Imagination: A Sermon

A sermon offered in preaching class…


“I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” ~ Ephesians 3:14-21

“Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” ~ John 6:1-14

***

Let us hear these song lyrics by singer-songwriter Bethany Dillon as a prayer today:

“I need to be reminded of who I was
When I took my first steps out the door
All I said now follows me around
I’m reminded I’m not like that anymore

I uprooted and miles behind me
Are the faces and the home I love
You’ve brought to my attention
I’m slowly changing and becoming
What I wanted to stop

Isn’t that just like a finite mind
Setting out with such righteous indignation
But now I’m at your feet
Could you look at me with some imagination”

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

***

If you’re a second-year M.Div. student at Duke Divinity School, you’ve likely done a fair bit of reflecting recently. Last week, we submitted our middler reviews. Some of us had a required Field Ed reflection on Friday afternoon.

As for me, I wound up reflecting at one point all the way back to when I visited Duke as a prospective student two years ago. To who I was “when I took my first steps out the door,” as we prayed a moment ago. I already had a couple friends who were current students here, so the night before my actual campus visit I met up with these friends for dinner. They spoke so naturally about their assignments and something they called precepts and used terminology that I’m still not always sure how to pronounce much less use. Before I went to bed that night, I googled the term “impostor syndrome,” read about it, and nodded. “Persistent fear of being ‘not good enough’ or being exposed as a fraud.”

But now I’m at your feet.

God, could you look at me with some imagination?

Yes, according to Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, our God is a God of imagination. Taking something and seeing something more. A God of “breadth and length and height and depth” exceeding what even my best Vacation Bible School-style hand movements could express. You know, “deep and wide, deep and wide,” a river flowing deep and wide.

In Paul’s language, our God is a God of love “that surpasses knowledge.” A God of power “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” A God of bread and wine that is impossibly the body and blood of Christ. And, in our gospel lesson today, a God of plain old loaves and fish that is a feast for all.

***

Imagine this story for a minute through the eyes of the disciples. It’s the end of the work day. You’re tired. You’re trying to sit by the sea, put your feet up with your co-workers, and take a break.

But your whole community and then some is showing up with questions and curiosities for your boss, Jesus. He says to serve them, to feed them. All of them.

You want to do what your supervisor says of course, but at the same time you’re thinking, well…a) I’m off the clock, Jesus. C’mon, really? b) That’s not possible, Jesus. Really?

It would be much too expensive to care for them all. Six months’ income would still barely do anything, one of the disciples says.

A kid here has five loaves of bread and two fish, another disciple says, just stating the facts, but what difference does that make?

Six months’ income. Five loaves. Two fish. Five thousand people. You’d make a pretty good finance committee, disciples, and there’s a time and place for that for sure. But what can you do with that budget? Moreover, what can Jesus do for the people?

Jesus takes that bread and fish, the most ordinary thing of the earth and most ordinary thing of the sea, and he tells the whole clamoring crowd to sit down. He gives thanks. Thanks for the real substances in his hands, the really large crowd gathered around, and maybe even the realism of the disciples. And it’s as though he too says,

But now I’m at your feet

Would you look at me with some imagination?

*** 

When Paul looked at Jesus with some imagination, his writing style seriously showed it. Good writing teachers usually warn against using too many superlatives. A preceptor might dock points from Paul’s last sentence in our passage today: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.”

Abundantly. Far. More.

This is excessive wordiness, the editor in me wants to say.

This is impossible hopefulness, the skeptic in me wants to say.

And at the same time…this is an abundant Jesus, the Spirit in me has to admit.

Because Jesus not only provided for the five thousand – as if that wasn’t miracle enough – but satisfied the five thousand. Such that the disciples collected twelve baskets of leftovers. In this way, Jesus saw what little there was to work with at the outset, saw that it could be enough, and indeed saw that it could be more than enough.

Abundantly far more than enough to work even within, among, and through us today. In our imaginations and, for us as students, our educations and vocations. Seeing realistically what is and seeing hopefully what could be.

