Doubt (sermon, April 3)

Sermon preached April 3, 2016 at St. Peter and St. Mary

Usually when we look at the gospels, we primarily focus on the words and actions attributed to Jesus, and rightly so. But I think the disciples are also worthy of our attention. In the midst of these relatively formal narratives about what Jesus did and what Jesus said, the disciples impart a sense of humanity and reality to the story. They don’t always understand Jesus, and they are often unsure of him and themselves. They disagree with each other. They exasperate Jesus. They complain that some of his teachings are difficult. They are indisputably human.

And one of their very human traits is doubt and seeking confirmation. Earlier, in John 14, they demand of Jesus, “Lord, what signs are you going to show us?” and then after that, in John 16, they are uncertain until Jesus tells them he has come from the Father and is going to the Father, and then they say, in effect, well, now that you’ve explained it more plainly, without a parable, that’s our proof; we believe.

In today’s Gospel, we reach the point in the narrative where Jesus has died, been buried, and rose again. Some of the disciples have seen him, but Thomas was not there, and wants evidence that this happened. I think that we tend to cast aspersions, unconsciously or not, on Thomas for demanding proof, but not only was he not alone in wanting proof, as we see from those previous chapters of John, but think of it; these disciples are making a claim of an absolutely extraordinary event—a man died and is now alive! This is an incredible thing to claim, and of course Thomas wants proof, because he is human. If I were to say to you that I saw Rebecca levitating last week, I’m pretty sure you would want some sort of evidence before you believed me, because that is an astonishing claim to make. Likewise, the disciples who had seen Jesus were making an astounding claim. Not many people, then or now, would simply accept that someone dead had returned to life. They would need proof before they could be sure.

Nowadays, it would be fairly easy to get some kind of proof. We could take out our phones, document it, and post it to YouTube. The disciples, of course, didn’t have that resource. They either had hearsay or direct experience of an event. And the first group of disciples had that direct experience. Thomas did not, he was only receiving the hearsay. So I feel it’s a bit unfair to Thomas to cast him as this cynical skeptic. He was simply asking for what the others had already experienced.

Thomas wants this direct experience, and expresses himself rather vividly, saying “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my hand in his side, I will not believe.” The image of sticking a hand in someone’s wound is, at best, unhygienic, and also a little gory. But in no uncertain terms, Thomas was saying that he needed to have that direct experience; he needed to use his senses and his direct observation before he could know for sure.

There are two things going on here. One is the need to use the physical senses by using his eyes and his hands, by having his own direct, unfiltered experience of the risen Jesus. Instead of just listening to others, Thomas wants to see and feel it in person before he can know for sure that this thing has come to pass.

And that is the other thing going on here, this knowing or not knowing. In this passage, Jesus tells Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe.” But doubt doesn’t mean unbelief. It means to waver, to be uncertain, to not know for sure. And it’s not necessarily a benign thing. Doubt can be pure agony. Not being sure if someone is guilty or innocent of a crime. Not being certain that your significant other loves you. Not being sure you did the right thing in a difficult situation—these can be absolute anguish. Let’s consider doubt as not knowing and existing in a sort of limbo or even a purgatory of uncertainty, and let’s look at Thomas again. He doesn’t know for sure. He only knows what the other disciples have told him. And until he has a direct experience, he won’t be able to say for sure whether he believes or not. I imagine his mind going back and forth between the possibilities and the different sets of hopes and fears each would bring.

So when he sees Jesus, and Jesus tells him, “Do not doubt but believe,” I’m not sure Jesus was implying that Thomas was wrong or lesser for having had doubt; maybe Jesus was saying, “Look, I’m here now. Really. It’s really, truly me. You needed to see me in order to know. And now I’m here.”

And Thomas immediately believes. He no longer wonders. He knows. And he knows in his heart, because he knows in his senses. And that is an incredibly human thing, to use our senses and have a direct experience of the world, or God, or love, which are all the same thing. It’s not enough to read about it or to hear about it from others. We need to use our senses so we can translate abstract knowledge, an idea, a concept, to understanding in the heart, and integrate that truth into our soul.

We just finished Lent. Lent is a very contemplative season, given to reflection and thinking, and yes, action, but mostly to figuring out how we can best grow this year’s spiritual garden. It’s sort of the idea incubator. And now we are in Easter. The ideas we contemplated and germinated in Lent are becoming reality. Easter is very much a season of senses, of coming to life. Literally, Jesus comes to life again. That is very much a sensate experience.

