Saturday, March 22, 2014

Words by the Well

John 4:5-29
Lent 3
March 23, 2014
William G. Carter

"Come and see a man how told me everything that I had done. You don't think this is the Messiah, do you?"

It is always risky to end a sermon with a question. The preacher can ask something and leave it dangling in the air, like a piece of fruit hanging from a tree. The curious will come close, survey what they see, and declare, “It looks like a piece of fruit.” Others will keep walking by, unwilling to stop, going wherever they thought they were headed. It’s only the hungry who reach out, grab the fruit, and take a bite. Everybody else passes by.

This anonymous Samaritan woman is the first female preacher in the Gospel of John. She leaves behind her water jar, goes back to her village, finds some townspeople and asks, “You don’t think this could be the Messiah, do you?” Her question stays dangling in the air.

Now, if you know the rest of the story, you know it’s enough for the whole hungry town to search for Jesus and ask him to stay with them for a while. They come to trust that he is the One who satisfies every human longing. But we never learn what happens to this woman. She is quickly dismissed offstage. Her job was to ask the question of neighbors who will move on beyond her. To this day, nobody ever remembers her name.

What we remember is the conversation. That’s what John gives us. It is the longest conversation that Jesus has with any single person in the whole Bible. He talks longer with her than any conversation he ever has with Peter, James, or John. He speaks with her longer than his backstage conversation with Pontius Pilate.

I can’t tell you what a remarkable conversation this is. He is a Jew, she is a Samaritan. She is a woman, he is a man. They step over the barbed wire of racial differences and religious divisions, to say nothing of the cultural rules that declare men should never talk to women in public.  

Jesus starts the conversation. “Give me a drink.” She is astonished that he speaks to her, and she is feisty enough to tell him so.

Jesus pushes back. If you knew this is, he says, you would ask him for living water. She replies, “Where’s your bucket?”

Leading her into the depths, he speaks of the gift of living water which gushes up into the life of the eternal God. She says, “I’ll take it.” She’s tired of being thirsty and weary of going to the well.

What she doesn’t know is this is John’s version of Jesus. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus knows everything. He knows she has been discarded by five husbands in a row. That’s how it worked back then. The husbands had the authority to get rid of their wives, even if it was the smallest matter that prompted the dismissal. Jesus knows this woman’s wound. He knows her pain, he knows her disillusion with one marriage after another. More to the point, he knows her. He is the One who will later say in this book, “I am the truth” (14:6) and he knows the truth about her. He comes that close and he stays there.

Well, it’s a little too close, so she steps back and puts up a barrier. She decides to pick a fight about religion: “This Samaritan mountain is our holy mountain, but you Jews say the holy mountain is in Jerusalem. We’re different, you know. We have separate temples on separate mountains.”

Jesus says, “Lady, God is not bound to a mountain nor a city. We’re talking about God, the Source of all life. God is Spirit, free like the wind.”

I can see her pausing to consider this. Then she says, “I know that Messiah is coming.” Jesus looks at her and, with the full weight of the Old Testament, he says, “Yahweh! I am.” It’s a holy moment, a holy holy moment. . .

. . . So leave it to the twelve disciples to bumble in at that precise minute, to interrupt the whole thing, and to murmur among themselves, “Why is he talking to her?!?” She is a Samaritan, she is a woman. She’s standing by the well at high noon with none of the other villagers around, so they can only guess what kind of person she is – and Jesus is talking with her. Surely they murmured, “What’s going on here?” and they missed that Jesus has revealed to her who he is.

Please note this is a conversation. Not a one-sided speech. Not a defensive statement of theology. It’s  a conversation. It moves from the shallow end of the pool into great depths. We never actually find out if Jesus got his cup of water. That’s not the point of the conversation. The point is that the woman came for water and she left with the well.[1]

Even so, as she scurries off to spread the word to the townspeople, the thing she talks about is the thing she can’t totally possess. “There’s a stranger who told me everything about myself.” She can only invite others to “Come and see.” Then she dangles the really big question in the air: “You don’t think this might be the Messiah, do you?”

We’ve heard a conversation about faith, about the kind of faith that gives us life and trust. That’s the living water that Christ gives. To hear other people talk about it, faith should never have any questions, just an orderly stack of answers. God says THIS. Jesus is THAT. There should be no discussion, only the description of correctness, what we should and ought to believe.

