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[This is the sermon I preached this morning at Hill Memorial Baptist Church in Allston, MA, right around the corner from my house. Unsurprisingly, I went off-book a fair amount during the message, and so I’m posting it here only tentatively and a bit bashfully–sermons make far less sense when they’re not spoken and heard in community, but for those of you who are wondering what I’ve been up to, this is part of it. Oh, also, read the texts–please!–before you read the sermon: Psalm 25:1-10, Deuteronomy 30:9-14, Colossians 1:1-14, and Luke 10:25-37).
I was hiking up a mountain recently. We were about 3 ½ miles in, and all of them had been pretty much straight uphill. It was about 3:30 in the afternoon, and we weren’t going to stop for lunch until we got to the first summit of a 13-mile hike. I was on a camping trip with folks from my church, and me and a friend had enthusiastically planned this route to be a little more challenging than the one the other group was doing. Because we had stayed up late the night before, forgotten whose car held the breakfast food, had to split up the group and the trail snacks, we didn’t leave the campsite until about noon. And so we were trying to squeeze 13 miles in before sundown. We packed flashlights.
It was mid-afternoon, I was starving, we were above treeline and I could see the summit. I knew the group of twelve snaked out behind me. I knew Anna was breathing heavy, I knew Hannah was lagging, I knew how important it was to keep the group together. I knew that I could easily step to the side of the trail, take up the back, be an encourager, stay right by the side of the struggling ones telling stories and helping them get to the top of this beautiful bald faced mountain. But where was I? In front. Sort of running up the mountain.
Look, I was tired, I was hungry, my legs were burning, and I knew that I needed to just keep going, push through, get myself there. Myself. I needed to get myself there.
I think sometimes we get so focused on how hard things are for us, on what we have to do, on how difficult it will be to get ourselves through, that we get tunnel vision. I could see that bagel, those tomatoes, that cheese, that orange waiting for me in my backpack, and I wanted to get myself there. This is not my proudest moment.
It turns out that the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was not unlike the path I was hiking on that day. It is an incredibly steep downhill—an elevation change of over 3300 feet—and 18 miles long. It was known as a notoriously dangerous road to travel on. There were the natural dangers—the rocky path, the sharp descent, the fact that it was in a desert and there wasn’t much water around—as well as the fact that the road was overrun with robbers and all sorts of people who were trying to take advantage of you, give you a hard time.
And so, in the story that Jesus told to a self-righteous lawyer who was trying to test him, the unnamed man who would be saved by the good Samaritan was walking down a road where he knew he was vulnerable. It was a road that he knew was difficult, and a road that he knew was full of dangers.At the time, many people called it the “Way of Blood.” And it was the only road that the man could go on to get to where he needed to go. He had no other choice.
Today I want to talk about roads. I want to talk about difficult roads, and the way that sometimes all of us have no choice but to walk on difficult roads. I want to talk about the roads God calls us to walk on, how he calls us to treat people on roads, the choices that we sometimes have change our paths and walk alongside others.
I’m going to take a long shot and assume that many of us are familiar with the main details of this story, so I won’t waste our time going over things you all already know.
I do, though, want to point out a few things that stood out to me in the text, things that the Good Samaritan didn’t do.
He did not stay away from the difficult road—he walked down it himself.
He did not pass to the other side of the road when he saw someone hurting, as the priest and the Levite did. He did not think about how quickly he needed to get where he was going, how important his work was. He did not preoccupy himself with the question, “what will happen to me if I stop?” If he thought about it at all, he would have realized that stopping would have made him vulnerable to attack too; he either did not think about this, or he realized it, and stopped anyways.
The Samaritan did not allow ethnic or religious baggage to get in the way of helping the man. There was considerable tension between the Samaritans and the Jews at the time Jesus was telling this story. The Samaritans and the Jews had, just about 500 year earlier, been members of the exact same religion. The difference came when the Israelites were sent into exile by the Babylonians. Almost all of them were taken into captivity in Babylon, but some weren’t, and stayed in Jerusalem. When the Israelites returned, they found their houses and land occupied, and an enormous amount of religious and ethnic strife broke out between people who had been neighbors and family just two generations before. The Samaritans in the story today did not allow all of this baggage to cloud the way he saw the humanity of the hurt man.