But in the midst of this wonder, Thomas is here to remind us that it is perfectly all right to desire a direct experience of resurrection. That we are not wrong to yearn to see, to feel, to know for certain the presence of life in that which we thought was dead. If we need more than the words of the disciples to convince us, then we can go outside, and we can feel it in the crocuses and daffodils. They were buried in the tomb of the earth, in the dark and cold, seemingly dead, and now they are emerging, beautiful and rich with color and texture. When we see them, when we touch our fingers to their fragile petals, then we no longer doubt. We know for sure that God has risen and is present again in the world.

Amen.

 

 

Tools

If you’ve ever lived in an old house, you know there are workarounds you adopt to deal with the wiring and the plumbing and the general functionality, none of which are up to code. Maybe you don’t plug more than one thing into a specific outlet, or you let the water run a little longer so it’s actually hot by the time it gets to your showerhead. You adopt behaviors that let you manage to live in this house, but the house itself doesn’t change. Its wiring is still awry, and its water pressure still sucks.

Well, that’s what it’s like to have a mental illness. If you’re lucky, you learn means of coping with it, but the wiring in your brain still isn’t up to code. I have major depressive disorder and general anxiety disorder, with a light side salad of OCD tendencies. Most of the time, I can cope all right. I’ve learned a lot of things that help, and I often remember to actually do them. But my brain’s still not wired quite right, and it seems to take pleasure in doing the very things I don’t want it to. So since I can’t have that wiring easily replaced, I have to do what I need to in order to get out of bed and participate in life.

And one thing I use to manage my wiring is medication. I don’t deny that many pharmaceutical companies are profit-driven over all else, and that some health care professionals over-medicate their patients. But I do know that medication is what makes me able to act in the world. I was off it for nearly a year, due to lack of health insurance, and I think only sheer stubbornness kept me from just crawling into bed and never getting up again, or checking out completely. And after I was able to start taking medication again, I gradually just didn’t feel so apathetic and tired and dark. I felt like getting out of bed (most of the time); I felt like breathing and eating and living.

I have been told by well-meaning individuals that if I just did yoga, or took St. John’s wort, or eliminated dairy, or practiced positive thinking, I’d be cured and not have depression or anxiety and never have to take meds again. That might be true for occasional sadness or anxiety, but that is simply not true for an inventively wired brain. Perhaps one day I’ll achieve a level of mastery that allows me to redesign my brain circuitry, but until then, this is the brain I have, and it’s not set up the way other brains are, and the problem isn’t excessive dairy or lack of yoga, but that this is the brain I have. Sure, yoga and positive thinking and other tools help, but they have not yet managed to rewire my entire brain. They are not a cure, just additional helpful coping tools.

There is still a stigma in our society that taking medication to manage your unruly brain is somehow lesser. Well, it’s not. Is taking insulin an indication of a lack of willpower? No. Is taking a beta blocker for your heart a sign that you are a failure? No. Taking medication for your mind isn’t any different than than taking it for your body. It was never my first choice, mostly because I listened to people and the world around me tell me I was weak and spineless for not being able to cope with my brain wiring solely through willpower. But even if it wasn’t my first choice, it was the right choice.

Medication is what’s allowed me to circumvent my traitorious brain weasels enough to get out of bed, and even to do yoga and positive thinking. It’s literally what allows me to live. Medication means my brain doesn’t keep telling me where the X-Acto knives are and how every sharp and effective they would be. Medication means that most of the time, I’m able to function and to make a contribution, however small, to the universe. For me, it’s not a self-indulgent luxury. I believe I have something to do in this world, and I can only do that if I’m alive. Maybe other people use it as a buffer between themselves and the normal vicissitudes of life, but I am not those people. I am me, and I use medication so I can continue to be me. So I can continue to be.

Pharmaceuticals aren’t all bad and yoga isn’t the answer to everything and you can pry my dairy from my cold, dead hands. We all have our viewpoints, and that’s what makes life interesting. And if you personally don’t want to take pharmacueticals, that’s your business as long as you’re not endangering others. But before you decry them, remember that for some of us, they may be a bastion between a life in hell, and a life of, if not unbridled joy, perhaps contentment. For some of us, they may even be a bastion between life and not-life.

