The weather has changed almost overnight, and I now find myself in need of warm things. I’ve already been on a soup-making binge this month, but I’m looking forward to pulling out sweaters, tea, and perhaps even lighting up the fireplace as November quickly approaches. I’m visiting friends this week, and the drive up north was stunning, as the trees moved from mostly-green to various shades of orange.
I’m grateful for letter-writing and tea this week. I’m still catching up on letters from the past few months–various ember cards from friends, a few new folks to write back to. But the feeling of sending, and receiving a letter in the mail makes a new address feel like home. Also, what’s not to love about an excuse to bust out ink pens and wax seals? Anyone who has read this blog for a while, or knows me in real life, knows that I’ve always been fond of tea. I really can’t get into coffee, and I love both the regularity and variety that tea can offer. I normally start off the morning with Yorkshire black tea, but right now I’m really feeling the Jane Austen Blend from Gillards of Bath (currently out of stock), and this Ti Quan Yin Oolong from Harney and Sons.
As I said above, I’m off working remotely for the week, ironically right after I installed my new state license plates on my car. It seems weird to travel during COVID when I have my own home now, but it’s nice to have a mental break from unpacking/domestic responsibilities. I’ll be using some of this time to wrap up a concluding work commitment, and to begin planning for the next few months, beginning with reading C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves, and sketching out my sermon for Nov. 8th (post-election day sermon. no pressure, right?). I hope your week is as renewing as I anticipate mine will be.
1. A colleague found this blog the other day, since I tend to only use it as a conduit for posting sermons nowadays. I think she might have assumed I was still actively blogging. And when I realized that assumption, I realized that I missed actively blogging… and the slow descent into a winter in pandemic here in the US seems like a good time to write again. I’ve seen a couple other folks pick up blogging again in the last few months, after initially abandoning our teenage blogs for Instagram and undergrad and careers. Perhaps it’s time to resurrect our weird little blogging community, yes?
2. The windowsills of my house are the perfect place to start seeds, apparently. The majority of the windows are rather small, so some rooms lack the amount of daylight that I’d prefer (still sorting out lighting), but these plants are perfectly happy. An added bonus is the chance to reuse paper egg cartons. I’m always looking for ways to substitute for disposable plastic–my current project is to collect enough glass storage for my kitchen that I don’t have to use plastic tupperware at all. So far, it’s a success, thanks to several IKEA runs and gifted canning jars from relatives. (Admittedly, this project is easier in my case, where I’m largely building a kitchen from scratch, and don’t have large amounts of plastic food storage already at hand.)
3. I’m delighted to say that I finally live in a place where I can have my cat (Opal), who has been a long-time presence on this blog. Anyone following me on Instagram already knows this, as I’ve been probably posting too many photos on there. But if you really love cats and are on Instagram, you can follow her at opal_la_chatte. She’s 13-ish now, but is doing really well. We had a slight scare a few weeks ago about potential lymphoma, but all signs seem to indicate that it’s either very early or some other far more minor issue. Otherwise, she’s healthy and is obsessed with food, catnip mice, excursions outside to the deck, and copious amounts of attention. And I’m grateful for a furry companion in this new stage of life!
“Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure”
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things.
This has always been one of my favorite collects, bursting with references to the ‘lilies of the field’ passage in Matthew and Luke, where Jesus says “do not worry about your life”.
But reading this admonition, to ‘not be anxious about earthly things’, feels different now, now when we are in the midst of so many things to be anxious about. Saying do ‘not be anxious about earthly things’ in the middle of a pandemic and a climate crisis feels like holding an umbrella in the middle of a hurricane, or a tiny flickering candle in a dark cave.
How can we not be anxious about earthly things? How can we not be anxious when the very earth that we live on is quaking under our feet, when the very air that we breathe is grey with ash and smoke? How can we not be anxious, living in a world that feels neither peaceful nor secure nor predictable?
This same sense of anxiety is where we find ourselves in the book of Exodus. The Israelites, wandering in the desert, are anxious. There’s no water, no food, just the hot desert sand and a march to a home that they’ve never seen.
“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt”, at least we had food to eat then. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt”, because dying in slavery is, at least, a known quantity. It’s not the terror and trepidation and all-consuming anxiety of a new and uncertain world.
“Do not be anxious about earthly things” seems like the wrong thing to say to a group of anxious, hungry, exhausted people.