Another thing that he did not do is wait for someone more qualified to help. Despite not being a doctor, he himself bandaged this man’s wounds. He didn’t say “I don’t have the right supplies!” He cleaned the wound with wine—wine!–and treated them with oil.
He didn’t simply do the bare minimum. He didn’t leave the man where he had found him. He took him to an inn and gave the innkeeper enough money to keep the man for two months. Two months!
So when Jesus is trying to give an example of what it looks like to be a neighbor, companion, and friend to someone, he tells a story about this man who didn’t stay away from difficult roads, didn’t shy away from someone’s hurting, didn’t allow racial prejudices to get in the way of his mercy, didn’t wait for someone more qualified, and didn’t spare any expense in caring for a hurt person. This is our example of how to walk down a difficult road, ready to be a companion to the people we meet along the way.
In Psalm 25, the Psalmist prays, “make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.” The Hebrew word here literally means road, highway. That same word is used later in the Psalm, when he proclaims that the Lord “instructs sinners in the way” and “teaches the humble his way”. What the Lord teaches people, then, is literal roads to walk on, paths to take. When we pray for God’s leading, we are praying to literally get ourselves in line with God’s paths—to get on God’s roads.
The Psalms are a special type of Scripture because they show us the way faithful people have prayed, and give us examples of how we can lead our own prayer life. So, even though this was David’s prayer three thousand years ago, we echo it as our own prayer. When we say out loud, a we did a few minutes ago, “make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths!”, we are asking this, too. So what might God’s paths be?
That’s a huge question, and I think a large part of the Christian life is—or should be—trying to find the answer to this question. David provides an answer in v. 10, when he says, “all the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness. The Hebrew word used here, “hesed”, is one of the hardest to translate out of Hebrew. It means some combination of love, mercy, faithfulness, and kindness. And so, the roads that we are walking down, when we are keeping God’s covenant and decrees, are roads of love, mercy, faithfulness, and kindness. They are roads in which we are loving others with the love God has shown to us.
Walking God’s paths means being faithful to God, but it also means being faithful to other people. It means recognizing when they are walking on difficult paths, and coming along beside them. Faithfulness to God demands it, because when we are faithful to God, when we try to walk the way Jesus walked, we inevitably end up walking alongside others, no matter what they’re going through. 1 John 4:18 says, “we love because he first loved us.”
This brings us back to my point from last Sunday, which is that the center of the Christian life is summed up in the proclamation in Ps 66:5: “come and see what God has done!” We are called to see for ourselves what God has done, and to invite others to do the same. In Jesus, God became flesh and made his dwelling among us. He did not come and live among the rich and powerful. He was not born into a safe and beautiful palace. He was not rich. He was the son of an unwed teenage mother and a day-laborer father. He came to people who were sick, suffering from mental illness, shunned by their communities. He came to prostitutes and adulteresses and paralytics and lepers, and he loved them and touched them and ate with them and walked with them.
When we are looking for what “God’s road” is, we only have to look to Jesus to see what that looks like. And when we know what that road is, we have to walk on it. When we do this, we show people who God is, and what God has done in our lives. Because, just like the people Jesus interacts with in the gospel accounts, we were and are sick and shunned and lonely and hard-pressed, beaten down, taken advantage of, lied to, and enslaved. And Jesus comes alongside us. Jesus was, and is, emmanuel: God with us. Jesus’ paths, Jesus’ road, was and will be right alongside us.
Jesus tells this parable to a self-righteous lawyer after he, correctly, sums up the Hebraic law in the same way that Jesus himself would: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Our Old Testament scripture today comes from the book of Deuteronomy, which also serves as sort of a sum-up of all of the Law that was revealed to the Israelites in the first four books of the Bible. In Deuteronomy, Moses restates the Israelites’ history and the Law of God just before he dies and the Israelites enter the Promised Land. Chapter 30 comes almost at the end of this speech, and it is here that he says, “this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.” The lawyer and Jesus both sum up the law as “love God, and love your neighbor,” and here, Moses asserts that that commandment—as all-encompassing as it is—is not too hard for us, and it is not too far away.
