Making a Home in the Wilderness
February 3, 2019
Jeremiah 1: 4-10
Psalm 71: 1-6
Luke 4: 21-30
1 Corinthians: 1-13
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be acceptable inour sight, oh God our rock, redeemer, and friend.
A little over eight years ago, something very unusual and unexpected happened to me. I, 21 year-old lifelong skeptic, walked into an evangelical megachurch in Cape Town, South Africa, and had a very sudden and cathartic spiritual awakening.
This experience has become a touchstone for me. It's an experience I cherish and go back to often in my own mind. Many of us have a few singular experiences in life where we really felt God's love and everything became suddenly clear. But these moments of grace, where God reveals himself to us in an unmistakably clear way, are very rare. What I really want to talk about today is what 8th Day has made possible for me: which is to turn a moment of faith into a journey of faith. Moments of revelation are wonderful and important; but what is just as important, if not more so, is what we do after that moment of revelation.
So, how does Jeremiah, one of the great Old Testament prophets, respond when God reveals himself and says "I have appointed you as a prophet to the nations?" Jeremiah replies,
"Ummm.. .not yet."
"Alas, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am too young," he says.
Is this the same Jeremiah who goes on to become a wise and fierce prophet, a man who decries the inhumane practices of his own people, who teaches them how to weep for the loss of innocents, to boldly confront their own hypocrisies, and to pave the way for the new covenant with God that Jesus himself eventually fulfills?
It is. The Great Jeremiah begins his journey, as we all do, in weakness and in doubt: "I do not know how to speak. I am too young."
If I'm totally honest, that's pretty much how I felt as I prepared my teaching today. A few months ago, in a fit of exuberance, I signed up to do the teaching at my new church! Woohoo! But, as the date has approached, I've often found myself questioning why on earth I thought I could do this. "Me??? You want me to stand up and speak the truth? What the hell do I know?"
I recognize that these are thoughts we all have. We live in an exceedingly complex universe, after all, one that not even the most learned scientists can claim to truly understand. In fact, what quantum physicists have been telling us for some time now is that the closer we get to examining something, the more we realize we don't really know what it is or what it's doing. Werner Heisenberg, one of the pioneers of quantum physics, discovered that the more we know about the speed and the momentum of any given particle, the less we know about its location. Now, I personally have never been very inclined to science, but in college I was —very cruelly— forced to take a physics class. After months and months of slogging through formulas and proofs and stumbling through strange experiments where we rolled golf balls down wooden ramps and dropped eggs from balconies, and finally made it through the exam, our professor's parting words, were this: "Truth be told, when we really get down to the nuts and bolts of the universe, there's a lot we just don't know."
For many years, I never really delved into the deeper questions about why we're here on earth, what it all means, or how we ought to live. I was content to leave it to the experts. They seemed to be having enough trouble understanding it all as I was.
If you told me back then that I would now, at age 29, not only be attending church regularly but spending my free time debating the meaning of scripture and learning to meditate; that my bookshelf would be lined with titles like The Trinity and Your Transformation, or that I would have an Amazon wish list called "Old Testament!!" and a Spotify playlist called "Here I Am, Lord," I probably would have laughed in your face.
Because for most of my life, Christianity—and indeed all organized religion—seemed to me like a feeble human attempt to impose certainty on an essentially chaotic universe. And as far as I could tell, all that attempt had led to was the oppression of women and gay people, the denial of climate science, nations fighting wars over centuries-old gripes, and above all the suppression of our basic desires and our innate capacity for joy. This last one was exemplified by a refrain from my father's Irish-Catholic upbringing: "Life is not to be enjoyed, but endured." (Yes, the nuns at his school really told him this!) Now, I've always admired my grandparents' devotion to their Catholic faith; but I also knew from my dad and from my Aunt Colleen that their blind acceptance of church orthodoxy had caused a lot of pain and confusion in their family.
For example, my grandfather, who essentially grew up as an orphan during the Great Depression, married his first love at age 18. It eventually became clear that the marriage wasn't really right, and that they had rushed into it out of a desperate need for comfort and safety, rather than deciding with clear minds that marriage was a good decision. So they got a divorce. Seems like a difficult, but rational adult decision to make, before they started a family and things became more complicated. But when he later met and fell in love with my grandmother, a devout Catholic, it turned out that the whole divorce thing was going to be a problem.
So, they went to the church fathers to see if there was any way that his "sin" could be forgiven. They told them they could get married if they agreed to stop having sex and to sleep in different beds once they were done having children. And, as far as my dad could tell, that's exactly what they did. My dad grew up thinking all parents slept in separate beds, and didn't really touch each other or enjoy physical affection.
He didn't learn about this arrangement until many, many years later — and he was furious. It was exactly the kind of thing that had led him to leave the church after graduating from high school: the requirement that you abdicate your own inner knowing, that you give up your own inner sense of authority to some external power structure in order to receive God's love. Taking this posture towards God and towards life does not make people more courageous or capable; in fact, it makes them fearful and withdrawn. It's something I've never wanted any part of.
