About theologybyheart

I’m Ellen Clark-King an Anglican priest, author and spiritual director who is trying to make sense of God, the world and the church – and not always succeeding. I’m Canadian and English and work at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, the cool grey city of love. On this blog I share some of my experiences and reflections, along with some of my sermons, hymns and prayers – not to mention the occasional rant.

Defeating the 3am Goblins

“They have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”

Oh those 3am internal conversations! Those nights when your body refuses to sink into sleep’s sweet embrace or when your mind drags you out of the deepest dreams with a jolt of worry and dismay. That darkest part of the night, literally as well as metaphorically, when you watch the endless replay of all the mistakes of the day, or the week, or – when things get really fun – your entire life up to this point. When you remember every stupid thing you ever said or did and blush again in the darkness. When you look at the entirety of your life and it suddenly seems a joke without a punchline, a goblin stomping with heavy boots across the universe crying ‘panic and emptiness’, a cracked cistern, barren and dry.

Usually, thank the good God, we find sleep and wake in the morning with our nighttime distress a fading memory – the cistern patched and the goblin hushed. And we get on with life as it was before. But sometimes, like the prophet Jeremiah, we hear a truth in those night hours that refuses to lie down when we get up. Sometimes we awake knowing that our life has truly exchanged a fountain of living water for the stale remains in a cracked water bottle.

There was an article in the Guardian newspaper a couple of years ago, written by a hospice nurse, on the five things people regretted most at the end of their lives. The first was: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” People saw and deeply mourned that they had not lived true to their own insights, true to their own dreams. The second: “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” People, especially older men, regretted spending so much of their lives on job success and economic achievement. The third “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” Many felt they had buttoned down their true emotions to fit in with others and so had never experienced life in an open heart-strong way. The fourth and fifth seem the simplest and saddest of all “I wish that I had stayed in touch with my friends” and “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

“They have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” I hear this lament echoing through those regrets. An awareness that life could have been much more than they let it be. That they had let true joy and fulfilment slip away and had instead settled for someone else’s definition of what makes life worth the living. A realization of having lost the truth of who they were and the truth of what life is really for.

And I’m going to pause for a moment. Take a breath. Listen, for a moment, to the voice of your own heart, your own truth. Listen to the breath that fills this sacred space. What do you hear of meaning? What do you hear of life? What do you hear of your own deep purpose?

silence

The Church used to be so obsessed with heaven and hell and the afterlife that all we cared about in this life was escaping eternal damnation and wining that eternal reward. So this life was weighted down with rules to make sure it didn’t get too unruly and fun and distracting – faith was all about the everlasting destination and nothing about the joy of the journey. And now, when we have learnt to value this precious God-given life, it can sometimes feel as if it’s still all about guilt – you’re not doing enough to solve poverty, help your neighbour, end homelessness, save the planet. All deeply, deeply true – but not the whole truth, any more than our 3am worries are the whole truth of our lives.

For the whole truth has to take account of the God who is a fountain of living water, pouring herself out for us to drink freely and delightedly of her divinity and love. The whole truth has to take account of Jesus’ promise that he came to bring life and bring it abundantly. We are not a people or a faith who are to be fed by stale water from broken cisterns but by living water freely flowing, enough to satisfy our deepest, deepest thirst and truest longing.

You know how Jesus is talking all the time about the kingdom of God? And how that word ‘kingdom’ doesn’t sit too well in our 21st century ears – especially in a republic? Well one suggestion for its replacement is ‘party’[i] – the party of God. That Jesus is inviting us into the greatest God-blessed party of all time, and asking us to go and share the invites with everyone we meet. It’s a party where we don’t worry about taking the places of honour because there is room enough for all. A party where we don’t need to restrict the guest list because there is a welcome for all – and, who knows, we may find ourselves sitting next to an angel unawares. A party which pays no heed to our political divisions or any petty distinction of age or gender identity or race or sexuality – a party where we can let our hair down, dance like nobody’s watching and be our truest, silliest, happiest self!

There may be some 3am part of yourself that is whispering in your inner ear ‘I don’t deserve a party’. Well, you’re invited anyway. The invitation doesn’t depend on the worth of the guest but the boundless love of the host. Or there may be some self-righteous imp prompting you to think ‘well they don’t deserve a party’ – whoever they may be – addicts or gang members, fundamentalist evangelicals or Trump supporters, whoever your bogeymen are. Well, they’re invited anyway. The invitation doesn’t depend on the worth of the guest but the boundless love of the host. You, and they, can always say no. But please don’t. Please accept God’s invitation – it won’t be the same for any of us without you.