He says, “in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”
The word—the commandment, the law, the way of life, the path that God is on and that God calls us to be on—is in our mouths and in our hearts for us to observe. Where David asks God to show him God’s paths—to show him the road to walk on—Moses tells us that this knowledge is already near to us. The word is near to us. And it’s not too hard for us. Loving others, walking alongside them as Jesus did, being faithful to God and to people—it is something we can do.
But it is not something we can do on our own. There are people who want to turn Jesus simply into a “good moral teacher”–someone who did nice things, and asks us to do nice things too. There are people who think that we are good enough, strong enough, in control enough of our own thoughts and feelings and desires and drives, to do what is right and loving. I am not one of those people. I do not think we can do the right thing on our own. I myself am selfish, and stubborn, and sometimes shockingly self-serving, even though I like to think of myself as selfless and generous.
The good news, though, as we seek God’s path and try to walk alongside others on difficult roads, is that we don’t only have Jesus as an example. We have him as an advocate. Paul writes to the church in Colosse, telling them that he prays for them that they might be “filled with the knowledge of God’s will” and that they might be “made strong with the strength that comes from his glorious power.” The active party—the one who makes people strong, who fills us with the knowledge of God’s will—is Jesus, and Jesus alone. Jesus, Paul tells us, prepares us to endure everything with patience. This strength that comes from Jesus allows us to get past our own shortcomings, our own failures, our own pain and insufficiency and selfishness, and to actually walk on God’s paths.
All of our scriptures today point to the truth that walking on God’s paths means walking on difficult roads, and being faithful and merciful to the people we find on those road. Occassionally, we will find ourselves on literal difficult roads: when I was walking up that mountain, being faithful and merciful would have looked like thinking of my companions, and slowing down to walk beside them, instead of hurrying up the mountain and digging the chocolate out of my backpack.
But it is not always that literal. People are walking down all sorts of difficult roads. All we have to do is look around us. The priest and the Levite looked away when they saw the man suffering. The Samaritan did not. If we keep our eyes and our hearts open, we will start to see all of the different difficult roads that people are walking on. We will see people walking the anxious roads of unemployment and financial insecurity. We will see people walking the roads of illness: cancer, alzheimer’s, diabetes, depression, addiction. We will see people walking the heartbroken roads of loneliness or divorce. We will see people walking roads of oppression: people who must deal, on a daily basis, with the reality of racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia.
And every day, we will be given the choice of pretending like we don’t see those people, and hardening ourselves to their pain, or coming alongside them as they walk on those difficult roads. Every day, we have the choice between being faithful and merciful companions, or being hardened and callous and self-focused and self-righteous and judgmental.
Moses reminds us that “this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.” It is as close as the people we see every day, and it is as easy, or as hard, as deciding to walk alongside them faithful, being their companions on whatever path they are on.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: boston marathon, emmanuel, resident seminarian, the incarnation
Wednesday was a hot and sunny day, the kind that makes you remember that spring actually does come after these brutal Boston winters, the kind of day that reminds you that you have toes that haven’t seen the sun in months, the kind that makes you want to stay outside just a little bit longer.
The sun also meant that the flowers that folks were leaving out on Marsh Plaza in memorial of Lingzi Lu, the Boston University grad student who was killed in the bombings, didn’t stand much of a chance. When the reporters who saw me bringing vases of water up from the chapel’s basement took pictures of me tending to those flowers, I knew they were just trying to tell the story of the way the city deals with our grief. When, getting my basic information, they found out that I was getting my Masters in Divinity, they somehow decided it was appropriate to ask me about the suspect that had just been arrested by the police: “so, as someone who’s studying theology, tell me, do you think this suspect is going to hell?”
The question, of course, is unanswerable, and wildly besides the point.