Ever hear anybody talk like that? I’m afraid what they are missing is what John says about God, both in this story and the story last week of Nicodemus. God is Spirit. The Spirit blows where the Spirit blows. That is how God is – free, unbound, wild, life-giving to whomever God provides such abundant life. It’s going to be frustrating for anybody who confuses faith with certainty, especially anybody who handles the things of heaven with a lot of their own control needs.

Faith is what comes as a gift, like living water from a Savior who has no bucket. Faith can blow in on the Spirit’s wings, and for the minute we may see everything we need to see. We trust the Source. We experience the kindness of heaven. But just as quickly it comes, it can slip away. That’s the nature of faith, at least as the Gospel of John describes it. Faith is not something we convince ourselves into believing. Rather it’s the evidence of God’s Spirit blowing freely upon us, bringing us to moments of understanding, filling us with trust.

You know something? Other than Jesus, in the Gospel of John there is not one person whose faith is finished and complete. Not one. Last week you heard about Nicodemus, the night-time Pharisee. He slips in and out of this book three different times, and by the last page there is no evidence he has memorized the Apostles’ Creed.

There are people healed by Jesus all throughout the book. But usually, right after the healing they slip back into the crowd, or Jesus does. We never do hear much more about them, whether they go off and start churches, or whether they keep believing into the next week or month. Jesus heals them, and it is one more moment of grace and truth in their lives. They will have to keep working out what it means.

Or the twelve disciples - they are certainly a work in progress, every one of them unfinished. This is the book that speaks of Doubting Thomas, after all. The Risen Lord asks him a dangling question: “Have you believed because you see? Well, blessed are those who do not see yet come to believe.” (20:29)

In the Gospel of John, everybody’s faith is in process. God is still working on each person bit by bit. Just like this conversation with the woman at the well. It starts so simply: “I’m thirsty” – “Where’s your bucket?” But then it goes deeper. She first calls him “a Jew,” later says “Are you greater than Jacob?” Then she says “I perceive you are a prophet,” then she names the “Messiah.” At the very end he is “Savior of the World.” Her understanding increases as the revelation grows larger and larger during the conversation. Meanwhile it is missed by those who wonder, “Why is he talking to her?”

The point is simply this - - faith (if is real faith) is something that lives and grows. Faith is never once and done and finished. Faith ebbs and flows because it is the life of the Spirit within us. Sometimes it explodes in a burst of understanding. Other times we have to hang in there like an impossibly long February.

I like how some of the church kids have explained it to me over the years. I’ve written these down. One middle school boy said, “If God told us everything at once, we couldn’t understand it all. Our hearts are too small.”  

Or there was the teenage girl who blurted out, “I said my prayers every night, just like I was told, and then one night I realized somebody was listening.”

Or that wild kid who came back from the national youth rally. He said, “Rev, now I know what you’re talking about! My parents don’t get it, but I do.” I had to explain that’s how it is with all of us. And I added that’s the best reason I know for sitting in church and listening to sermons week after week. Some morning you might actually wake up.

Remember what the Samaritan woman said? “Come and see a man who told me everything about myself. You don’t think this is the Messiah, do you?”

I like how she says it. It is an invitation, to come and see. It is within the range of her experience, so she’s not manufacturing any extra words. It is honest with her own uncertainty, so she doesn’t have to prove anything. There is nothing judgmental or superior about it; in fact, the Jesus who knows about her life does not judge for it, but brings the truth into the open so it can be healed. How refreshing!

Before she slips away into her town, let me affirm what she does. She is not a parrot mimicking what other people told her to say. She does not hand out packaged answers to questions that nobody is asking. She doesn’t declare, “You better believe or you’re going to hell.” Oh no, she avoids that kind of arrogance. In the end, she simply asks the question about Jesus, and gives the necessary space and time for everybody to answer it on their own.[2]

And they do. The people in her town say, “We believe this is the Savior of the World.”

Have you ever had a moment when you believed that is true?

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] A great turn of phrase shared by F. Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012)  273.
[2] Thanks to Fred Cradock for these insights in “The Witness at the Well,” The Christian Century, 7 March 1990.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Cleaning House

John 2:13-25
Lent 1
March 9, 2014

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

 When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

I’m not sure what to think of this Bible story. I know a preacher who got in trouble after preaching a sermon on the text. As you can surmise, every congregation has its own mix occupations and perspectives. Well, his congregation had a lot of bankers, accountants, merchants, and fund raisers. So maybe he wasn’t thinking, or maybe he was, when he stood up, read the story of Jesus cleaning out the money changers, and then announced, “This is what needs to happen when a temple starts thinking it’s a business.”

