Archives for the month of: April, 2013

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photo by enki22 on flickr.com

Focus texts: Acts 13:14, 43-53; John 10: 27-30 (Good Shepherd)

There’s a lot in me that resists today’s gospel that suggests you and I are sheep.  My impression of sheep is that they’re not all that intelligent, they get spooked easily and their entire lives revolve around their drive for food.  I’m, frankly, a little offended at the analogy.  It’s nearly impossible to avoid it in the church, though.  Frank and I are given title “pastor,” meaning shepherd, implying you are the flock.  Can I get a “baaaa!”  In this church that we are building, brothers and sisters, I don’t need, desire, or promote following my voice or the voice of anyone else with a blind herd mentality.  But this shepherd/sheep symbol isn’t going away.  Like anything that we resist, it shows up on our doorstep to be dealt with and today is the day when I feel challenged to learn from sheep.  I hope to reframe this ancient symbol to speak to our contemporary minds and, more importantly, our hearts.    

Getting to Know the Sheep Within

Looking at a book on human gestation, Finn, my 4 year old, comments on each picture.  “Is it a fish, mom?  It looks like an alien fish.  This one is a duck. See! It has webbed feet.  Look a tail! Ahhh… there’s a baby (finally turning to the 5 month image)!”  As we develop, in utero and out, we undergo the same evolutionary leaps our ancestors made to become the homo sapiens we are today.  Metaphorically and biologically speaking, there is a sheep living inside of us.  An animal brain controls both our conscious and unconscious thoughts and actions.  We’ve spoken in this space about this brain before.  Frank has spoken about it in terms of rising above it to reach beyond our fight or flight impulses to a place of compassion and love.  Without gainsaying the truth of that goal, today I want to look at these creatures that we are, and examine the subtle ways our animal bodies interact with the world to get in touch with a wisdom that flows through our entire body, not just our brains.  Today I invite us not to judge this part of ourselves, but to know it more fully and allow it to be a part of our spiritual awakening.

This part of us is primal, it is the original connection to Life itself.  There was a time when we were unashamedly animal.  It’s evidenced in our evolutionary science and in our mythology.  In this “Garden” we would eat when hungry, sleep when tired, make love and not be ashamed of our nakedness.  This is the good life of sheep.  How often have you looked at your dog and thought, “What a life!”  Our ancestors knew this life, but a creative leap was in the works.  Eating from the tree of knowledge was not an act of sin, as it is so often interpreted; it was an evolutionary leap that sparked the fire of consciousness – both a gift and a curse.  It gave us the knowledge of God, allowed us to observe ourselves, analyze and categorize our world to make meaning; it also made us aware of our separateness and forced us to leave the Garden of oneness with Life itself.[i]

But that Garden, that pasture that flows with life giving water, still exists in our collective Soul and in our very genes.  That place free of inane chatter, regret of the past, anxiety in the future, shame and judgment.  And in that place there is a Shepherd that calls to us in a voice older than words.  It’s that Voice to which we are to become attuned.  This is where faith comes into play.  We must believe that that Voice exists and that it desires good for us, even when it means walking through dark valleys.  It’s a faith that can’t figure it out with our rational brains, but feels the pull in our very bodies through Life, into Life – a pull on us individually and collectively, as a flock. 

Hearing the Voice

I don’t want you to take my word for it, though.  It is my hope that each of us experiences this Guiding Presence.  It requires we learn how to hear differently. It requires practices that may look different in each of our lives.  But it seems essential, especially in this age when we are so divorced from our earth and by extension our bodies, that we begin to accept, love and be in our animal bodies.   In learning to hear differently we learn a new language.

[We] strive to discern and perhaps to practice a curious kind of thought, a way of careful reflection that no longer tears us out of the world of direct experience in order to represent it, but that binds us ever more deeply into the thick of that world.  A way of thinking enacted as much by the body as by the mind, informed by the humid air and the soil and the quality of our breathing, by the intensity of our contact with the other bodies that surround.[ii]

Observe children and remember your childhood.  Bodies running around each other like water, expressing every moment with full self. For me, I continue to return to a moment in childhood sitting on a swing at dusk knowing I could talk to the birds and they were talking to me.  Even though at some point someone told me that wasn’t real, I’ve come to discover on this spiritual path that that experience is one of the realest, truest experiences of my life.  As children we are so much closer to the Voice of the Shepherd. 

In our everyday lives we can slowly begin to create space to observe our thoughts like observing flocks of birds, not judging.  Feeling the tension in our bodies that signal the ways we store the shame and grief of our exile from the Garden; accepting the burning of animal desires for food, comfort and pleasure; thereby tuning into subtler messages being communicated all the time. Today in our yoga class here at church a student came up to our teacher noticing that every time she was in a certain pose it not only made her physically uncomfortable, she felt scared, terrified even.  Finding this simple bit of wisdom in her body signaled to me that the Voice of the Shepherd was working on her.