Here’s what I think the reporters were getting at: we’re all grasping for some sort of sense, we’re all trying to figure this out. We’re trying to find God in this and we don’t know how and so we turn to the people who spend their time reading and thinking and asking questions about God.
Asking things like “why did God let this happen?” and “is the suspect going to hell?” and “how do we find the point of all this suffering?” make me feel confused and small and unproductive.
But there is a question that makes me feel big, and hopeful, and grounded, a question that I’ve been holding, which is, “where is God?”
And, folks, because I think part of my work in life right now is answering this sort of question, here’s what I know:
God was at the marathon on Monday.
God was in our voices while we cheered and screamed and chanted names.
God was in the legs of runners who pushed in wheelchairs their sons who felt more alive, less disabled, when their fathers were wheeling them in races.
God was in the hands of every person who pulled off their belts and wrapped them around the bloody stumps of limbs to stem the bleeding.
God was in the calm minds of the police officers and the marathon officials and the random bystanders who somehow kept their heads and worked to contain the trauma and the chaos.
God was sitting on the couch wrapping her arms around us when the news reports came in and we needed to feel another person’s body next to us.
God was in the facebook pages and the text messages and the tweets to check in on everyone we loved and hadn’t heard from while the phone lines were jammed.
God was in the google spreadsheets of people offering their homes to stranded runners.
God was in the kitchen Monday night cooking casseroles and hot dishes so that we could feed comfort food to the people in our living rooms.
God was slipping needles into median cubital veins to draw blood from donors and was threading suture needles with silk to stitch closed the victims’ wounds.
And God is still with us:
God is checking in on us in the lunchroom, in the boardroom, in the bathroom, in the hallway when we slump down on benches because we just can’t do it anymore.
God is holding vigil at the barricades down on Boylston Street.
God is talking to the daffodils along the river and telling them to bloom, and the daffodils are listening.
God is showing up with chalk under the cover of night to write messages on the river’s running path: “Don’t give up, Boston” and “we are strong” and “you are loved” and “keep running, Boston.”
God is in every bit of gentleness we’ve been extending to each other.
God is planning surprises, and telling jokes,
God is sitting across from us in coffeeshops when we need to talk about the boy we’re just starting to love because, holy shit, we can’t always be thinking about pain and sadness and sometimes we need to flirt.
God is in Boston, and God is in South Korea, and God is in Syria and Palestine and Afghanistan and Texas, God is in Kansas and Washington and Newton and Norway and Cambridge,
feeling every wound, every injustice, every sadness and every pain,
God has never left any one of us,
and as we keep reaching out to this bleeding, broken, healing world with our hands and our words and our actions and our hopes, God will keep speaking through us the only word that makes sense,
God will stay right here, speaking—through us—“love.”
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I spent yesterday reading about martyrdom with a tiny earless donkey perched on the table next to me. The first Saturday of every month at school is the Reading Retreat, a time for people with too much work to do to get together, eat some free food, pray a little bit, and hold each other accountable to get things done. It’s a good, calm, productive time, and for me usually involves sitting in a room with other and people being eerily quiet except for those moments when someone feels a need to read a quote about, say, child sacrifice, or strange metaphors about genetalia (both of which came up in my reading yesterday).
As it’s the start of Advent, the prayer services that bookend the reading retreat focused on nativity scenes: six or seven of them, set up all around the prayer chapel. Robin invited each of us to pick a figure from one of them and have it “travel with us” through the day, and to reflect on how this character embodied hope, our participation in the waiting that defines the season, or whatever else (seminarians are great at making meaning out of things, so she was banking on our efforts). I picked this humble little donkey without thinking much, but, true to form, by the end of the day, it had become a Meaningful Thing.
Here’s why: this week, after several conversations about all my heart sparkles (my full-time job is having heart sparkles for people; everything else is a secondary occupation), my participation in conflict-mediation processes at my collective house, and the way I get my self-definition from helping other people (this particular conversation happened around 1 AM in a noisy club directly before I went up to sing karaoke to Taylor Swift), I’ve been thinking. Sitting in a bar on Thursday night, working through a pitcher of beer with seminarians and sharing–as usual–maybe too many of my feelings, a friend responded, “you know, you’re deserving of love, too, Lindsay.”