No sooner did the words leave his mouth, like the balloon in a cartoon, when an icy wind blew through the pews. By coffee hour, the air was now hot. By the next meeting of the trustees, there were murmurs of “Crucify! Crucify him!”

It is a contentious story, just like the original episode. Jesus turns over the tables of those selling the sacrificial animals for the rituals in the Jerusalem temple. He threw their coins to the ground. Forming a leather whip, he began cracking it at the money changers. “Get this stuff out of here,” he screams. “This is not a financial market place.”

Now, that’s a story that can spin in a number of ways. The twelve disciples remembered a line from the Psalms about zeal for the house of God. Some modern people will nod their heads and say, “Yes, the church is much too preoccupied with money.” Those outside the church say this to keep from ever going in. Those inside say it to keep from giving any more. Both miss the point. Heaven forbid they should have too much zeal!

According to the Gospels, this is an inflammatory story. When Jesus turns over the tables in the Gospel of Mark, it is the last straw (11:15-19). The Organizers of his Organized Religion say, “That’s it! We must get rid of him.” So it sets the wheels in motion for Jesus’ final week. The religious people will silence him, squelch him, and push him out of their world. The inference is the temple is just the way they want it. Yesterday they were prophets, but today they are reactionaries.

What’s interesting is that, by the time this story is told again in the Gospel of John as we have it today, there are some significant changes. John is writing about 90 AD. By that date, the Jerusalem temple was a distant memory. It had been destroyed for over twenty years. The Roman army tore it down, stone from stone. So John remembers Jesus saying enigmatically, “Destroy this temple, and I will build it up again.”

The second significant change is that the Gospel of John moves this episode from the end of Jesus’ life to the very beginning of his ministry. For John and his church, the temple’s cleansing is something far more than an historical event that prompted the crucifixion. No, this is a story of how the Christian people relate to God. Because for John, in his day, faith could not be centered on a building. The building no longer existed.

Now please understand: buildings are important. They teach by their architecture. They shape how we believe. One of our friends stopped in here last Wednesday for our Lenten time of silent prayer. We sat together in silence, and then she remarked on the stained glass, the majesty of the open space, the sense of awe that a building can create. In the rare moments when it is quiet, this temple testifies to a greater God, a holier presence, a healing power at the heart of all things.

And then Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up again on the third day.” On the third day . . . With that little phrase, John winks at his congregation, prompting them to affirm that Jesus is the Temple. If the Temple is the meeting place between God and the people, then Jesus is that meeting place. Sixty years after the Resurrection, twenty years after Jerusalem was destroyed, John’s church knew - God meets us in Jesus Christ.

That’s why this Gospel offers story after story of how people encounter God as Jesus meets them. Through this season of Lent we will hear of one person after another: Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the man born blind, Lazarus, Mary Magdalene.

There is at least one thing that each story has in common, one thing that we hear today: Jesus acts in complete freedom. He is not restrained by religious routines. He is not kept in a building. He is remarkably indifferent to how official people tell him he should act. Jesus is free because God is free, because God who is Spirit can blow wherever and whenever Spirit chooses. And what this Three-in-One God chooses to do is to give life and light to anybody who will receive the light and life.

The place where God acts in this story is a temple, The Temple. It was first established as a house of prayer. It was the one place on earth where people were re-connected to God after some life changing event, like the birth of children, or the death of a family member, or after some terrible thing that they have done. The Temple is the place of restoration. That’s the heart of all those old Jewish rules and rituals about purity and holiness. When something happens to “dirty you up,” God provides the means to bring you back into relationship. God does this in freedom, to come after us, to welcome us completely.  

But the spiritual history of the human race offers a long and continuing account of how we resist this. We add official rituals and unofficial rules, and they can take on a life of their own. We don’t want God to rule the world; we prefer to be in charge. We don’t want to live in peace with one another; we prefer to keep things stirred up. We don’t want an intimate sense of being loved by our Maker; intimacy scares us – it’s too close. So we do everything we can to go it alone. We put on that appearance.

