In December, on the 4th Sunday of Advent, I offered to you all reflections about the “advent” or “coming” of love through the birth of the Christ child. Here is part of what I shared that Sunday:
As we immerse ourselves in the story of Christ, we witness the word transformed into flesh and bones – Christ becomes the incarnate expression of God’s hope: a dream of love for us and a dream that we will love each other. A dream that we do what we can, however imperfectly, to put flesh and bones on the story of God’s love for others.
Today marks the 4th Sunday in Easter and the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, God’s profound embodiment of transformative love. In the Catholic Church, the 4th Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday, and is why the 23rd Psalm is part of the lectionary for this week. Many of us can recite at least part of Psalm 23 - The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. · He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
It’s a psalm of comfort and loving accompaniment, of nurture and protection.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Just saying these words is calming for me - even when walking through the valley of death, I’m led on a path of righteousness. Even with my enemies all around, a table is prepared for me, and my cup runs over. This is an intimate love that does not shrink away in the face of hardship.
This morning, I want to share with you about how my unborn granddaughter has helped me to understand more deeply what it means to experience this kind of relationship, grounded both in deep abiding love and clear-eyed reality. On Christmas Day, my son Paul and his wife Charlotte shared with us the happy news that they are expecting their first child, to be born in July.
Now ... having been surrounded by brothers as a child and having raised three boys myself, I have been completely immersed in boy culture all my life, and I was thrilled to learn that they are expecting a girl. I began immediately fantasizing about all the dresses and ribbons I would buy and ship to her on a regular basis. Finally! A girl! And knowing her mother, I am convinced she will be a girly girl, not a tomboy like me.
A few months later, we received news that my granddaughter’s sonograms were showing abnormalities in her development and that she will be born with a very serious heart condition. If she survives her birth, everything indicates that she will need immediate surgery. Her first few months of life will likely be spent in the hospital, with ongoing medical need afterwards, and a whole lot of uncertainty about what this really means.
“She is safe inside the womb” her mom wrote. “I feel so fiercely protective of her. I love her, and I feel that she is happy right now. … We will love her for the time she is here with us, including right now.”
Well, truth be told, isn’t that all any of us ever want? I know that’s true for me. If I could have just one thing, I’d want to be safe and surrounded by a fierce, intimate, protective love that knows my human frailty and imperfections, and loves me completely, perfectly, no holds barred. Not in spite of, or even because of … anything. A love that embraces the reality of me, just as I am. What a gift.
Over the past year I have been participating in an online buddhist meditation group where I have learned something very important: yes, there is suffering in life and it can’t be avoided. But what can be avoided is compounding suffering by me avoiding recognizing the reality of what is, and, instead, trying to hide inside the blanket of a fantasy created by my mind, from which I peek out perhaps to complain about my disappointments or dissatisfaction with what lies outside this cocoon I have created. As a vast simplification, in Buddhism, suffering is rooted in chasing wants that can never be completely satisfied, and suffering is perpetuated by ignorance, a looking away from what’s really real. The key to liberation from suffering is for me to step out of the blanket of stories I spin in my mind, to live in the real world, messy as it is. To trust in the reality beyond our knowing, as we said together in today’s confession.
It’s not life that causes suffering, says Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön, it’s our story about life—our interpretation—that causes so much distress. When we practice interrupting the story we’re telling ourselves, we can find a new freedom and flexibility in the face of uncertainty and change.
This perspective has helped me understand clearly, that the only way to accept this difficult-to-accept situation is to courageously embrace the attitude of my daughter-in-law, to love my granddaughter fiercely, to love her completely, to accept her vulnerability for what it is, to let go of all the fantasies I had begun spinning about how her life should be, to accompany her and give her courage as she makes her own way in this world. And, as I let go of my fantasies of how I think her life should be, I find that I am hollowing out a space to love her as she is, and accompany her as she composes her own lifesong and makes her own way in this world.
Well, it does sound good, doesn’t it? It fits very well with my hope of how God relates to me - God hopes for my success, accompanies me through my challenges and accepts my failures, even as they come with real life consequences. God sees my potential for perfection while embracing the imperfect me that is muddling through. God loves me fiercely, before I was born, today, tomorrow and forever.
My dear little granddaughter has brought these words to life for me, as I open my heart to her, awaiting her arrival on this planet earth, acknowledging my own uncertainty about what this means, alongside the certainty of my longing for her wellbeing.
When I shared the news about my granddaughter with a mentor of mine, she suggested that I consider this as an invitation to love even more deeply than before, as an invitation into greater vulnerability than before, as an invitation into greater openness than before. Well, if that’s what my granddaughter needs, then I’ll do it.
What I have found, however, is how unsteady I feel, loving my granddaughter in this way. I feel vulnerable and out of control. I am uncomfortable with this approach to life. I miss the protective shield that the illusion of being in control offers. I want my blanket back.