And it’s sat with me, that thought.
On Wednesday, the chapel speaker, preaching on that lovely part where Jesus quotes the Old Testament law in reminding us to love our neighbors as ourselves, pointed out that most of us can’t actually love our neighbors well because we don’t love ourselves well. Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be really excellent at something; the preacher said that maybe we need to devote 10,000 hours to working on loving ourselves, on seeing ourselves the way God sees us, on staying in full view of our flaws and wounds and realizing that we are loved through and beyond them.
So I had this yard-sale creche donkey with the broken ears, and I got to thinking about what a donkey would be doing at the nativity. The sheep are there just being sheep, but a donkey is a working animal. He was there because someone had ridden him, or would ride him; maybe Mary, everyone’s favorite unwed pregnant teenager, had been laboring on top of this animal’s back when they were going from inn to inn. But the doneky I had didn’t have anyone or anything on him. And it was nice, to see a burden-bearing animal free from his burdens, to remember that he exists outside of his usefulness.
That’s what I want for myself. That’s what I’m trying to remember: that it’s good for a donkey to carry things, that it’s good for a girl to write papers and bake bread and listen to people’s problems and care really deeply about the folks she spends her time with, but those things don’t define the donkey, and they don’t define the girl. What’s more, they don’t determine whether or not the donkey or the girl deserve love, or a home, or a place in the community. They don’t determine their worth. They don’t determine their value.
We come into places with our own wounds, and sometimes we have to stand stripped of all the things that we use to give ourselves identity and meaning. This advent season, what I’m hoping for and what I’m working to prepare a place for is this knowledge that we’re loved, all of us, just as we are, however much we do or don’t do. Even me. Even you.
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We’re stormed in up here in Boston, but even if the hurricane takes our power–which looks probable, given that several dead-looking branches are hanging over our power lines just outside my window–we’ve got a gas stove. My day is being marked off in meals that punctuate the hundreds of pages of reading I’m catching up on: tea and broth before anyone got up, a giant pot of macaroni and cheese for lunch from Susanna, and an afternoon snack of pear cobbler (also from Sus, who I think is feeling a little stir-crazy). In a couple of hours, my two loaves of sourdough bread will be done rising, so I can bake those, although we may well be enjoying them by headlamp-light.
Writing has been eclipsed by reading, bike rides, the incessant memorization of Hebrew vocab words, and attempts to put down roots in the city that I was born in and am only just coming back to, but I’m trying to take advantage of this storm’s interruption of life as usual.
What I am thinking about today–and what I have been thinking about since Friday night–is something that Father Greg Boyle. He’s a Catholic priest who started and maintains Homeboy Industries, a collection of businesses in Los Angeles that employs gang members and ex-offenders. He came to speak in Boston, and as he was telling stories of his work, he recounted a time when a reporter asked him, “what does it feel like to have saved 3000 lives?”
“I had no idea what he was talking about,” Greg said. He explained how he wasn’t better than any of the people he worked with, and how he wasn’t in the business of saving people. “They’re just holy, and I want to be around that holiness.”
He’s talking about gang members, y’all. He’s talking about people who have stabbed other people through the soft parts of their ribcage. He’s talking about people most mothers wouldn’t dream of letting their children get anywhere near. And I love it. And I know exactly what he means.
Here’s the thing: the night before I went to go see Father Boyle, me and a few friends from seminary wandered through Boston at midnight until we got to the gay bar where Johnny assured us there would be karaoke. And sure enough, in the basement, there was a ragtag bunch of people gathered around bar tables, singing badly to Taylor Swift and Janet Jackson and, of course, Melissa Etheridge. We showed up to late to make it on the list, so we just stood in the background dancing and enjoying. When I ran out of breath and propped myself up on the pool table, I looked around, and I thought about the way that all people are made in the image of God, the way that God is present in all times and all places.