So imagine my surprise when, at the age of 21, while studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, I had a profound awakening experience—in a church. Not just in any church, but in an evangelical megachurch, the kind with a cheesy rock band and a hip, young pastor who wore designer jeans and one of those thin microphones taped to his cheek. When I walked in and encountered the scene, I was all ready to judge this rock-n-roll pastor and his so-called church that was probably making who-knows-how-much money off the attendees, and which probably preached kinds of socially conservative messages I disdained. But something that day made me pause. Something made me hold back my judgment, and to just be present and to allow the moment to unfold.
The pastor got up on the stage; flipped his mop haircut out of his eyes; and said very simply and clearly: God loves you so, so much. And I burst into tears.
God has loved you from the very beginning and will always love you no matter what.
I wept through the whole service. For a lifelong skeptic, I caved into God's love pretty darn quickly.
I had heard others say before that "God is Love." I had heard Corinthians 13 read at weddings. But I think what made the message different that day was the pastor's emphasis on God's eternal love for us; that God knew me and loved me before I was even born. Before I was even conscious. God says to Jeremiah, "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you," "Before you were born, I set you apart."
I left church that day with puffy eyes and a clogged nose, but I felt like a million bucks, like all the answers were suddenly at my fingertips. The light of God's love seemed to banish from my mind all the darkness and confusion that had been festering there throughout my adolescence. Everything had suddenly become clear.
What I did not realize that day is that God's call — however that happens for each of us — is only the first step. The realization of God's eternal love for us, though an essential part of the story, is not the whole story. There was a much longer journey ahead for me, one that would take me into the depths of depression, which knocked me flat on my back the following year, and would plague me during my early 20s. I'm in a much better place now, but depression is and probably always will be a part of me. When it visits, it feels like a curse. It feels like the opposite of God's love. But in my short time at 8th Day, I've begun to understand more clearly that depression has something to teach me, which I might in turn teach to others.
What exactly that is, I don't really know. And for many years, that lack of certainty has prevented me from committing to Christian practice and community. I haven't felt "ready" to really step into it. I haven't felt like I really know what I'm talking about when it comes to scripture. I grew up attending an Episcopal church on Sundays, but I didn't really grow up in the church in a meaningful way, and so I still like a total novice. I know that God's love was revealed to me that day in South Africa; but I've never really known what to do with it. Even though I've attended many church services, and have read my fair share of books about theology, and can talk in abstract terms about Jesus and why he's a powerful teacher, in many ways I feel like a child. I still feel like I don't know how to speak.
Which is just how Jeremiah felt when he was called by God. And when he spoke of his fear and his doubt directly to God, what happened?
"Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, 'I have put my words in your mouth.'"
What words has God put in my mouth? What words has God put in your mouth? What has God set us apart to do? I still don't know. But joining the 8th Day community has helped me understand that none of us really knows when we first answer God's call. With all of your help, I'm ready to start speaking, and to figure out through speech, and prayer, and contemplation, and action, trusting all the while that things will become clear. Maybe not one hundred percent clear; but clear enough to keep going.
I wonder: before Jesus returned to the temple in Nazareth, did he know what he would say? Did Jesus make an outline for his ministry? A Google doc? How much did he know before he started to speak? The Gospel reading today describes Jesus' very first sermon after he returns from the wilderness to his hometown temple in Nazareth. Last week, Crisely talked about Jesus' incredible boldness in this story. He picks up the scroll and reads from it Isiah's declaration that the Spirit of the Lord has anointed him to proclaim good news to the poor, free the prisoners, restore sight to the blind, and set the oppressed free. After Jesus reads this, he sits down, and he states very simply: "Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."
What gave Jesus the authority to say this? To declare that the words of a revered prophet were fulfilled merely by speaking and hearing them in the temple? The people are stunned and utterly taken with him: "Isn't that Joseph's son?" they whisper between each other. Jesus senses their admiration for his strength and certainty, and then anticipates what the adoring crowd will ask of him next: to "Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum," where he performed a miracle by exorcising a demon from a man who was possessed. Even though he knows that this is what the people want from him and that it will amplify his fame and his authority to perform the deed again, he refuses. Instead, he tells a strange story about famine and plague in the time of Elijah — which, to be perfectly honest, I don't really understand —that is clearly not what the people wanted to hear. "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown," he says. And indeed, when he tells this story about Elijah, the crowd becomes "enraged." The scripture says, "They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way."
Can you imagine returning to your hometown, speaking prophetically before the people you grew up with, feeling their admiration — and then turning it down? That must take an incredible sense of inner authority. What gave Jesus this sense of inner authority? It is the same inner authority that empowers him to embrace the poor and the suffering, despite the social norms that tell him not to, to overturn the tables of the money-lenders in the temple, and ultimately to defy Roman rule and embrace a slow, painful death on the cross.
The key to Jesus' incredible ministry and the sense of inner authority that drives it lies in what he does before this moment: his journey through the wilderness. To successfully transition from baptism, or from your moment of revelation, to a life of ministry where you carry out God's work in the world, you first have to go through the wilderness.