Trusting and Getting Lost

Beginning to hear the voice and trusting in it are two different things, especially because the Voice often calls us to unfamiliar places.  The leading may seem completely irrational.  Faith in this voice to leave what we know appears foolish.  But our gospel and the witness of Paul and the early disciples shows us people, in spite of the challenge, living out of that faith.  In today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul and Barnabas stir up a following but also a persecution.  They were driven out of the city, but the very last line in today’s periscope state, “The disciples were full of joy and the Holy Spirit.”  Joy in the face of persecution – they were tuned into something beyond the voices of jealousy and hate, beyond themselves and their need for comfort and safety.  The Shepherd was leading them into Life itself that looks different than any of the narrow plans or hopes they may have constructed.  And evidence of this is joy.

Of course, no person (or sheep) ever follows the Shepherd’s Voice perfectly.  It’s a part of our learning to hear, to trust, and to respond… to get lost.  I spend a lot of time lost.  It seems to make sense to me that the next green pasture should be right over that rise and I forget to pay attention to the Shepherd’s cues, especially when the Guiding Presence is leading somewhere scary looking.  So I set off on my own way and wonder how I got to this desert.  Now I’m in a desert and alone… two things a sheep hates most.  And I feel so disconnected from the Shepherd I think I’ll never find my way back.  But the Shepherd knows how the sheep wander and seeks us out again, reuniting us in communion with the flock. 

At Sts. Clare & Francis we are a flock that strives to learn the language of the Shepherd.  We listen to each other and to the wordless language of Silence to discern who we are and where we are going.  It’s a difficult way to be and we, as a group, may get spooked and run away from the Shepherd seeking a church that looks and feels more familiar.  But we can never be beyond the Shepherd’s care and the Voice comes back to us through the prophets, saints, contemplatives, and activists that sit among us, tuned into a Presence that draws us all together in communion with each other and the Good Shepherd.

Rev. Jessica Rowley
Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 20, 2013


[i] This idea of the exile from the Garden as an evolutionary step I gleaned from Anne Hillman, Awakening The Energies of Love: Discovering Fire for the Second Time (Bramble Books, 2008).

[ii] David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010) 3-4.

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 Photo by Community Photography ‘now & then’ at Flickr.com

Mysterious Presence

Since the artist/author of this “painting” crafted it so carefully, let’s look at it closely milking it of its meaning.

One stroke of the artist is the phrase “Jesus showed himself.”  If I visit someone, I don’t say, “I showed myself to my friend.”  We say I went to be with my friend.  So this is the language of a mysterious presence.

A major theme of the painting invites us to identify with the disciples.  They are frustrated in their work.  Pause, and take this in.  Making a living is difficult.  Maintaining a family is difficult.  Building a community of faith is difficult. We can all identify with people working long hours, being tired, and having nothing to show for it.

So the painter wants us to step into the painting by putting ourselves in the boat.  Then Jesus “shows himself” to us.  But notice that even when Jesus “shows himself,” it is hard to determine that it is really Jesus.  (“The disciples did not know that it was Jesus.” John 21:4  And see vs. 12 where they know but don’t know who this is!) So we have a mysterious presence with a mysterious identity.  These are clues the artist is painting into the picture.

This Gospel Crafted Seventy Years Later

Remember that this painting was fashioned somewhere around 70 years after the time of Jesus.  That would be like Jesus dying and rising in 1943 and the gospel being authored today.  The author is using stories that have been told and retold and eventually written in some form over a period of  70 years; and then our creative author injects his own creative genius into process.  The author interprets this story through the prism of his own experience of the church.  How does the mysterious presence of Jesus “made known” to people in the author’s time?  How mysterious is the identity they barely grasp?  One answer is the weekly communal celebration of the Eucharist, for which they have been by now gathering for decades.

Elements of the “Painting” Borrowed from Chapter 6 on the Bread of Life

Pay attention to the over-abundance of fish.  Notice that bread is present.  Notice that their “knowing” that it is Jesus is in the context of his distributing the bread and the fish.  All of this for the careful reader of John takes us back to the 6th Chapter which is devoted to the Bread of Life.  Here we have the superabundance of bread and fish.  Here we have the long explanation of the meaning of the Bread of Life.  And here interestingly tucked into that story we have another moment in a boat where fear, instead of frustration, fills the disciples.  Only the mysterious presence of Jesus on that occasion brings them “to shore” (i.e., to a safe place).

So we are in the painting, Jesus “makes himself know” however mysteriously; we have more difficulty identifying him than we do one another; and symbols of the Eucharist are present.  In other words the evangelist (author/artist) is sharing his experience of the resurrected Jesus, an experience his community has regularly at the Eucharist.

While we know that the early church clearly believed that Jesus rose from the dead, their descriptions of the Risen One’s presence all display an element of mystery.  And—this is my point—the mysterious way that Jesus is present with us at our communal gatherings for the Eucharist is not different from the experience of the early church.  Sometimes our experience of the week, both individually and as a church, leave us feeling frustrated or frightened.  Our time together at the Eucharist is a chance to re-center on the One who brings us to a safe place and a place of abundance. 