When I find myself awake at 3am listening to those goblins whispering in my ear there is one way I know to shut them up. It’s to pray the simplest of prayers. The words don’t matter, There is just something about allowing the divine fountain of living water to splash over you that distresses goblins and washes their lies from your heart. Prayer reminds you that you don’t have to rely on your own cracked cisterns but that there is a fountain of lifegiving love always within reach. Let it give you the courage to live a life that is true to yourself, that is full of feeling and friendship, that allows you to be happy. Let it give you the courage to accept the invitation to God’s party and to dance your life as if no one is watching.

 

[i] I most recently came across this suggestion in Brian McLaren’s The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything, pages 144-46.

From the water of hospitality to the wine of inclusion

This is a fabulous miracle! An unnecessary, extravagant, very human miracle! Not the meeting of a desperate need for healing or food. Not the raising of someone from the dead or giving sight to someone born blind. Just taking gallons and gallons of water and turning it into gallons and gallons of wine. Saving a host from potential embarrassment, listening to the wishes of one’s mother – even when she’s annoying you, providing the means for a group of people to celebrate and share joy together. This is how we first see God’s power shining out in Jesus’ life. It’s almost embarrassingly trivial.

But what seems at first sight trivial is something more. Something full of wisdom about how we are to be as a church community, as spiritual beings learning what it is to be human. It teaches us first that we start with joy, with celebration, with fellowship and good cheer. That partying is a God-blessed activity. The Puritans got it wrong. God isn’t against dancing and laughter and all-round merriment. God is in the dancing and laughter and merriment – delighting in out delight and rejoicing in our joys.

Church on a Sunday morning shouldn’t be somewhere you turn up to as a chore and duty. Ideally it should be a place where you encounter the God of joy and where you encounter other joy-filled human beings. Even when we are addressing the hard subjects. Even when we bring with us the hurts of our bodies and minds and spirits, church is doing something wrong if we don’t leave with more hope, more energy, more connection than when we came. God takes the water of our everyday lives and turns us into wine!

But before we lose it in the celebration it’s worth thinking a little about what this water was that Jesus was using. It was clean water but water put aside for washing rather than drinking. As part of the welcome into someone’s home water would be poured over hot and dusty hands and feet to make them fresh and clean.

I can’t talk about this without thinking how beautiful it would be if this was how we greeted refugees seeking a home in our country. How differently they would feel about themselves if, rather than guns and detention, they encountered cool water to wash and refresh them. If they could come into this country feeling welcome and included rather than isolated and alienated. Their bodies and their spirits would be equally refreshed. And how differently we would feel about ourselves if this is what we offered! How hopeful and loving it would make our own collective life. As all of you who offer help to others know we receive far more in the act than we give.

So this water is a good thing in itself. A sign of welcome and hospitality. But Jesus makes it something even better. No longer a sign of hospitality – of ‘you’ being welcome in ‘our’ home – but of inclusion. All of us together sharing this moment of joy and celebration. All of us being ‘us’, none of us being ‘you’ or ‘them’. Taking this symbol of arrival and making it a symbol of belonging. No longer being immigrants and citizens, no longer seeing any of the differences that mark our lives, but seeing our shared holy identity as God’s beloveds.

The theme for the Martin Luther King, Jr celebrations this year is ‘we are all in this together.’ Rather than living into his dream of a world where all belong and know themselves beloved we continue to live through the nightmare of racism and oppression for many. This is to turn the wine of unity that Jesus offers us into very brackish and unholy water indeed. Until we who live with all the benefits of white privilege address our unearned advantages we will not be all in this together. Until we are willing to let go of some of this precious privilege we cannot all share the good wine of rejoicing equally.

Jesus turned gallons and gallons of water into wine. Before he healed anybody, before he taught anything, before he walked on water or raised Lazarus from the dead, he did this ridiculous act of abundance. Jesus’ first miracle was one of joy and inclusion, offered for a community not an individual. Let us live into that miracle. Welcoming immigrants and refugees. Fighting against racism. Being a community that feels and offers love and joy to all who come through our doors.