Wilderness has been a big theme in the New Creation Mission Group with Connie, Jennie, Meade, Brooke, and occasionally Emily, over the past few weeks. We've been reading a book called Inspired by Rachel Held Evans. "Be warned," she writes,
In Scripture, and in life, the road to deliverance nearly always takes a detour. Rarely do the people of God reach any kind of promised land without a journey or two through the wilderness.
The wilderness is a place of danger and desolation, creeping with wild animals and threatening with rugged, parched terrain. In life, it's that long journey through grief, those years between calls with your grown kid, a season of caregiving that stretches your reservoirs of patience and perseverance, the aftermath of the divorce, the season of doubt...In the wilderness, God can seem very far away, or absent altogether. It may take weeks, months, or even years to get on track again.
My grandfather experienced plenty of wilderness in his lifetime: his own upbringing sounds like something from a Dickens novel: both his parents died by disease when he was young, and he was raised during the Great Depression by his much-older brothers, who fought constantly with one another while running the family business — a funeral home. Shortly after he met my grandmother, he was deployed as a medic in World War II in North Africa and Italy, where he surely witnessed a lot of suffering. He and my grandmother wrote letters the whole four years he was away, and they married as soon as he returned.
Many years later, my Aunt Colleen, my dad's younger sister, asked my grandmother if she could read the letters they wrote each other during the war. She was so excited to learn what it was that kept them going. How had they had forged a love over so much distance and pain? How had had they persevered? How did they make it through that wilderness? But my grandmother told her, very matter of factly, that she had burned the letters. It was a painful time, she said, and after pain, you move on.
This strikes me as an unusual stance towards pain, for a pair of old-school Irish Catholics. Their parish, after all, and even their own home, was lined with crucifixes depicting a bloodied, despairing Jesus. Why would people who emphasized and valorized the suffering of Jesus be so dismissive of their own suffering?
I can't help but wonder whether their relationship with pain has somehow extended down over the years to me. This is the first time I've really spoken publicly about my depression, because to be honest, I don't like it. Depression makes me sullen, withdrawn, and petty. It turns me into someone I don't want to be. When depression hits, all I want to do is get rid of it.
I don't know, but I suspect that for my grandparents, their Catholicism was a means of survival more than a pursuit of meaning or wholeness. Its rules and step-by-step structures for living a good life staved off the nagging wounds of their past traumas and the anxieties of working-class life. It kept the wilderness at bay. It told them that by believing in a set of doctrines, by going to mass, and confession, and through prayer, God would deliver them from the wilderness to the promised land of peace and security— if not in this life, then at least in the next.
It allowed my grandfather to put the war behind him. It's what gave my grandmother enough peace of mind amidst constant financial anxiety to really be there for her kids. And it gave them both some sense of solace when death came for one of their own children, my Aunt Colleen's twin, who died during childbirth. That baby boy was named Christopher, and he died before a priest could get to the hospital to baptize him. Church doctrine at the time did not allow the un-baptized to be buried in Catholic cemeteries. He was laid to rest instead by one of his uncles from the funeral home, in an unmarked grave behind a tool shed.
I can't imagine the pain my grandmother must have felt, not only to lose a baby in childbirth, but also to have him buried so unceremoniously, without a funeral, without his family. I wonder, did she ever have the chance to weep for him? Did she know that she was allowed to mourn? It seems emblematic of a larger pattern my grandparents were caught up in: of burying pain that feels too great to bear, rather than holding it up to the light of God's love.
I've always gone by "Kip," but as some of you may know, my birth name is actually Christopher. I'm named after my uncle, whom none of us got to know. To be honest, I never paid much attention to my birth name. But since joining 8th Day, and in writing this sermon and considering my grandparents' faith lives, in wondering about the ways they struggled to integrate their pain and suffering, I can see now that the way I learn to deal with my own wilderness, with my own depression, could help break this larger cycle of denying and burying pain.
It's often said in America that each generation wants to give their children a better life than the one they had, which seems like a natural and healthy aim. But if by "better" we mean a life free from confusion and suffering, that's an impossible wish. We all dream of the Promised Land; but the truth is, we never leave the wilderness altogether. All we can really do is help move our tribe from one region of wilderness to another. My grandparents, through hard work, and dedication, and quite frankly through the luck of being white, were able to deliver their children from a cycle of poverty.
But there are still vast terrains of psychic and spiritual wilderness left for me and my siblings to explore. Our task, then, is to navigate those regions of wilderness our own ancestors never reached. Although sunlight breaks through the trees, and wells appear in the desert, and vast expanses open up, we never fully leave the wilderness. We must learn to make a home here, for the wilderness is where God tries to make a home within us.
And as God makes a home within us, we develop our own sense of inner authority, our own sense ministry in the world.
I'll conclude with a section of today's Epistle, I Corinthians 13:11-13.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put the ways of childhood behind me.
For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.