I don’t know what that means, exactly, in the basement of Machine with Miley Cyrus blaring. I don’t know what that means in the context of a very sweet man telling a very straight Sam that “when I was little, all I wished was that I was straight; now all I wish is that you were gay.” I don’t know.
I do know that I felt a strange, warm sort of kinship when I belted out P!NK’s “Perfect”, arms wrapped around total strangers for the last song of the night, and that Greg Boyle named it better than I could have imagined when he was talking about the homies the next night, and that if we’re only looking for God behind altars or in certain texts and robes and buildings, we’re not so much getting it wrong as we’re missing the whole smorgasbord of holiness that the world has to offer.
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Today, I am feeling human. I mean, OK, I am always a human: I always have the requisite number and combination of chromosomes, I have a name, a social security number, a pulse. But what I’ve been noticing the past few months, through leaving Florida and spending a summer at camp and coming down to Boston, is that I’ve felt strangely, well, inhuman. No, that’s not exactly it. Maybe this explains it better: there’s a bit in the book of Ezekiel where the prophet is speaking to the people, and one of the things he says is that God will remove from them their hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh.
What was hard and closed off and well-defended, what had sharp edges, what was solid and unchanging–all of that would get traded out for a heart made of flesh. Hearts made of flesh are designed to be receptive (they take the blood in) and also to release (they pump out oxygenated blood to all the many miles of blood vessels). Hearts made of flesh are, in some ways, really quite delicate and vulnerable. Still, they are resilient: each individual cell of cardiac muscle will continue to beat on its own, and cause other cardiac cells to beat, even if the signals from the brain cease. The heart will beat indefinitely, even outside the body, so long as there are oxygen and other nutrients present. And a heart of flesh–which has no brain of its own–still somehow manages to slow or speed up its beating to match another heart that is pressed close enough.
And today, after spending so many weeks thinking about what it means to have my own rough-edged, unyielding, fearful and willful heart of stone transformed into a heart of flesh, I stared to feel it.
It might have been when I was biking to Jamaica Plain and found myself hopelessly lost and a man pointed me in the right direction. It might have been when I handed my debit card over at the bike shop and the employee looked at me and said, “you’re from Tallahassee, too?” and we got to share some reminiscing about shared places and people and credit union employees, and the connection made it easier to hear the news that my current bike is so badly out of shape that I really should just buy a new one. I certainly felt it at the farmer’s market, picking out apples and winter squash, discussing the difference in northern and southern growing seasons, talking to the Stonyfield Farms people about the joys of a job that requires only giving away free samples of a product you believe it. I certainly was feeling it when the man who came up to claim a vanilla yogurt recognized me from a different bike shop last week, and asked after my bike.
Perhaps I really felt it clearest this morning, when I was the only one awake in the house, kneading bread dough on the counter in my pink night gown: slamming the bread down again and again, pushing it with the heel of my hand, working in until it was smooth and elastic.
Or, it might have started a while ago, this process replacing that part of me that was hardened and weary with a soft, beating, receptive, fleshy hear, but regardless, I am relieved to realize that I am feeling so much more human today.
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It’s right about noon, and I just stepped outside for the first time today. The porch on Mark’s house is shady this time of day, and I can see the street only through a jungle of marigolds, strawberries, tomato vines, and dill flower. There’s one cat nuzzling around my legs, and another one gazing at me through the window. I haven’t gotten dressed yet today, and haven’t really talked to anyone, and have spent the morning lazily organizing my jumbled possessions and sipping a banana peanut smoothie that Mark left for me in the fridge after I solidly slept through his whole leaving-for-work process. I think, soon, I might change out of my pajamas and write letters down by Jamaica Pond.
For all the gentle laziness, though, I keep getting these little twinges of anxiety: these nudges saying, “hey, shouldn’t you be doing something?”