We are not made for war

Sermon preached at Grace Cathedral for the Royal British Legion Service of Remembrance.

I never knew one of my uncles. Bernard was my mother’s favourite brother, just a few years older than her. He died when he was a teenager, not yet old enough to vote at that time. His plane was shot down over the English Channel in the second world war. Three of the crew survived, including Bernard. They had two life rafts, which could take 2 men each. One was fully functional, the other was damaged. Bernard volunteered to go in the damaged one. The other two crew members were rescued. Bernard was never seen again.

There’s a line from a Siegfried Sassoon poem that has been on my mind as we prepared to mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice, the end of World War 1. He was a poet and a soldier who lived through the hell of the trenches and saw the peace that followed. He writes words about his generation’s attitude to soldiers and veterans that challenge us still: “You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave… You believe That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.”[i]

‘You believe that chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.’ I do believe in chivalry – in the virtue of courage offered in defense of other people and of values that matter to us. I am deeply proud of my unknown uncle for putting other lives ahead of his own. I greatly respect all those who fought against Nazism – the allies from the United States, from Great Britain and the commonwealth, from Scandinavia and Europe – including Germans who tried to bring down Hitler from within. This was an evil that had to be opposed – just as we must oppose the antisemitism and racism we see today.

But I also believe in the second part of Sassoon’s line – that war is a disgrace. That there is nothing glorious about human beings settling their disputes by killing one another. That there is nothing heroic in nation states unable to build peace with justice except through sending their young men – and now young women also – to die at one anothers’ hands. I’m with that other great poet of the first world war, Wilfred Owen, when he says we should ‘not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’[ii] It may sometimes be necessary but it is always tragic never sweet and fitting.

This beautiful cathedral in which we meet today is here for a very simple reason. It is to help us try to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. The one who taught us to love our enemies. The one who revealed a God who calls us to turn weapons into farm implements and promises a time when no-one shall make us afraid. And so all worship which happens within these walls is to a God who chooses peace over war, who chooses forgiveness over revenge, who chooses love over hatred. And who calls us to make these very same choices in our own lives.

God’s vision for us and for our world is one in which we no longer have to fight against injustice or for the rights of the oppressed because all people will be loved, respected and able to flourish. God’s vision is of a world where divine love is fully known and every child of every race and nation is safe and fed. Where no-one shoots Jewish seniors as they worship together or college students as they relax together. Where no leaders threaten each other’s people with mass destruction and put the profits of conglomerates over the future of the planet. Where we no longer fear those who are different from ourselves but love to learn from them and to share our own truths with them.

But we know we have not yet achieved that vision. Not even our own country, let alone our world, embodies peace and justice for all. And some of those who have paid the dearest price for this are our veterans. Remember that line from Sassoon began ‘you love us when we’re heroes home on leave’. We are not actually very good at loving our veterans. Honouring them, maybe, on days like this. But not offering them the practical love that would make dealing with the stress of moving back into civilian life, let alone the torment of PTSD, easier to bear. Our veterans and their families carry the wounds of humanity’s aggression and imperfection and deserve the care and support of us all.

Let me tell you another family war story. My dad was in Germany in the last weeks of the second world war. At one point he stepped into an opening in the woods at the same moment as a German soldier. They looked at one another across the clearing and then each turned their back and walked away. We are not made for war. We are not made to kill. We are made for peace. We are made for mutuality and shared delight. It is up to us in our generation to do all we can to build peace in our homes, our cities, our country and our world.

There are moments when God’s vision of peace for the world feels a little closer to us. One of those moments was the one that we commemorate today – armistice, the end of the years of brutal death that made up the first world war. And I want to finish with another poem of Siegfried Sassoon. One that speaks to the hope for peace and the joyful fulfilment of God’s love made real on earth. It’s called ‘Everyone Sang’

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;

And I was filled with such delight

As prisoned birds must find in freedom,

Winging wildly across the white

Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.

 

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;

And beauty came like the setting sun:

My heart was shaken with tears; and horror

Drifted away … O, but Everyone

Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

 

 

 

[i] From the poem ‘Glory of Women’ in Counter-Attack and Other Poems (1918).

[ii] From the poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ in Poems (Viking Press, 1921).