“Do not be anxious about earthly things” seems like the wrong thing to say to people who are suffering from, dying from, a pandemic.
“Do not be anxious about earthly things” seems like the wrong thing to say to friends who are evacuating their homes, who are fleeing wildfires caused by climate change.
“Do not be anxious about earthly things” really just seems like the wrong thing to say.
As perhaps some of you know, I grew up on a small family farm. And as my family sought to understand the why of local agrarianism, the why of what we did for a living, we continually turned to the works of Wendell Berry. A poet, essayist, and novelist of much acclaim, Berry spends much time in his work reflecting upon the relationship between humanity and creation, between people and the land.
And as we consider the question of anxiety about our world, Berry is, perhaps unsurprisingly, insightful. In an essay called “Leaving the Future Behind”, he talks about the debilitating effect that national and international climate change reporting has on individuals’ and communities’ ability to effectively respond. In other words, a constant barrage of information about huge issues we can’t immediately solve in like fashion, tends to leave us feeling as if we can do nothing.
He writes that the fear and guilt induced by these stories “can become a major distraction, not only from better ways of problem solving and better ways of thinking and working, but also from the local causes of climate change—which has, after all, only local causes.”(1)
This isn’t to say that these big fears, these anxieties, this present, and these predictions for the future aren’t real. They are real, or in the case of anxiety, are real reactions to things we experience. But as we ponder what it means to not be anxious about earthly things, Berry offers us a lens through which we can see the problem anew.
We can’t solve climate change. We can’t take better care of the creation we have been entrusted with without a multitude of individuals and communities taking action within their local sphere of influence. Like using a hammer on a screw, or a square peg in a round hole, our gifts and God-given talents are only useful to us and our world when we use them where they’re meant to be used.
God’s response to the anxiety and the future-focused Israelites reminds us of the limitations of our own anxiety and fear. God says—okay, yes, I hear you. You are afraid of the future. You would rather have died in Egypt. Fine. But you’re hungry. Let’s fix that first.
The Israelites, in their fear and anxiety, are attempting to see the whole scope of the problem. They’re thinking about the past and present and future and saying, ‘if only it had happened this way’. They are trying to make a statement from a bird’s eye perspective, from, if you will, God’s perspective. This is the same problem that the first vineyard workers run into in our Gospel lesson, as they attempt to play the role of God in deciding which wages are just, and which are not.
And in each of these passages, God reminds us that we are not actually seeing things from God’s perspective. The Israelites cannot see the promised land laid before them, cannot see the manna which will soon feed them.
But God can.
The first vineyard workers cannot see a world where pay is not based on merit, but on showing up and doing your part, however small.
But God can.
We cannot see the end of this pandemic, cannot see a world of justice and equality, cannot see a world in which creation is cared for as it should be.
But we have faith that God can.
Our call then, is two-fold. First, we must expand our imagination past the fear and anxiety that dominates our headlines and news cycles, reminding ourselves that fire and famine and pestilence are a real part of the story, but not the whole story. When we remind ourselves that we do not see from God’s perspective, we, as Wendell Berry writes, withdraw ‘our.. speculative, wishful, and fearful claims upon the future, [and we] significantly and properly reduce the circumstance or context within which we live and think’.
Because, paradoxically, the second part of our call is to go smaller. To not be incapacitated by our attempts to save the whole world, but to work within our corner of it. In doing this, we are, as Berry says, placed ‘within our right definition, our right limits, as earthly creatures and human beings… only within these limits that we can think practically, usefully, and so with hope, of our history, of what we have been and who we are, of our sustaining connections and relationships’. Only by going smaller, can we do the work that must be done.
So in the face of crisis, in a world and a planet which so desperately needs all of our diligence, care and compassion, what does ‘smaller’ look like?
In the much-beloved film The Princess Bride, our three heroes Wesley, Fezzik, and Indigo sit on top of a castle wall, facing a list of impossible tasks, which include fighting sixty men at the gate in order to then break up the prince’s wedding and exact revenge upon the evil Count Rugen, etc, etc. After listing what must be done, Wesley, who has just been revived from death and can’t even hold his head up straight, asks, ‘what are our liabilities’ and ‘what are our assets’.
What are our liabilities? What is the problem we’re responding to in our community? What’s at stake? What’s in the way of a solution? What are the things we need to learn to do this work well? Where do we need to be honest about our past shortcomings in order to move forward?