As I was cleaning out my things from the summer, I came upon pages of to-do lists: schedules for check-ins with staff, reminders to photocopy paperwork, notes towards discipline talks, outlines of lessons to teach. I always write my to-do lists with little check-boxes next to each item so that I can check it off when I complete it, but I always just want to draw full, thick lines through things once they’re done. On each of the to-do lists I uncovered this morning, about two-thirds of the items were crossed off, and the others are things that I didn’t quite get to. For the last eleven weeks, I have been consistently behind. More than that, though, I’ve gotten used to my life being ridiculously scheduled, to always having things I needed to do, to planning a day based on a triage of what needed to get done.
And now, here I am, with a whole week in Boston before I have to show up to orientation at BU, and the main thing on my to-do list is to settle in.
As I work on settling in, I keep thinking about a workshop I went to about soil, and how if you want to determine what your soil type is–your mix of silt, sand and clay–what you can do is scoop up some of it, put it in a jar with some water, shake it up, and then put it somewhere where it won’t be disturbed. After long enough, all of the mixed-up bits will layer out: you’ll get a layer of sand, a layer of silt, a layer of clay. Once it all settles out, you can see what you’ve got, and you’ll know what you’re working with.
This is what I keep trying to remind myself of, and what I keep trying to tell the twinges of anxiety that sneak in while I’m balancing tea on my knee and listening to Mark’s housemates talk about the Delta Blues: that in the laziness and the solitude and the resting, some important sorting-out and settling will happen, and I can start to make sense of things.
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I take the babies to Lake Ella park whenever I get the chance, and we walk the half-mile sidewalk around the small pond, where they pass time getting in the way of runners, counting the turtles sunning on the floating turtle-rafts, getting licked in the face by dogs whose mouths are precisely at toddler eye-level, and getting frighteningly close to hugging the viscious and disease-ridden muscovy ducks. The past couple of months, I’ve learned how to read the body language of the mama geese when my babies get to close to theirs: the fluffing of the feathers, straightening of the neck, the lunge-and-hiss that says “don’t even think about taking a step closer.” My reflexes for swooping down and herding the toddlers away from the goslings has improved mightily.
It was those fluffy, lanky, yellow-gray adolescents that I was thinking of yesterday when my pastor was preaching the last sermon I’d hear from her before I head north to camp and seminary. It’s not that I was daydreaming (although, for a hopeful future pastor, I am remarkable prone to zoning off in the middle of sermons). It’s that Nancy was talking about geese.
When I walked into church, there were these snazzy red banner with doves on them hanging from the rafters: a perfect match for my red skirt, and a visible reminder that it’s Pentecost, the day we remember the Holy Spirit coming down as God with us, in us, and all around us. Doves are pretty standard when the church talks about the Holy Spirit, but I’m not exactly sure why, and it’s not a metaphor that has ever been really meaningful to me.
The good news for me and my metaphor-driven self is that there are a bunch of folks–Celtic Christians, for one–who choose, instead, to picture the Holy Spirit as a wild goose.
Here’s the thing about geese: they’re loud and racous and you can’t boss them around. They’re boisterous. They seem, in their goosey way, pretty opinionated.
When you get too close to their babies, they’re fiercely protective: they leave no room for interpretation when they say, “this thing I made, this thing I love, is not something you can mess with.”
When geese fly in those wonderful Vs to cut down wind resistance, the lead goose–the one at the point of the V–does a huge amount of work. She gets tired easily, and the geese are good at sharing the work and relieving each other. But the really charming thing, which I learned from my friend Michelle after she got a goose tattoo on her ankle, is that what we’re hearing when we hear the geese honking loudly and incessantly as they fly over us, is encouragement. Every single honk is a goose telling the lead goose, “come on” or “you got this” or “hey, I know this is hard but we’re with you” or “just let us know if you need help.”
And if a goose gets sick or hurt or can’t fly, two geese will always stay on the ground with it while it heals, so that it doesn’t have to finish the flight alone, and so that, even if the sick goose dies, the other two still have a buddy.
And I think that’s what we’re dealing with when we talk about God’s presence in our lives and our selves: something that is wild, and loud, and fiercely protective, something that goes in front of us to break up all the wind resistance and flies behind us honking encouragment when things are hard, something that sits with us when we’re sick and wounded so that we know we don’t have to face any of this mess alone.