That’s why John adds an interesting postscript to his version of the temple cleansing story. He says, “Jesus did not trust himself even to those people who trusted in him, because he knew what lies in the heart of every person” (2:24-25). What is it that lies in our hearts? It is our resistance to live completely in God, to trust God with all things. We are ambivalent about this. We want it, but we don’t want it. We might say all the right things with our lips, but we hold God at bay in our hearts.

And here is what Jesus does with who we are: he comes anyway. It is his mission to come into the world that the Father loves, to offer grace and truth, light and life, to be bread from heaven, to offer himself as the way to the Father.

That’s why we are here. The church is that group of people - not the building, but the group of people - who point to Christ and his mission. We are the people who tell the truth about him. The scriptures are God’s gift to instruct us, but we don’t worship the scriptures. We look through them like a window and we worship God.

In the same way, whatever happens in the Temple is not the main thing. It can only point to the Main Thing, and that is life-giving fellowship with God. This week I had brief conversations with two of you. One of you said, “Thank you so much for offering ashes on Ash Wednesday. It is a great way for me to begin my spiritual journey in Lent.” Another one of you said, “Ashes? I don’t need any stinking ashes,” and then he smiled.

Ashes or no ashes – does it ultimately matter? Neither is the Main Thing. The Main Thing is the deep trust that you belong to God. Whatever we do in the Temple must point to the living truth. The truth is Jesus will do whatever it takes to claim you for God. Whatever it takes! That’s the Main thing. That’s why we are here.

It is like what author Frederick Buechner once wrote about the organization Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s a lengthy quote, but it makes the good point:

Alcoholics Anonymous or AA is the name of a group of men and women who acknowledge that addiction to alcohol is ruining their lives. Their purpose in coming together is to give it up and help others do the same. They realize they can’t pull this off by themselves. They believe they need each other, and they believe they need God. The ones who aren’t so sure about God speak instead of their Higher Power.

When they first start talking at a meeting, they introduce themselves by saying, “I am John. I am an alcoholic.” “I am Mary. I am an alcoholic,” to which the rest of the group answers each time in unison, “Hi, John,” “Hi, Mary.” They are apt to end with the Lord’s Prayer or the Serenity Prayer. Apart from that they have no ritual. They have no hierarchy. They have no dues or budget. They do not advertise or proselytize. Having no building of their own, they meet wherever they can.

Nobody lectures them, and they do not lecture each other. They simply tell their own stories with the candor that anonymity makes possible. They tell where they went wrong, and how, day by day they are trying to go right. They tell where they find the strength and understanding and hope to keep trying. Sometimes one of them will take special responsibility for another – to be available at any hour of day or night if need arises. There’s not much more to it than that, and it seems to be enough. Healing happens. Miracles are made.

You can’t help thinking that something like this is what the Church is meant to be and maybe once was before it got to be Big Business. Sinners Anonymous. “I can will what is right but I cannot do it,” is the way Saint Paul put it, speaking for all of us. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19).

“I am me. I am a sinner.”  “Hi, you.”  Hi, every Sadie and Sal. Hi, every Tom, Dick, and Harry. It is the forgiveness of sins, of course. It is what the church is all about.

No matter what far place alcoholics end up in, either in this country or virtually anywhere else, they know that there will be an A.A. meeting nearby to go to and that at that meeting, they will find strangers who are not strangers to help and to heal, to listen to the truth and to tell it. That is what the Body of Christ is all about.

Would it ever occur to Christians in a far place to turn to a church nearby in hope of finding the same? Would they find it? If not, you wonder, what is so Big about the Church’s Business?[1]

So why are we here? We are here to connect people to God as deeply and as widely as we can. Everything is about that.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary (New York: Harper and Row, 1988) 4-5.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

Psalm 51
Ash Wednesday
March 5, 2014

Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. Nobody knows where the nursery rhyme comes from. Some believe it was children’s game from Germany, where youngsters circled around a rose bush in bloom before tumbling down. Others believe it emerged in the rotten British air; if you put your nose in a pocket full of posies and it didn’t smell so bad. Still others infer it from a time of pestilence and plague, as disease make one’s cheeks rosey, before they sneezed and tumbled down.

