Texts for Today
Excerpt From, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard
Thomas Merton wrote, “There is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues.” There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.
Ezekiel excoriates false prophets as those who have “not gone up into the gaps.” The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once-blind man unbound. The gaps are the clifts in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fiords splitting the cliffs of mystery. Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock – more than a maple – a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.
Gospel: Luke 18:9-14
No matter how old
or young we are,
there are gaps to stalk.
One morning this week I watched
as a toddler wandered around a room full of clergy
who were droning on about boring Church stuff
of little consequence to anyone.
Meanwhile the toddler was leaning
and bumping his head
and getting back up and doing it all over again.
To that little muffin
the entire world was a gap,
and the only way he was going to learn to walk
was to stalk every gap he could find.
I have witnessed first hand
people on their deathbed stalking the gaps –
demons of the mind they wrestled to the ground,
or reconciliations they had feared their whole lives,
and forgiveness’s received and granted
with pain as well as with its release –
and they simply refused to be timid
even as they came to their death.
So whether you are a Freshman
sitting pretty with four years to go;
or a senior sweating the day after graduation;
or a mid-lifer just figuring out
you have less ahead than you do behind;
or you are just plain old
and have the aches and brittle bones to prove it;
stalking the gaps
is not only available to you,
it comes highly recommended
as a crucial element of our spiritual practice
and true well-being.
I just love that Tomas Merton phrase,
and Annie Dillard’s commentary on it:
Merton: “There is always a temptation to diddle in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues.”
Dillard: “There is always an enormous temptation
in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends
and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end…
But the world is wilder than that in all directions,
more dangerous and bitter,
more extravagant and bright…
We are making hay when we should be making whoopee,
raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain,
The Biblical reference in the longer quote about “stalking gaps,”
is to Exodus 32 when Moses is on the Mountain of God
and just before he receives the 10 Commandments
on the stone tablets.
As any student of the holy mysteries knows,
a human cannot look upon God and live.
So God tells Moses to go hide in a cleft in the rock,
in other words, find a gap.
“Get in there,” God says,
“and when I pass by in all my glory,
you can peek out at my butt (that what God says),
but you cannot see my face or you will die.”
So that’s what Moses does.
As the pluperfect nexus of all life-and-energy
whirls over the top of the mountain
more intense than an F7 tornado,
Moses, shivering and shaking most likely,
watches as the Creator of the Cosmos
brushes past him.
In all the world of theological legend,
only Jesus and Mohammad have ever gotten so close
to the God of the Universe
while still breathing air.
But that super-charged gap is not the only one.
You and I have many other smaller gaps available to us
that we have not dared to stalk.
I think church should help us stalk the gaps in our lives
rather than spread out a pall
to cover them over
so we do not have to notice them.
What church often does instead though,
is encourage us to be like Dorothy
at the end of her journey in OZ,
when she clicks her heels
and wishes for home.
But I must be careful here
with this stalking-the-gaps language,
because I don’t want us to imagine
that spirituality is only about adventure.
Sometimes the gaps we need to stalk
are right in the midst of where we live
and sewn right into what we are doing now.
Many of the most familiar religious myths
focus on heroic adventure
when in fact, the work of spirituality
is more often akin to farming.
It is about being present to what we plant,
and nurturing what we have sewn.
It is about moving through the cycles
with their thin veneer of predictability,
under which bubbles storms
There is adventure aplenty
for people who work the land,
by those who are always fluttering through travels.
So in this metaphor of stalking the gaps in our lives,
please do not hear it as referring only to
extraordinary and heroic adventures.
In the very ordinary soil of our lives
there are opportunities
to enter into the gaps where uncertainty reigns,
where we receive visions we had not looked for,
and where we encounter the holiness of God
we had not asked for.
So instead of warming our feet by the fire
just a little longer,
and getting rested up just a little bit more;
and instead of having just one more cup of coffee
and maybe a piece of blueberry pie;
we might instead,
and move toward that thing in the yard
which we think we see from time to time
peeking at us through the window.
It may be one of those things,
like a stone in our shoe,
which has been bugging us for a long time.