See, as I reflected last week, amidst the flurry of portfolios and Field Ed reflections, I remembered myself as a prospective student, yes, but I also imagined myself as prospective…pastor? I could sort of picture it because on a recent Sunday, serving at my Field Ed church, I had wound up serving the Communion bread – a responsibility in my Episcopal tradition that’s revered and reserved quite strictly for the ordained clergy or if absolutely necessary laypeople serving with specific clerical permission. This particular Sunday, my church had fewer clergy there than usual, so at the very last minute a priest with a panicked look on her face handed me a piece of bread and told me, “you’re it.” Like a holy game of tag.

I don’t want to be it, I thought, as I shuffled down the chancel steps toward the congregation, white robes billowing at my sides. I’m not prepared to be ‘it.’ I’m just an intern. Just a student. Just uhh…What do I say now? I thought, as a line of parishioners approached. The bread of…the body…the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.

Just a kid with five loaves and two fish.

But now I’m at your feet.

God, could you look at me with some imagination?

*** 

God, could you look at this classroom as a room of preachers? Could you look at this school as a bustling kitchen preparing loaves and fish, even if they sometimes look like papers and projects? Could you take what very little gifts we have to offer, give thanks, and distribute them to others so that people could say as the gospel writer did that “this [this Jesus Christ] is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

God can. And has. Will you?

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Some Words on Wordlessness: A Sermon

A sermon offered in Preaching class last week…


“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” ~ Romans 8:25-27

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

***

It was sophomore year of college and my friend Alex had just sent me this text message: “I need to talk to someone. Can we meet up? Soon please.”

I knew he had been having a hard time. Several weeks prior, a classmate of ours had passed away from suicide, and Alex had been thrown into an ocean of grief, guilt, and even questions about death and the afterlife.

But that evening when I met Alex on campus he couldn’t articulate any of that. He had wanted to talk to someone…but couldn’t get the words out. We sat there for ten minutes in almost total silence.

Until eventually I said quietly, “Use your words, Alex. Just one word. Or a few. Otherwise, I don’t know how to help you.”

He said just a little. And I remember a lot. Not a lot of words. But a lot of Holy Spirit hovering somewhere around our lack of words.

***

When I think of this passage from Romans 8 that we’re looking at today, there’s a number of images that come to my mind.

For instance, I joked with a friend once that maybe these “sighs,” also sometimes translated as “groanings,” too deep for words are like the character Dory in the movie Finding Nemo trying to speak “whale” language. In several scenes, Dory intones her voice in all kinds of exaggerated ways. All the while, she harbors this seemingly naïve faith that the whales will understand her…and lo and behold, they do. The metaphor kind of works.

On a more serious note, I’ve heard it said on occasion that these sighs or groans represent praying in tongues or “praying in the Spirit,” understood differently by different people.

But, when I really think about this text, I see much more than “whale” language, more even than a prayer language, and more about what happens when we don’t have the language for what we’re experiencing.

Have you ever been there? Maybe sitting on your couch watching a tragedy unfold on the news – like even what’s happened in Las Vegas today – or sitting with a grieving person during your Field Ed or CPE or in your own personal life. I can’t believe it, you say, there are no words, ironically using words to describe your feeling of wordlessness because that’s simply the best that our human limitations can muster.

There are no words. Just sighs too deep for words.

I wonder, psychologically, what kinds of conditions can render us speechless in this way? What life circumstances have the power to take away our words and reduce usually articulate, even verbose people like the apostle Paul into sighs and groans?

I see at least three ways to consider the experience of speechlessness.

We can be stunned speechless, standing in awe of God or God’s creation, of sunsets or oceans or acts of kindness. We smile and let out a sigh too deep for words.

We can also be depressed into speechlessness; after all, decreased social connectivity – including communication with friends, family, and I would say God – is among the chief symptoms of clinical depression. We hide away and maybe cry and let out a sigh too deep for words.

Finally, and related to being depressed, people can be oppressed into speechlessness. Deeply, daily, this is one big sigh too deep for words.

It’s this last condition – oppression – that I’d like to focus on the most today.

***

Dr. Christie Cozad Neuger, a scholar of pastoral care and counseling, spends a great deal of time in her book Counseling Women describing the cultural phenomenon of “women’s loss of voice” and emphasizing the role of pastors, counselors, and hopefully all of us in “helping women come to voice.” To be sure, the struggle of voicelessness and the process of coming to voice is experienced not only by women but by all manner of minority persons whether ethnic, racial, sexual, socioeconomic, or otherwise. Neuger describes the frequency with which minorities have no voice for making narrative, cohesive sense of some of their experiences as well as the frequency with which minorities are not heard even when they do speak up and not believed even when they are heard.