You know why I chose it for tonight. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

It does say “all” fall down. I presume that means all of us. Whether it is a slip on an icy sidewalk or a moral tumble down the public staircase, falling is our human predicament. Sometimes it is the force of gravity that pulls us down. Other times we learn the hard way that none of us stand upright all the time. We fall. When we fall, we break.

Shortly before he died, the great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen traded letters with a newspaper writer in New York. The writer’s name was Fred, and he had interviewed him for the Times. They struck up a friendship and kept in touch. One day on a street corner on Columbus Avenue, Fred said, “Why don’t you write about the spiritual life for people like me and my friends?” Nouwen stepped to the challenge, and began writing a book called Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World.

In the course of writing the book, Fred’s life fell apart. He went through some painful bumps, an unexpected divorce, and declared himself a broken man. “Of course you are,” said Henri. “All of us are broken, in some way or another.” We are broken by disappointments, broken by the things we do and the things done unto us. We all fall down.

Fred said, “Henri, you say we are beloved and blessed. How does that fit with the pain that I feel?” Henri thought about it carefully, and then he wrote:

The great spiritual call of the Beloved Children of God is to pull their brokenness away from the shadow of the curse and put it under the light of the blessing. This is not as easy as it sounds. The powers of the darkness around us are strong, and our world finds it easier to manipulate self-rejecting people than self-accepting people. But when we keep listening to the voice calling us the Beloved, it becomes possible to live our brokenness, not as a confirmation of our fear that we are worthless, but as an opportunity to purify and deepen the blessing that rests upon us… What seemed intolerable becomes a challenge. What seemed a reason for depression becomes a source of purification. What seemed punishment becomes a gentle pruning. What seemed rejection becomes a way to a deeper communion.[1]

In other words, ashes, ashes, we all fall down . . . and we can get up again.

This is Ash Wednesday. It’s the day to speak the truth. God already knows when and where we have slipped. When we approach God with Psalm 51, we are owning up to who we are and what we always be: a blessed people broken. We are the Body of Christ, blessed and broken and beloved. Just like Jesus.

We are invited to admit our sin, but to never allow it to be the only thing that defines us. We return to God with our hearts broken open. We will be purged and washed, cleansed and made brighter than the grey snow that lingers around us. This cleansing will be God’s doing . For all who are honest enough to say “we all fall down,” the Gospel is that God will lift us up.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1995) 79.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

A Long, Loving Look at What's Real

Matthew 17:1-9
Transfiguration / Mardi Gras Jazz Communion
William G. Carter 

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."

On my one and only trip to New Orleans, I wandered down Bourbon Street, took a left on St. Peter, and made my way to Preservation Hall. Some of you have been there. It is the revered home of traditional jazz, the home base of four or five traveling versions of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. From the outside, it’s not much to look at. Even after Hurricane Katrina gave it a good hosing down, Preservation Hall looks like a dump.

But on the inside, there is night after night of musical magic. The wooden benches are loaded with people First time I was there, it was a Tuesday night. Shannon Powell, a good friend of Wynton Marsalis, was the drummer, and he was holding forth. The music started bubbling like a Cajun gumbo. One of the Neville Brothers sat in, with drumsticks tapping on a wood block. Everybody began to the sway, moving to the rhythms. If you weren’t moving to the music, you were dead.

At the height of ecstasy, the guy in front of me spun around on his wooden bench. He says, “Whoo-whee! This is . . .” and he couldn’t find the third word. “This is . . .” and he paused again. Then the word came to him: “This is real!” This is real.

I don’t know if he was expecting something artificial, or something watered down, or something offered only for the tourists. But he was straining to describe an emotionally moving experience. He didn’t have the words. The description was beyond his speech. All he knew: it was real.

I remember that vignette, not only because of the music for today, but because of the scripture story we heard. In every version of that story, the storyteller strains for words. After taking three friends up a mountain, Jesus suddenly glows like the sun. His dirty tunic becomes whiter than white. The Bible writers even used a strange word: Jesus was transfigured. They never define what this means. They just point and say, “This is real.”

Real what? Real holy? If so, it was buried in the skin and garb of an ordinary peasant. Jesus never stood out in a crowd. There is no evidence that he stood out like that sexy model in the new “Son of God” movie, nor that his mother looked like Roma Downey. Jesus was an ordinary looking guy. Then on the mountain, he glows like the sun.

