them claim us.

Others of us have worked hard to build our identities into something rock solid and unassailable. We mean to make a name for ourselves. Hard worker. Successful. Attractive. Brilliant. We have put an awful lot of stock into our self-made identities, and we can do just fine with them for a long time – until something like illness, or aging, or disaster, does something to shake those identities or even shatter them.

Jesus had a mighty big name to live up to. His name meant “God saves.” In this morning’s gospel story, he gets a new name, too. It doesn’t replace his old name, it simply clarifies it. He comes to the River Jordan, where John is baptizing people. The people there are getting washed in the river, repenting of their old ways, rising from the waters to embrace a new life. Luke tells us that these people were filled with expectation. They were there at that river’s edge looking for something, hoping for something. The gospels never explain why Jesus sought baptism, too, but they agree that he did. Luke’s focus is not on the baptism itself but on what happens next.

He tells us that after all the people had been baptized, and after Jesus also had been baptized, Jesus was praying. Luke is the only one to note this detail. In this Gospel, it is the first thing Jesus does after coming up out of those waters, and throughout his Gospel, Luke will show us Jesus praying. In Luke, at the most significant moments of Jesus’ life, he stops to pray. It is the pattern of his life and of his ministry.

In this instance, while he is praying, the heavens are opened, and the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove. And a voice comes from heaven, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” His name has now been augmented, deepened. He is called Son. He is called Pleasing. He is called Beloved.

Before his temptation in the wilderness, before the work of his ministry, before his long road to the cross, before a mocking sign calling him “King of the Jews” is hung over him on that cross - these are the words that are hung over his life: Beloved, Pleasing, Son. Living under the reality of this claim, he moves out in freedom and with courage to love, to serve, to teach, to die. The names that God pronounced over him would ultimately undo the mocking claims that others would make about him. He was freed from having to prove himself, or defend himself. He didn’t have to exercise any power or control but love. He could live like this because he knew who he was.

In his baptism, Jesus identified with us. Some would say there was no need for the sinless one to submit to a baptism of repentance. His descent into those waters, though, was a sign of his solidarity with us. God speaks in this morning’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…” and in Jesus this was visibly, physically so.

Just as in his baptism he identified with us, so in our baptism we take on his identity. We are baptized into Christ. No words came down audibly from heaven when we were raised from those waters, but the truth is still the same. God speaks over our lives, too: “You are my child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The words are offered not because we are good, but because we are loved. They are not an approval of our success but the ground of our being. We are named by God’s grace, and the power in that cannot be undone by any other name or claim.

This is already so, whether we are living into it or not. God has already said it: You are mine. You are Beloved. With you I am well pleased. Beloved is already our name. The hard part is not earning that name, but accepting it.

Some of us spend our whole lives looking for evidence that we are okay, we are accepted, we are loved. We seek, we grasp, we clutch at things, or experiences, or people that will make us feel like we matter. It is from this gnawing neediness that we make some of our worst decisions. We use people. We act out of selfishness. We try to prop ourselves up by pushing others down. We react out of fear and out of meanness, instead of out of love and assurance. Would we do this if we knew who we really were?

What would our lives look like if we, like Jesus, were free from having to prove ourselves, or defend ourselves? What if we, too, didn’t have to exercise any power or control but love? What if we already knew we had what we needed, so that we didn’t have to work so hard to try to get it from other people or from things? What kind of life would you live, if you had that kind of freedom? And power? And assurance?

The reality has already been written over our lives, the name has already been spoken as truth: You are mine, God says. You are the Beloved. With you, I am well pleased. The naming has already been done; how do we go about claiming it?

Maybe it would help if we understood these words from God not just as a claim but also as a call – a call to intimacy. Beloved – it is such a powerful and intimate word. In it is an invitation. If you are someone’s beloved, you belong to them in a way that you belong to no one else. And if you are someone’s beloved, you also spend time with that person, intimate time, opening yourself up to know and to be known, to give love and to receive love. You can be sure of that love, because you spend time getting in touch with it. Jesus showed us the way. The first thing he did when he came up from those waters was to pray. If prayer were to become the pattern of our lives, maybe we too would live more fully out of the power and the freedom of knowing who we really are.

In our struggle to claim the identity we’ve been given, we might also find some strength in recognizing our place in a whole family of beloved children. Janet Wolf, former pastor of Hobson United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, tells the story of a woman named Fayette, a homeless, mentally ill woman who joined the new member class at Hobson. Fayette was captivated by what Reverend Wolf had to say about baptism. Wolf spoke of baptism as “this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone.” During the class, Fayette would repeatedly ask, “And when I’m baptized, I am …?” And the class learned to respond, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” Fayette would respond, “Oh, yes!” and then the class would get back to their discussion.

On the day of Fayette’s baptism, Fayette went under, came up sputtering, and cried, “And now I am …?” And the congregation all together responded, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” “Oh, yes!” she shouted back. And she danced around the fellowship hall that day.[i]

Fayette claimed the power of those words, and she did it, in part, by relying on other people to remind her of it. We don’t claim the words alone, but together. This is part of what the church exists for – to remind each other who we are: beloved, pleasing children of God. We struggle to believe it on our own. But we come here, together, to be reminded that we are more than our shortcomings, our pettiness, our anxieties, our mistakes. We are more than what we have done, and we are more than what has been done to us. We are the beloved.

There is power in that. There is freedom. Can you sense that? To understand ourselves as entirely loved, entirely claimed, and so so precious, in an ultimate and irrevocable way. If we can receive that reality, if we can give ourselves to its truth, we can be set free for a whole new kind of living. A life of giving, joy, service, embrace, goodness, kindness, gentleness, fearlessness. If we can live into our real names, we can go out from this place, apart and together, to help others know themselves as beloved too.

All of us have a lot of names. Most of them are ones we did not choose for ourselves. Some of them are names that need to be thrown off like a worn-out coat. But there is a name that still holds. A long time ago, God spoke it over Jesus, and then God spoke it over your life and mine. Every day is an opportunity to immerse ourselves again in the reality of it, like baptismal waters washing over us. You are mine, God says. You are my child. You are the beloved.

Let’s live like it.

[i] Janet Wolf’s story comes from The Upper Room Disciplines, 1999. I found it quoted in The Painted Prayerbook at