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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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.

Door of Hope: A Photo Essay

From last week’s lectionary readings:

“Therefore, I will now allure her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her.
From there I will give her her vineyards,
and make the Valley of Achor* a door of hope.
There she shall respond as in the days of her youth,
as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.”
~ Hosea 2:14-15

*Achor = trouble, struggle. So, yes, you might say God will “make the Valley of Trouble a door of hope.”

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St. John’s College (Santa Fe, NM)

They say “when God closes a door, He opens another one.” Or maybe this: “When God closes a door, He opens a window.”

But, I’ve started to think of it this way: “When God closes a door, She opens a paint bucket and builds some beauty.” God makes beauty out of boring, color out of chaos, veritable art out of valleys of Achor.

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Church of the Incarnation (Dallas, TX)

A little late afternoon light reaching through a darkened door, making possible a stained glass window prayer? Telling us where in the world we are? Door of hope.

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Duke University Chapel (Durham, NC)

A wash of morning light moving slowly over a threshold, marking the passage of time? Telling us when in the day we are? Door of hope.

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Church of the Holy Family (Chapel Hill, NC)

A church door red as the blood of the lamb that was slain, as though all who dwell there might be marked by mercy and life while sin and death pass by? Telling us who and whose we are? Yes. What a door of hope.

 

First Quarter Faith

Something unexpected happened today. I was deeply inspired…wait for it…by a football analogy

Today at work some colleagues and I watched a video clip of a sermon called “Last Minute God.” My colleagues, all at least 10-20 years older than myself, then described seasons of their lives when God had seemingly shown up at the “last minute” after they’d spent many years waiting and wondering.

My boss, who I’m quickly learning has an interest in college football, brought up the recent BCS championship between Florida State and Auburn, in which Florida State was significantly behind during the first half but caught up by the end and won.

“Any of us could be like that too,” she encouraged. “You could be worried about something, things could look rough…but you’re just in the first half of your game.”

Then, she gestured at me. “My goodness, you’re just in the first quarter!”

First quarter? I’d never thought that way.

I think too often we view milestones, such as a graduation, as the end of the game rather than the end of part of the game. It’s as if we see freshman year as the first quarter, sophomore year as the second quarter, and so on, all the while aiming to get a diploma that says we won. In the grand scheme of things, however, graduating doesn’t signify “You won!” but rather “You’ve warmed up. Now go play.”

If, like me, you’re young and prone to worry about the future (or even if you’re old and worry about the future — after all, we’re all young if we take eternity into account), keep playing. You’re just in the first quarter.