In the example of a sexual assault survivor, for instance, she would statistically be very likely to experience a sense of shock, shame, or intimidation that locks her into silence during and after the initial impact – a silence around this topic lasting for hours, days, months, or even years. Difficulty identifying someone willing and able to listen. Difficulty being believed by friends, family, media, and the legal system who say that she’s exaggerating, seeking attention, or “was asking for it.”

There’s a reason that trauma studies have often used the language of “saying the unsayable” or “bearing the unbearable.”

There are no words. Just sighs too deep for words.        

***

This, my friends, is precisely where the Holy Spirit comes in.

The Holy Spirit who helps us in our weakness. In our sighs and groans. In the speechlessness of sublime joy, of deep depression, or of systemic oppression. And, yes, also in the wordless writer’s block of the divinity student writing theology midterms.

How exactly does the Holy Spirit help us in these times?

Well, twice just in these few verses from Romans 8, Paul repeats that the Spirit intercedes.

And what does that mean? According to Merriam Webster, to intercede means to go between, coming straight from the Latin roots “inter” meaning between and “cede” meaning go. The Holy Spirit goes between us and God. This means that the Spirit understands us and, with that understanding, speaks to God or you might even say advocates to God on our behalf. The Spirit connects me to God, you to God, us to God. The Spirit runs through our veins like a telephone wire telling God who we are, what we feel, what we think, what we need – even or perhaps especially when we can’t quite find the words to understand it or say it ourselves.

What does this mean for the oppressed? For the trauma survivor that I spoke of earlier? This means that God, through the Holy Spirit, understands her story, her personhood, her cries and sighs.

This means that God longs for us who are survivors to come to voice – not just on our own in our wordless weakness but in the power of the Spirit.

This means, too, that God longs for us who are not ourselves oppressed to come to voice on behalf of the oppressed – again not just in our wordless, shrugging, “what can I do?” kind of weakness but in the power of the Spirit.

***

I think of my friend Alex back in college and what I told him at the time: “Use your words. Just a few. Otherwise, I don’t know how to help you.”

For me and Alex, with our human limitations, that was true. We need language – at least in some form and to some extent – to understand one another.

But God?

God is not limited to language in the way that we are. God’s ways are “higher than our ways.”

So, with Romans 8 in mind, I imagine God saying to Alex – and to us: “Don’t worry about your words – or lack thereof. I welcome your silence. When you’re ready, I’ll welcome your words. Wherever you’re at, I welcome you. By the Holy Spirit, I know you and know how to help you.”

***

I used to think this passage in Romans was an excuse to stop trying when praying is kinda hard. As though it says with a shrug, “Don’t know how to pray? That’s OK. Just take it easy. Sigh. Groan. Whatever.”

But now, even in preparing for today’s sermon, I’ve realized this passage is an invitation not to stop trying but to stop trying so hard on my own, leaning on my own strength, when praying is kinda hard.

On our own? Sometimes there’s no words. Just sighs too deep for words.

But with the Spirit? Those sighs can start to shift from voices being depressed or oppressed in this world toward voices being expressed in the Spirit. May we take up this invitation and join in this liberation.

Amen.

An Update and a Sermon

Confession: I haven’t written on the blog in over 2 months. Sorry, friends.

In those months, I’ve been dedicating mental energy to transitions like moving to a new apartment and starting my second year of seminary, including an internship at a church and classes on Theology, American Christianity, Preaching, and Theology & Trauma (that last one’s my favorite!). Writing-wise, I’ve published a little on The Mighty and The Mudroom. It’s funny seeing those two websites stuck together in one sentence like that — mighty and messy. Sounds about right.

But, mostly, it feels like I’ve been writing sermons for my preaching class (among other assignments for other classes). Some shorter, some longer. Some I really love, some less so.

Since that’s what I’m writing these days, sermons are mostly what I’ll be offering on the blog in the coming months — reflections on Bible passages, probably infused with my own interests in intersections of faith, mental health, and social justice.

To start off: a short homily on John 21:15-17

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

Rejection. Dejection. That’s what Peter’s experiencing when we see him in this encounter with Jesus. He has seen Jesus crucified; he has denied Jesus three times; he has lost his hope and lost his way.