I find that every day I need to remember, to renew my commitment to living openly, intentionally, unscripted, unprotected and wholeheartedly, as my buddhist friends suggest. I have developed a deeper appreciation of the song Jimmy would sing to us as often as he could - as often as we would let him:
One day at a time sweet Jesus that's all I ask from you
Give me the strength to do what I have to do
Yesterday is gone, sweet Jesus, and tomorrow is a vision of happiness
So for my sake, teach me to take, one day at a time
I chose two scripture readings for this morning service. The first, like Psalm 23, John 3:16, is familiar to most of us: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” This reading captures God’s sacrifice -- loving intention -- for us. The second scripture, part of today’s lectionary readings, is probably less familiar, and captures the essence of the second half of God’s invitation to us, to offer our imperfect human existence as a perfect expression of God’s love for others. The selection from 1st John begins: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”
One way to bring these two scriptures together is to consider this movement from John 3:16 to 1st John 3:16, as movement from Christmas, when we receive God’s promise of life through Christ’s birth, to Easter, when we receive the promise of everlasting life through Christ’s sacrificial death -- and are invited to open ourselves to the prospect of offering that same blessing to others.
With this in mind, listen once again from the story of Jesus’ Last Supper, from the First Nations translation, remembering that Creator Sets Free is Jesus, Speaks Well of is Judas and Stands on the Rock is Peter:
13:1 The Passover festival was drawing near. Creator Sets Free knew it was time to leave this world and go back to his Father. His love for the ones who walked the road with him had always been great, and now, at the end, his love for them remained strong. [This (by the way) is even though, as we later understand, one of his disciples will betray him, leading to his death, another will deny knowing him out of fear, and the rest will soon scatter into hiding.] 13:2 The evil snake had already twisted the heart of Speaks Well Of to betray Creator Sets Free. 13:3 Creator Sets Free knew that his Father had put all things in his hands and that he had come from the Great Spirit and was returning to him. 13:4 Knowing all of this, during the meal Creator Sets Free got up from the table, took off his outer garments, and wrapped a cloth around him like a sash. 13:5 He poured water into a vessel and, one by one, he began to wash the feet of his followers [including Judas, apparently] and dry them with the cloth. He came to Stands On The Rock, who said to him, “Wisdomkeeper, are you going to wash my feet?” ... 13:8 This can never be!” [to which Creator Sets Free replies] If you refuse this then you have no part in who I am. [What I see in this today, is that, being in relationship with Christ means accepting his humble, intimate service. To which, Peter, true to his nature, then is all-in:] “Then wash my hands and head also!”, [leading to a larger explanation by Jesus, and the revelation that Jesus knows that the man who would betray him was in the room.] 13:11 After he had finished washing all their feet, 13:12 he put his outer garment back on and sat down again at the table. “Do you see what I have done?” he said to them. 13:13 ”You are right to call me Widsomkeeper and Chief - because I am. 13:14 If I, your Wisdomkeeper and Chief, have washed your feet, then you should wash each others’ feet. 13:15 So follow my footsteps and do for each other what I have done for you. 13:16 I speak from my heart, the one who serves is not greater than the one who is served. A message bearer is not greater than the one who sent him. 13:17 If you walk in this way of blessing, you will do well and it will return to you -- full circle.
This was Jesus’ message to his disciples, knowing his own coming fate, betrayal and abandoment, by those very disciples who he loved and whose feet he had washed. Jesus saw them for who they are and his response was to love them more intimately than they had previously experienced.
Turning back to the scriptures that were read this morning by Crisely and Karen, one scholar wrote that this movement from accepting the gift of John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” to living the good news of 1st John 3:16 “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” is “the journey of awakening the Spirit empowered …. Our calling is to press on ... and grow up into the maturity of love, which is nothing less the fullness of Jesus Christ. When the people of God learn to live into 1 John 3:16, the watching world will begin to believe in John 3:16.”
It was God’s choice, to love us fully, completely, with no barriers between us, come what may. And my commitment, to love my granddaughter just as she is, and not measured against a fantasy created in my mind, has made all the more real to me the incredible love of God who sees -- and celebrates -- the perfection in me, with all my imperfections showing.
As I struggle to lay down my defenses to let me love flow through from my innermost being to prepare myself to be a blessing to my unborn granddaughter, I am aware that this is precisely the choice that God made so long ago, and continues to make at every turn: to meet vulnerability with vulnerability, humanity with humanity, fragility with fragility. The invitation to us is to offer service in the anticipation of whatever might come, to love the ones I’m with, seeing beyond the imperfect human experience to the possibility of perfection, expressed in love and intimate relationship.
I am very grateful to my precious unborn granddaughter for all that she has taught me thus far. Her anticipated birth has created a pathway into a deeper understanding - and experience - of the fierce love of the Creator God.
I share all this with you this morning because you are my church community, and I am inviting you to accompany me in this anticipation and uncertainty as I await my granddaughter’s birth. I also think that it’s possible that some of you might benefit from hearing these lessons from my granddaughter. Do any of you have a fantasy that must be abandoned to create a space of love and relationship rooted in reality? Does our church community as a whole need to identify “shoulds” we live by, and that limit our ability to live our faith as a vulnerable expression of love? Or, in the words of today’s lectionary, Let’s not love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
I am glad that, as my church community, I know I can count on your support of my intention of living as a more visible, incarnate expression of God’s hope: a dream of love for us and a dream that we will love each other. A dream that we do what we can, however imperfectly, to put flesh and bones on the story of God’s love for all of us.
May these words that I have spoken today serve as a blessing and benefit for all who hear them.