Not only that, the two holiest men in Israel’s memory – Moses the lawgiver, Elijah the prophet – suddenly appear and converse with him, as if they were there all along. The Law and the Prophets are in conversation with Jesus.

Peter doesn’t know what to say. He stammers out something about enshrining the holy moment. But then God engulfs the mountain top in a cloud, quotes a psalm about the royal Son, and declares in an earth-making Voice, “Listen to him!” It drove those fishermen to their knees. And then Jesus came and touched them, and said “Don’t be afraid,” and it was over.

These moments come. Real moments. They come on mountain tops or shabby music halls. They might even come in a church. We don’t have the words to describe them. We can only point. In the words of one poet,

   . . . Each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. .” (T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”)

Or to translate: we don’t know what to say, but it’s real.

It was Madeleine L'Engle, the great author and holy Christian, who points us to the Transfiguration of Jesus and says it is a moment that we best approach through the creative arts. By this, she means poetry, paintings, music, drama, and storytelling, among other things. “As a child,” she said, “it did not seem strange to me that Jesus was able to talk face to face with Moses and Elijah, the centuries between them making no difference.” In the depths of imagination, it all fits. But by the time she grew up, the world had instructed her to parcel out life in different compartments: true and false, past and present, sacred and secular.

So: what if God comes to break down those barriers? What if eternity smashes all the clocks so that past and future are in this moment? What if God finds us in the places we would never expect God to make an appearance – like the mountain tops, the shabby music halls, even the churches? What if holiness just happened here, in a moment beyond words? It could be frightening.

So Madeleine writes: “We are afraid of the Transfiguration for much the same reason that people are afraid that theater is a "lie," that a story isn't "true," that art is somehow immoral, carnal, and not spiritual . . . We are not taught much about the wilder aspects of Christianity. But these are what artists have wrestled with throughout the years.”[1]

I don’t know if you’ve had such a moment. I’m talking about a real moment, a moment where you perceive heaven is touching upon earth. My contention is these moments come all the time, but the world trains us to dismiss them, shrug them off, or explain them away. Yet they come. And we need not be afraid. Maybe it is the musicians, the artists, and the poets who can teach us that.

I think of three brief artistic quotes:

  • The novelist Frederick Buechner was asked, “Where do your novels come from? He replied, “Novels, for me, start – as Robert Frost said his poems did – with a lump in the throat.”
  • Or the poet Maya Angelou: “Sometimes the poem wants you to write it.”
  • Or the Jesuit theologian Walter Burkhardt, in writing about the spiritual practice of contemplation. What is contemplation? How does he describe it? “A long, loving look at the real.”
The man in Preservation Hall, stirred by the syncopation, exclaims, “This is real!” Or Peter, James, and John, accustomed to talking to the Carpenter with splinters in his hands, suddenly see him ignited by heaven; then he puts his hands on their shoulders and says, “Don’t be afraid.” And if that doesn’t do it, he adds, “Wait until I’m dead and raised before you tell anybody about this.”  

We’re talking about Reality – the Reality of God who can become real to us at any moment. And when it happens, it lifts us beyond the grit and gloom of daily life into light, into eternity, into joy that stays with us for a good long while. Next time it happens, take “a long, loving look at the real.”

A couple of years ago at Christmas, I decided I wasn’t going to buy more stuff for our four kids. Instead I was going to provide each of them with an experience. The youngest is Meg; she likes to sing. She’s singing a Mozart mass this semester. I said, “I’m going to take you to hear a singer.” She said, “Who’s that?”

I said, “His name is Bobby McFerrin. He’s singing at Lehigh University.” She said, “Who’s that?” 

Well, I took her and she stopped asking who he was. Ever hear him? The man is a force of nature, he’s a one man orchestra. He comes on stage barefoot, picks up a microphone, and an hour and a half later, you’re not the same person anymore. 

At one point in the show, Bobby invited a couple of dozen people to get out of their seats and come up on stage. He improvises an alto part, gets it going, invites the altos to sing along. He does the same for sopranos and baritones. The song may go on for fifteen minutes of pure joy, and nobody goes anywhere. They take a long, loving look . . . and they sing.

One of those songs was winding up, and Bobby said, “How are you doing?” This lady exclaims, “I feel so good!”

That’s what Real is like. Like sweet honey. Like hot jazz. Like bread and wine. Like a generous share of heaven right here on earth.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1980) 80-81.