And dejection is what I was experiencing some months ago after some particularly difficult meetings at church – meetings that made me profoundly doubt my call to serve God. Like Peter, I felt that I had lost my hope and lost my way.

Maybe on occasion you have too.

But the thing is, in that very same state of despair I met Jesus. After those difficult, doubt-filled meetings, I went down the hall to the church’s empty, echoing sanctuary, looked up at a stained glass portrait of Jesus surrounded by a flock of sheep around his feet, and told that shepherd to lead me. Actually, I think I told Jesus something like “What the hell? I can’t. Just can’t. I’m done.” (Apparently sentences longer than two words weren’t working so well!)

c06706bd0890caf9891c0bc1843ef462To which stained-glass shepherd Jesus replied in my mind: “Do you love me, Julia?”

“Yes, Jesus, you know I love you,” I replied.

“Then feed my sheep,” Jesus said.

I let this mental exchange play out three times just as it had with Peter, growing more annoyed and more amused each time just as I imagine Peter might have felt.

“Feed my sheep,” Jesus kept saying, “whatever that looks like, whether or not there will ever be a collar around your neck or a title attached to your name. Feed them the Word of God, words of hope, acts of mercy, the body of Christ, the cup of salvation. Just feed them.”

Interestingly, in the months to come, as I wondered how to live out this command – particularly in my Divinity School context – my spiritual director would ask me month after month after month, sounding rather like Jesus questioning Peter time after time after time: “Are you still committed to this?”

With a sigh, I would say each time: “Yes, Liz, I’m still committed to this.”

“Then feed his sheep.”

It’s a frustrating redundancy. But it’s also a necessary one. God knows we need reminders of why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Reminders to feed his sheep. Feed his sheep. And feed his sheep.

 

Heartbeat: A Travel Blog

I am very decidedly a “city person.” So much so that, during seminary orientation last year, when some new friends invited me to “go exploring” with them I assumed they meant exploring downtown. Lo and behold, they meant exploring a state park. So off I went hiking.

For the past 4 days, I hit the road and spent time in Nashville, Tennessee, “Music City USA” with population nearly 700 thousand, and in Bryson City, North Carolina, a little Smoky Mountain town with population 1-2 thousand. City person as I am, you might guess which location I enjoyed most. But you’d probably guess wrong.

In Bryson City, I was struck with the gift of the small town, the gift of getting away from home, work, school, and errands, trading them all in for a slower pace and quieter place even just for a couple days.

No computer. Sometimes no cell signal or WiFi to enable staring at my smart phone as so many of us are apt to to do these days. Just me and the friend I was visiting, deciding at any given moment whether to go shopping for fresh produce on a farm or tubing on a river or contra dancing at the Sneak E Squirrel (no joke).

At dusk, my friend and I went to a park with varying lengths of hiking trails, each leading the hiker to a waterfall. Unprepared for a long hike, we selected a very short but (in my opinion) very steep trail.

After a series of steep steps, I stopped and put my hand on my chest and told my friend a bit worriedly, “My heart’s beating really fast.”

“That means you’re alive!” she said joyfully, putting her hand over her chest to feel its rhythmic beating.

“I guess that’s true. I’m alive!” I echoed with a laugh.

20286778_10209104929289986_4948139808650309407_oBy this time we had reached the base of the waterfall, where we could stand on a little bridge looking directly at the water streaming down the rock face in front of us. For a quiet minute we just stood there, hands over our hearts as if pledging allegiance to God’s good Creation.

On the walk back, we marveled at the fireflies making the air around us glisten. Stars on earth,  we called them. Angels of the forest.

Before leaving the park, we rolled up our jeans and took off our shoes and stepped into the cool river water. Looking out into the evening, I found nothing to feel — no past griefs or future fears — but the natural elements presently surrounding my senses. The air and water on my skin, sand and rock under my toes, birds and bugs singing in my ears, setting sun before my eyes.

Maybe it was like the line from Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower: “And in that moment I swear we were infinite.”

Because we are infinite. It just takes stepping out of our finite schedules to see it. Setting aside for a second the nine-to-fives, meeting agendas, school syllabi, and whatever other conceptions of time may constrict us. (Liturgical calendars still allowed, in my opinion.)

A lot of people travel in the summer, and if you’re one of those people I’d challenge you to make that travel a pilgrimage — an intentional journey open to spiritual discovery.

