Reflection on 2 Christmas
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In the beginning…
it is all about how we conjure it,
says the poet.
In the beginning…
was a Word
In the beginning…
the feminine holy hovered over Creation
to find the single best place to reside,
says Ben Sira in his book, Ecclesiastes,
or Sirach as it is known today.
I don’t know anything about the beginning
but New Year’s has me nostalgic
and reflective again.
Recently I told you about Theoda,
and today I want to stretch back
a few years before I knew her.
It was when I was 27 years old,
and a curate straight out of seminary
in Lafayette, Indiana.
Now you have to realize
I had been a philosophy major in college,
a passionate Existentialist and social activist.
Then I attended a renegade Episcopal seminary
but even with that, was just barely able
to tolerate the intellectual and social confines
of the Church.
In short, although The Episcopal Church
is very roomy,
I felt like a black shirt and white collar
was a tight fit from the beginning.
Unlike a lot of my classmates
whose ordinations were the culmination
of long-held dreams and ambition,
I entered priesthood
one step at a time — often tip-toeing.
As soon as I arrived at the church in Lafayette,
the very tired rector took off for a month’s vacation.
It was the sink-or-swim method.
All I can say, looking back,
is there were some incredibly gracious people
in that congregation.
One of the most gracious was Sally.
Sally was only a few years older than me
and had already given birth to four children.
Then she adopted four more.
Each adopted child had some kind of disability
and were also, I think, bi-racial.
I will never forget what she said to me
when I left that parish
at the end of my two-year internship,
newly married and about to become a rector.
Sally said that her prayer for me
was that I would have a lot of children.
“But I don’t want kids” I told her.
“You need a lot of kids,” she replied.
“They’ll stretch you,
and you need a lot of stretching.”
Oh, how right she was,
about having kids and about me.
I met Sally on my very first day in the office
at that church in Lafayette.
I was unpacking my meager office items,
a few mementos from seminary.
I can still see Sally leaning against a table
and talking all about her family.
At the time, Sally was emerging from a sojourn
among evangelical and charismatic Episcopalians,
something that seemed like the other side
of the moon to me.
Even though I was the one wearing a clerical collar,
she spoke freely and with confidence about the bible,
faith, prayer, Jesus…
all things I choked on.
“What would Jesus do” was not yet
part of the lexicon,
but if it had been,
she would have been telling me
what Jesus would do, and therefore,
what she was doing to be like Jesus.
Sally was remarkably enthusiastic
and able to tell me in detail
what God was doing in her life.
Now realize please, I was literally
days out of the seminary womb –
a place feathered with overly-rational scholasticism
and academic arrogance.
As I listened to Sally,
but not really listened as I have learned to do since,
I was flabbergasted to hear her speak about God answering her prayers
in the same tone of voice
that she would describe grocery shopping.
When she confided in me
about her prayers for a microwave oven –
which was a relatively new consumer item at the time –
I blurted our with indignation:
“Do you think God cares if you have a microwave?
Why would God give you a microwave
and allow children in the Horn of Africa to starve?”
I may even have used an expletive
because I often did in those days.
Sally looked at me,
appeared totally unaffected by what I thought
was the incongruity of her prayer for a microwave
and another mother’s starving baby,
and responded, “Well yes, I do think God cares.”
Then she told me exactly how God does such things.
I was blinded to my own arrogance
or I would have been able to recognize
that my assertions about what God could
or could not do
were just as ridiculous as Sally’s – maybe even more.
In 2008, almost thirty years after Lafayette,
I began raising money for an organization
in El Salvador.
It was for a project to support a health worker named, Gloria,
who I had come to know
and whose focus was educating
and raising the self-esteem of teenage girls
and young women.
I made a list of friends and acquaintances
from former congregations I had served,
and sent all of them a description of Gloria’s work.
In three days I had a check from Sally
that turned out to be one of the largest contributions
I would receive — and that is saying something.
Sally and I had not seen one another in at least a decade.
What I realized then, that I was too blind
to see when I was younger,
is that regardless of whether
God answered her prayer for a microwave,
Sally was one of the answers
to God’s prayers to us.
Hold that thought, please,
that God has prayers for us.
You will not be surprised to know
that I continue to discount the idea
that God provides microwaves or parking spaces
no matter how earnestly we pray for them.
Even so, I do believe that God
is intimately connected
and influential in the world.
Today, years of humbling experience later,
and years of befuddling life in between,
my sense is that God
is an absolute mystery;
and all of us are condemned to being mystics
in search of an encounter with that mystery.
In fact, that is what I would say
when someone asks
how we know anything about God.
We get an encounter with God not knowledge.
We get an experience not theory.
We get a bump in the dark not a how-to manual.
These days, I don’t theorize about God much at all;
it is enough to simply encounter the holy
in whatever way presents itself,
and let those moment influence
which direction we put one foot in front of the other.
I am able to say with some certainty
that I didn’t have when I knew Sally,
that every single one of us has had
an encounter with God…
or the holy
or the mystical
or whatever doggone thing we want to call it.
Many of us are shy
when it comes to talking about
and most of us do not have the confidence
to talk out loud about our encounters.
But that does not me we haven’t had them.
Such encounters can be Intellectual,
There are all kinds of encounters with the holy.
They are not measurable,
or replicable in a laboratory.
Instead, they are utterly subjective
and more often subtle than dramatic,
quiet than awesome,
and within the ordinary more than extraordinary.
Let me leave you with a homely example
of an ordinary encounter with the Holy…with God.
It is an encounter that most of us here have had.
You may never have thought of it
as an encounter with God,
but you could…you might…
I would even recommend it.
Think about baptism for a moment.
Think about your baptism,
which you likely do not even remember.
When we were baptized
we held hands
with a first century Ethiopian Eunuch,
a Roman Senator’s wife,
a 6th century French peasant,
a 12th century South Indian farmer,
a 17th century West African slave,
a 19th century American Robber Baron,
a 20th century Russian Pentecostal,
and a 21st century Chinese Episcopalian.
By this massive circle of hand-holding
that has taken place across time,
and over continents
and through cultures,
we have infused history
and even our very own lives,
with the presence of Jesus of Nazareth.
we actually become the body
that God can use to walk around the world
and to be involved in life as we live it –
through which God actually influences things.
We can actually become the answer
to God’s prayer for us,
as Sally has likely been for many.
It seems so ordinary
as to not constitute an encounter with God.
It seems so ordinary
as to not be holy.
But that is the point:
the presence of God is ordinary,
and God is present in the ordinary.
Through the practice of our baptisms
we are answering God’s prayers for us,
and in the process, encountering God
in the ordinary of our lives.
In the beginning…
we were baptized
and we became agents of God’s love.
We have had encounters with God ever since,
we just didn’t know how to claim it
or name it
or recognize its simple presence
within the ordinary.