What are our assets? Who among us knows about, or is already working on this problem in our community, be it hunger or racism or creation care? Who do we partner with through Faith in Action, or who might we partner with in the future? Which of our individual and community gifts is the right one for this moment?
And just as our three heroes used these questions to literally storm a castle and save the princess, we too can ask these questions to restore our focus. To imagine a world that is God’s, and to see ourselves within our right limits, to focus on our corner of this good earth.
So grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, these fears and anxieties that are too big for us alone, but to love things heavenly—your story, and our joyfully-limited human place in it, that we may care for God’s creation with holiness and reverence, wherever we are planted, wherever we are called to serve.
(1) Berry, Wendell. “Leaving the Future Behind” The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2017. 70-72.
A few weeks ago in a meeting, I made a slightly snarky comment about the fact that at least 50% of transfiguration sermons are about ‘mountaintop experiences’. And so, in a true moment of poetic justice, I find myself offering today’s homily, on the Feast of the Transfiguration.
And we all know the story so well, don’t we? Jesus and the disciples on a mountain. Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter saying yet another foolish thing. The voice of God, saying listen.
And even though our moments apart, our experiences of glory, may not consist of witnessing Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, we still do have them: these moments when everything feels impossibly real, when we glimpse the world, for a moment, through God’s eyes.
We seek these experiences, I think, these moments completely outside of ourselves. Whether you are hiking part of the Appalachian Trail or the Camino de Santiago, going on vacation to somewhere new or dearly beloved, spending a few days on quiet retreat, or perhaps just finding refuge in an early morning walk or bike ride, we feel more whole, more ourselves, once we can get some distance from our constant, endless monologue of internal thoughts.
We, like the disciples, seek glory—a moment so life-altering that it transforms us.
But there is a tension, I think, in the glory that we seek, this moment of perspective.
You see, it is very easy for me to imagine what kind of perspective, what kind of glory, what kind of transformation I am seeking. I’m seeking to recreate a particular experience of retreat or enlightenment that I have experienced before, or I’m looking to recreate someone else’s glory. I’m looking for a moment just like Peter’s, seeing Jesus and Moses and Elisha atop a mountain, and knowing for certain that I’m following the right messiah.
See, that’s the thing about Peter, atop this mountain, confronted with glory. He sees the glory of God, shown in these three figures, and says, yes, I know what this is. Jesus, on par with Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest prophets and law-givers in Israel’s history, memorialized in centuries upon centuries of Jewish imagination and writings. “I know what this is”, he says. “This is history, coming to life. This is the glory of Israel past, the prophets of the past coming to signify the future of Israel present. Let us build three booths, sir, to memorialize this moment, the moment when the past became our present, the moment foretelling the return to normal, the return to Israel as we know it should be.”
Peter, upon being confronted with the glory of the Father, knows it immediately as the glory of the past, the glory that was. He knows it as such because that is the glory that he wants: Israel’s success, and power, enshrined in memory, becoming Israel’s present.
It is not wrong, this drawing from the past, from memory, to teach us our expectations of glory. This is, after all, the great gift of scripture, of church history, of thousands of teachers who remind us of the heavenly glory that was.
But I want to suggest that by limiting the glory of God to the past, to specific manifestations that we know by heart, or have even experienced, we limit our own ability to experience the glory of God that is yet to be.
Peter, so enthralled with the glory that was, does not realize that Jesus and Moses and Elijah are discussing the glory that will be. Peter, prepared for the glory of the past and Israel’s political prosperity, cannot even conceive of a future where God’s glory is expressed, not in the overthrow of the Romans, but in the suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. Peter cannot imagine the glory that is to come, the redemption of the world from the Fall, the harrowing of Hell, eternal salvation.
So on this Feast of the Transfiguration, I invite you—us—not to the mountaintop experiences you know, not to the glory you expect, not to a return to normal, whatever that is, but to the glory of God which is before us, the future which has yet to be. It may not feel like glory. There may be suffering and pain and death as we wait for its appearing. But it is in this glory to come, now known, that Christ redeemed and saved the world, and us. As we pray ‘come Lord Jesus’, as we pray for deliverance from the injustice and ‘disquietude of this world’, as we wait for the glory that is yet to come, may we live in hope that the transfiguration of ourselves and our world, will be greater than we can ever ask, or imagine.