Pilgrimage surprises us — like the surprise of my “city person” soul riveted by the river.

Pilgrimage helps the heart beat.

Pilgrimage reminds us we’re alive. 

Religious Trauma and the Binding of Isaac

1200px-sacrifice_of_isaac-caravaggio_28uffizi29“Deceived, tied up, and held at knife-point — all by his own father? Because God said so? Talk about traumatic!” an older lady exclaimed.

I was sitting in a lectionary Bible study this morning, discussing the story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19) as many lectionary users may have done today. And let’s just say the conversation wasn’t easy. The bunch of us, perhaps especially those who are parents, appeared aghast at a God who would lead Abraham to the point of so nearly killing his son Isaac.

What stood out to me was the group’s conception of the event as traumatic.

This summer, I’ve been doing some particularly focused reading on the topic of religious trauma, starting with the work of trauma therapist and contemplative activist Teresa Pasquale and moving next into the pastoral perspective of PCUSA minister and writer Carol Howard Merritt.

According to Pasquale, “trauma in a religious context can be seen as any painful experience perpetrated by family, friends, community members, or institutions inside of a religion” (Sacred Wounds, 22). Some of the more difficult yet all-too-real case examples that Pasquale cites include sexual abuse perpetrated by religious leaders and ostracism of LGBTQ persons initiated by religious leaders. She goes into great detail regarding types of trauma, types of trauma responses, symptoms and treatment of PTSD, and more.

In my seminary studies this past year, I learned that one of the lenses through which I might conduct Bible study (and through which, it turns out, I enjoy conducting Bible study!) is through the lens of trauma theory. This simply means reading biblical narratives with an awareness of the psychological experiences occurring within and among the characters.

What psychological experiences might be occurring within Abraham, for example? Fear. Dread. An anxious hope that indeed, as promised, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering,” thus sparing Isaac from death (Gen. 22:8).

And Isaac? Shock. Anger. Betrayal. An anxious, adrenaline-filled relief that, in the very last second, indeed “Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son” (Gen. 22:13).

Two truths are evident:

  1. The binding of Isaac qualifies as a traumatic event — an instance of religious trauma to be exact. I can imagine Isaac triggered for years to come, sweating or hyperventilating or experiencing other panic symptoms at the sight of normally neutral or even good things such as firewood, knives, an altar, or his own father. I can imagine Isaac as a teenager reminding his father of the event during times of familial conflict. (“You almost killed me that one time! What kind of loving father does that?”)
  2. God provides. The keyword “provide” occurs at least three times in the story, in verses 8 and 14. What’s more, in two of those occurrences (verse 14), Abraham names the place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Naming of people and places was a significant act in the ancient world, which suggests God’s provision as a significant theme of this story.

Importantly, Truth #2 does not negate Truth #1 — lest we try to become entirely saccharine about what’s happening here. God’s provision in the end does not give us permission to ignore a person’s painful process leading up to the end. A story that only looks at the end is no good story at all.

And, on the flip side, Truth #1 does not negate Truth #2 — lest we try to become entirely cynical about what’s happening here. A painful process does not give us permission to ignore God’s provision in the end. A story that neglects to look at the end is no good story at all.

What does this have to say to survivors of religious trauma?

First, religious trauma is real. As Pasquale wrote:

“I want to validate your hurt. If you have been negatively impacted by others’ actions or the experiences you have had inside a religious or spiritual context, I am so sorry. I am terribly sorry the places, spaces, and faces who were supposed to show you the ultimate expression of love showed you something negating” (Sacred Wounds, 21).

Isaac, I want to validate your hurt. I am so sorry.

Second, survivors of religious trauma can have hope. God provides in the end. Or if you prefer to think of it this way: life provides. Life keeps going and life can provide family, friends, helping professionals, and/or communities (whether religious or not) that have some goodness in them if we’re willing to see and receive it. Life provides breath and body and beauty, exemplified in the “healing exercises” Pasquale offers centered around breathing, grounding, and forms of art therapy. In short, life provides.

Isaac, I want to share in your hope. I am so thankful.

It’s hard for the hurt and the hope to coexist. But I think that’s what the story of the binding of Isaac, and the story of any religious trauma, has to tell. It’s not an easy story. But it’s a good one.