Job and the Tree of Life

Sermon for Pentecost 23 at Grace Cathedral

The book of Job that we have been hearing over the last few weeks feels tragically relevant today. Job, a righteous man, is visited with undeserved suffering losing his wealth, his family and his health. He cries out to God, in anger and distress. He cries out as we do when we hear of another mass shooting – this time at a Jewish synagogue as a violent anti-semite brings untold suffering down on innocent heads.

Job has three so-called friends in his affliction who are ironically called comforters. Their form of comfort is to tell Job that his suffering is basically his own fault – that he must have done something sinful and bad that has brought down God’s punishment on him. They, like us very often, want their world to make sense. They don’t want to believe in a universe where suffering is random, where our prosperity and flourishing is not entirely under our own control. They are trying to persuade themselves as much as Job that the good are rewarded and the evil are punished.

But Job is having none of this. He knows he hasn’t done anything wrong – nothing to merit the sudden tragedy that has overwhelmed him. He refuses their simplistic view of the world and instead rails against God. He cries for God, he all but swears at God, he demands God’s attention and explanation. And what does he receive? Silence. Absence. No response, no engagement, no explanation that could make sense of all this grief.

The silence of God in the face of Job’s pain has worried faithful Christians across the centuries. But it speaks to me of something that is very real in my own spiritual journey. There are many times when I pray into silence – when my cries seem to be swallowed up into an eternal silence that gives nothing back. When my certainty of the continuing presence of God is an act of will rather than a felt reality. If the Bible is to speak truly then this experience needs to find a place in its pages.

But God’s silence in the book is not absolute – as we heard last week and today it’s broken at the very end. Then God speaks to Job in both affirmation and admonishment. God affirms Job’s righteousness, he agrees with Job that this tragedy was not caused by Job’s sin, and he tells Job’s friends off for their callous lack of empathy and compassion. And in affirming Job’s continuing righteousness it is clear that Job’s questioning and lamenting were also not sinful. Job’s sin didn’t cause his suffering, and Job’s ranting and railing at God wasn’t sinful either.

There are two big hairy theological points being made here. The first is that prosperity and suffering are not linked to virtue and sin. The person who won the billion dollar lottery this week did not win because they’re good; the congregation of Tree of Life Synagogue who faced loss and grief this week did not do so because they’re bad.

I’m not sure how Christians could ever believe otherwise. It’s clear in our most foundational, truest, formative story: the story of Jesus. You can be completely without sin and still end up nailed to a tree. Our faith and virtue are not given us as armour to protect against suffering, they are given as weapons to fight against suffering. Or a less martial example – they are the same construction tools that Jesus’ wielded in his life – love, compassion, forgiveness – that bend the arc of existence towards righteousness.

We, like Job, long for an answer as to why this is so. Why do bad things happen to good people? The answer that Job gets is to be reminded of how little he comprehends about God and the world. God lets him know quite clearly that she is beyond Job’s grasp and understanding. That there is beauty and grandeur, meaning and pattern, wildness and creativity that is visible to God’s eyes but not to our limited human vision. We get above ourselves if we think we have God figured out. We get above ourselves when we think the whole universe revolves around us and forget its glorious breadth and scope. This is no answer, but it takes a lifetime’s prayer to find a better one.

The second big hairy theological point is that God will not judge us for howling out the pain this causes in her face. Job rants at God, blames God, shouts at God – and God still calls him righteous. It is Job’s comforters who are dismissed by God for their smug self-satisfaction, not Job for his rage and defiance. Do not be afraid of bringing your whole self into your relationship with God. Do not be afraid of shouting at God from the depth of your hurt. God’s love is not such a feeble thing that our anger can bruise it, let alone ever break it.

And I don’t only know this from reading Job. Just as I see the silence of God reflected from time to time in my own spiritual life, so I know from my own experience that our anger does not dent God’s love. I have sworn at God for the pains of my own heart and for the pains I have ministered to in others. This has never broken anything in my spiritual life but done the opposite – opened me up so that God’s healing Spirit can come in. In this year of truth be true and honest with God in your prayer life, not polite and inauthentic!

There is only so far that words can take us in exploring the mystery of the world’s suffering. Our truest and best response to the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue is not to explain its theological implications but to work to ensure such shootings never happen again. To take up our virtue and faith as peace-wielding weapons, as holy tools, against violence and hate. To counter anti-semitism and all forms of racism whether we see it in others or in our selves. To take practical steps to addressing gun culture. To live out of love, compassion, kindness and forgiveness.