One More Detail

There is one more touch of the artist we should notice.  The last time Peter stared at a charcoal fire in John’s telling was the night he claimed he didn’t even know Jesus three times.  Now, in this experience, Peter has the humbling experience of repeating three times that he loves Jesus.  And that too is what the Eucharist is sometimes like for us.  Sometimes we need to re-center our fidelity.  In this mysterious meeting, Jesus says to Peter what he said to Peter at the beginning: “Follow me.”  The Eucharist reminds us every week that we have been called and that we have been sent.

Mysterious doesn’t have to mean “spooky.”  For us it means deep, so deep we can’t really take it all in.

Homily by Frank Krebs
Saturday, April 13, 2013
Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 5:27-32, 40-41
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19 (focus text)

Imagephoto by bricolage.108 on flickr.com

Focus text: John 20:19-31 (Jesus appears in the locked room)

                As I gaze out across the group gathered here this evening I can only imagine what you all are thinking about at this moment.  It may be something about the readings, it may be about something you forgot to do today or it may be a concern about tomorrow.  If you are a visitor, you may be thinking about what you got yourself into!  I bet, however, nobody is sitting there thinking about their breathing. But tonight I need you to think about your breathing for a few moments.  So let’s take 2or 3 deep breaths and focus on how it feels.  That’s it.  Well done!

                Tonight we find the disciples fearful and in a locked room. Jesus comes to them and gives them the Spirit by breathing on them.  By doing so Jesus adds more pavement to a highway of revelation on the breath of God going back to creation.  Tonight we explore the tradition of God’s breath to see if this highway intersects in any way with our own story.  Perhaps in doing so we can rediscover the role our own breath plays in our awareness of God.

Waiting To Exhale

                The metaphor of “breath” begins in the first pages of the Bible.  God sent a wind to dry the earth which the Psalms describe as God’s breath.  God then breathed “life into Adam’s nostrils.”  When Israel was at a dark hour, Ezekiel offered a vision that God breathed new life into a valley of dried up bones and there was a great noise as the bones rattled together and came to life.  Jesus comes to us from the breath of God as God’s Word.  (John 1:1).  Could it be any clearer that God is as close to us as our very breath?

                Even if we did not know all these references in Scripture, our experience would tell us our breath is a doorway to God.  Henri Nouwen was fond of saying we experience God like we experience our breath – we do nothing to create it and we do not control it.  The vast majority of the time we are not conscious of our breath and most of the time we are not conscious of God.  We, unfortunately, often only find our breath when something disrupts it, and we likewise find God more palpable when our lives are disrupted in some way.

                So, it makes total sense that if we can become conscious of our breath, we will become more conscious of God.  We find the present when we find our breath and the present is where God is.  Our breath is a doorway to prayer.  Mystics are constantly telling us it is very difficult to pray when our minds are travelling to the past or the future (recall how many spiritual books have the word NOW in the title).  Conscious breathing is a doorway to now, to where God’s breath is.

                It gets better – the inhale and the exhale of breathing mirrors the filling and emptying required in the spiritual journey.  “Waiting to Exhale” is the name of a popular movie, but it is often what we do in the spiritual life.  We hang on to stale beliefs and concepts about ourselves and God and create no space for God’s breath.  We hang onto hurts and worries.  Thomas in our gospel does the opposite- he is an example of a great Exhaler.  He gets only a few lines in the gospel, but each is a great exhale.  He does not hang on to stuff.  (“Come let us go die with Him…”; “How will we know the way?”; “I will not believe until I put my hand in His side…..”).  Because Thomas emptied himself, he could be filled with God’s breath and he was given the honor of the Mount Everest exhale in the whole gospel when he declared to Jesus “My Lord and my God!.”

Breathing Under Water

                So, if God is as close to us as our very breath, why doesn’t our experience of God reflect this more often?  I am grateful for Richard Rohr’s recent book entitled “Breathing Under Water – Spirituality and the Twelve Steps.”  He points out that so often our life experience is like trying to breathe under water as there are so many things in life that work to suck the spiritual oxygen out of the room.  In addition to the addictions, compulsions and wounds of our own particular history, there are waves of false messages washing over us every day: we are constantly told there is a treatment for every pain, technology for every problem, that having more of everything faster is the goal and violence is appropriate to preserve all this.  Our wounds and cultural messaging can put our spiritual journey under water.

                Richard takes us through each of the 12 steps as breathing exercises for anyone on the spiritual journey.  He argues that through these exercises we can learn to name the addictive aspects in ourselves and the culture, detach from them, build a coral castle with air pockets and learn to breathe under water.  Several of the exercises involve the support and engagement with others and that is certainly my experience here.  This is a place to learn to exhale, to breathe.

                The disciples in our text today were holding their breath underwater – fearful behind locked doors.  Jesus came to them and helped them breathe.  That is the faith we proclaim: we are not alone and God is as close to us as our next breath.  Let’s breathe.

Amen

George von Stamwitz
Sts. Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community
Liturgy for the Second Sunday of Easter
Saturday Evening, April 6, 2013