It could be a long-lasting grief
that has never really healed.
It might be a friendship that soured
or one that simple lapsed into silence.
It could be a long buried tension
with someone we love
that we know we “should” address
but have preferred to let the dog lie.
The gaps we could
or should stalk,
are most likely inside of us as well.
It could be a fear that has walled us inside ourselves
in over time.
It might be a resentment
we have been nursing like mother’s milk.
It may be shame or guilt about something
we haven’t figured out how to let go of.
We do not really have to go looking for the gaps
that God invites us to stalk;
there are plenty of them all around
and within us,
as we live our ordinary old lives.
The point is to stalk them rather than hide from them,
or ignore them,
or deny them.
It seems to me that religion and spirituality
and challenge us
to stalk the gaps.
To put it in the terms of Jesus parable we heard today,
we would prefer to feel like the Pharisee,
who after all,
was quite pleased and at peace with himself;
even grateful for his well-being.
That is what we seek:
to feel right with the world
and grateful for our blessings.
And yet, we need a good, loud tax collector inside
to rend us from within
and beg for mercy
because he or she knows
that our lives have tipped the scales of justice against us in ways we do not even recognize.
We want to feel like the Pharisee
but we need the agitation of the tax collector.
It is just too easy for us to get lulled to sleep by the fire.
When we are satisfied like the Pharisee
it is nigh impossible
for us to leave the comfort zone
until tragedy or crisis kicks us out.
It seems like an obvious and reasonable choice
to pick the warmth of the fire
over the discomforts and hazards of stalking the gaps.
And in popular religion and spirituality these days
it seems more about warming ourselves by the hearth.
Even that word, “spirituality,”
which has surpassed “religion” as the preferred modality,
sounds like a warm bath.
And yet, if we poke around in the profiles of courage
of the religious super-heroes
in just about any religion,
they were all gap-stalkers.
It was by stalking the gaps in their lives
and in their worlds
that they discovered what it was
they then taught to others.
It can seem more idyllic than that
when we read the lyrical verses of mystics like
Rabia of Basra,
Francis of Assisi,
Julian of Norwich;
or the wise sayings and poignant stories
But their words are more heat than warmth,
more fire than gentle glow.
Ignited by what they encountered
in the dark gaps of mystery in their lives,
they challenge us to enter into what we do not know.
They urge us to enter the spaces in our lives
we have steadfastly ignored.
Now I tell you this as a protest
as much as a proclamation.
I have a new house,
and I am in the critical stage
of polishing a new novel
so I can try to get it published.
All I want to do in the whole-wide world
is diddle around with the thousand of little projects
that make a house a home,
and sit in my big brown chair
(which is also right by the fire)
and tap away at the computer.
Really, that is all I want to do –
it would make me so happy.
But you know what happened?
The congregation I am pastoring
has decided to stalk the gap of its future
and embark on a new way of doing things –
an almost entirely uncharted territory for a church.
For those here today who don’t know it,
Trinity has just agreed to pursue a partnership
with a developer
to create a beautiful boutique hotel,
and event center
in this building and on these grounds.
But not simply to slip away into the night
as a memory of what was once here,
rather, to co-exist with the new enterprise
and even venture out and create new options
beyond this building
and probably beyond our comfort zone.
This courageous congregation
has just entered into an unknown space
and is stalking the gap of its future.
If you are just visiting, join us.
We need new friends
and what we are about to learn together,
if God is involved in this craziness,
is likely to change us in ways we never expected.
If you are new or visiting,
this place is a ripe fruit
and you might want to take a big bite.
We have become,
without really meaning to,
a big fat example
of stalking the gaps.
So a lot of my projects will have to wait;
and my novel can only creep to the finish line.
Without a doubt
what is happening here
will bump up against your desires and intentions too,
and change your agenda
and put you out of sorts.
That is what happens
when we get involved with God
and enter into unknown spaces
that have always been right here with us
but that we feared to penetrate.
The only thing left to do
is hold one another’s hands –
that’s the best thing to do when walking into
the unknown together!
No more raising tomatoes,
we’re raising Lazarus
and we’ll need a lot of God for that!
We’ll need a lot of each other too.