God’s final answer to Job was not an explanation but a presence. God came to him. In our Christian faith God doesn’t offer explanation but presence. God came to us in Jesus, God comes to us in her life-giving Spirit. Together we find God’s presence in prayer and music, in bread and wine. Together we can be God’s presence in the world – loving, nurturing, courageous, open. Playing our part in our shared Jewish and Christian calling of tikun olam – healing this hurting world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pentecost pigeons

I’ve been recommending widely a book I’ve read recently: Consider the Birds – A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible by Debbie Blue. It’s easy to read but has a wealth of new understanding and insight contained in its 10 chapters. Each chapter focuses on one bird that crops up in the Bible narrative – from the eagle to the vulture to the partridge to the sparrow – and finds new ways of understanding them symbolically. Reading it you may learn some things you were unaware of about the love life of the ostrich but, somewhat more importantly, you might also gain a new understanding of some of the love and life contained in the scripture.

Blue’s first chapter focuses on the pigeon. Not many people’s favourite bird. In fact one often described as a flying pest or a rat on wings, and one that is believed to be a blight on the urban landscape that should be exterminated rather than celebrated. Seemingly a far cry from the pure white dove that is one of the symbols the Bible gives us for the Holy Spirit. But, as the book reminds us, a dove is a pigeon – they are both members of the Columbidae family. In fact it was more likely to have been a common Palestinian rock dove rather than a white turtle dove that hovered over Jesus’ head at his baptism– and the grey rock dove with its iridescent green and purple neck is considered to be the ancestor of our common domestic pigeon.

With this change in our visualization the symbol for the Holy Spirit suddenly changes from something indicating purity and exclusiveness to something indicating commonality and ubiquity. Pigeons like to be where people are, they don’t discriminate between the ‘good’ areas and the ‘bad’ areas but crowd wherever life is to be found. That sounds like quite a good description of God too.

This is how Blue draws out the metaphor: “Maybe the spirit of God is so common – wherever life is, that we don’t recognize it or necessarily respect it … Maybe we don’t notice because we are looking for something pure and white, but the spirit of God is more complicated than that – fuller and richer and everywhere. Perhaps we’ve read the dove wrong – it is not as pure as the driven snow. Maybe we get a little hung up on purity. God after all created LIFE (everything, swarming and creeping, fruitful and multiplying). Maybe the Holy Spirit of God is more creative than puritan. Maybe we are mistaken about what holy means.” Consider the Birds – A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible, p12.

This year I am choosing to see the presence of the Spirit of God in the common pigeons that peck at the dusty pavements, rather than in the white doves that coo in peaceful parks. When a flock of pigeons dance in the sky I will be reminded of the dance of the Spirit of God in all things. When I see pigeon poop all over buildings I will be reminded of the incarnation – that God became flesh in all its messy reality, not just the pure and proper bits. When the sun catches the iridescent colours on a pigeon’s neck I will be reminded of the beauty that God’s spirit brings to all her beloved daughters and sons, not just those who shine in the eyes of the world.

From the wayside

Michael Leunig, one of my favourite prayer poets, has this to say about those suffering from colds:
God bless those who suffer from the common cold.
Nature has entered into them;
Has led them aside and gently lain them low
To contemplate life from the wayside;
To consider human frailty;
To receive the deep and dreamy messages of fever.
We give thanks for the insights of this humble perspective.
We give thanks for blessing in disguise. Amen

I’m not suffering from a cold, but I am currently laid low by a different virus and having some doctor-ordered time at home. I feel I should embrace this space with a Leunig-like welcome but instead am mentally kicking against the pricks as hard as I can.

So this post is to remind myself that I am not called to be Superwoman but called to be Ellen. And being Ellen means accepting the need to sit by the wayside from time to time, remembering that I am dusty and mortal, and that the world will keep turning even when I’m not doing much to help it spin.

I hope you are healthy and hearty and full of life. But if you’re wearied and heavy-laden, whatever the cause, I hope you know that there is good company at the wayside and the possibility of blessings that we cannot yet perceive.

The Poetry of Things

There is a beautiful Georgia O’Keeffe painting of autumnal leaves which has the title ‘The Poetry of Things’. It is resonant of incarnation, of holy embodiment, and of the delight and worth held by the material and transient. Where in this world of beauty and terror, continually created and beloved of God, do you find a poetry that speaks to your innermost being?