Flight (Fiction Project Submission)

Flight

Year 5. Winter.

Once I asked my darling boy if he knew for sure he was the last, only person on earth, would he go on living or kill himself? He said he’d probably go on living, but I said I wouldn’t, but I’d want to write some stuff down first. Which makes no sense if I were the last and only person.

I don’t know anymore if I have the numbers right, but I think it’s been five years since everything splintered apart. Since Then, there have been no weeks or months or dates, just days that eventually turn into seasons that might turn into years. Why do I hold on to the notion of years when the measured time of clocks and planners has fallen away? I could say it was five kumquats ago, or five flutters ago. It doesn’t matter.

But I was born in years and I lived most of my life in them, so years it is. Five years since Then.

Year 5. Midwinter.

Even though the years, if years they are, flow together, the seasons are sharp and clear. Without electricity, I watch the sun and the moon and I see the dark I fall into before the light returns. When I see the light return, I dance. Nothing graceful—I never have been graceful—but a primal, pagan sort of thing. I probably look like those birds with the bizarre mating dances, except there isn’t anyone to dance for or mate with.

Year 6. Early spring.

The snowdrops are out and the sun is bright. I used to walk for miles in this weather, blue skies with air so cold it hurt to breather. But that was when we had machine-made heat, and I could come back in and warm myself. Even then, sometimes I wondered how long we could sustain that profligate luxury.

I learned how to make a fire three years ago, but I have to save wood for cooking and the absolute dead of winter.

My darling boy asked me about winter once, and I said this was the time of year Persephone started to prepare for her journey, and the flowers started to come out of the earth because they wanted to see her as she walked by. Sometimes I think all the gods that ever were have forgotten this earth.

Year 6. Spring.

My darling boy made fun of my fountain pens and ink, and all the notebooks lying around. But afterwards, ballpoint pens, being disposable, were only good for so long. Pencils lasted, of course, but were too smudgy for letters going long distances in bags and pockets.

Until everyone else faded away, I was a scribe. It wasn’t that people were illiterate, but that I wasn’t willing to trust them with my pens and inks. I would like to say we all become more trusting and cooperative afterward, but that was only sort of the way it happened. Common things were shared freely, we grew and harvested gardens together, and worked to gather wood or water together. But underneath, you could feel the fear and the clutching and hoarding of whatever things they had that were different. It was the only way they could remember what is was like to be who they were before.

We did have an ersatz post, so I did a reasonable business. People migrating from here to a possible promised land would take letters that direction. They got some payment on this end, and usually on the receiving end, if the recipient hadn’t died or disappeared. Even though we knew our letters might never arrive, we had to hope. And sometimes a letter came in this direction.

Of course, that was when we still had something to say and believed that Persephone would walk among us and we would be saved and find out it was all for a noble cause.

Year 6. Spring.

It was warm today and I laid out in the sun. Nudity is an unexpected benefit of being the only one here. I lie in the grass that used to be the school’s playing field, and the earth and the sun enter me and for a while there isn’t any Before or After, just sun and the smell of grass and I disappear.

Before, I always loved solitude. I didn’t want to live with anyone, not even my darling boy. I never had quite enough solitude. Now, of course, I have more than enough. Sometimes I talk myself just to hear a human voice, but the echoes magnify the silence, and they hurt.

It wasn’t like Roanoke; there was no mysterious word spray-painted on a building. I just started noticing, maybe about year three, that I wasn’t seeing as many people around. We asked each other where this one had gone, or that guy on the corner, or that one family with ten children. When we went around to their houses, sometimes they were locked. We left those alone. We didn’t want them to come back and find their house smashed open and vermin running through it.

But the ones that were open were eerie museums, unpeopled exhibits of ordinary life. An empty kitchen table with chairs hunched around it. A neatly made bed with pillows piled high. The sunlight falling on a faded sofa. A quiet, empty house, waiting for footsteps and the clashing of pans to animate it.

No one ever saw people leave, or heard anything, or even sensed anything. They were there, and then they weren’t and there was just silence and the emptiness of being gone.

Year 6. Early summer.

I find myself thinking of my life Before. I had my darling boy, I ate oranges, I played the piano. It was a good, quiet life, and I was happy.

Oranges. Bananas. Lemons. I haven’t seen any of those for years now. When we realized that it wasn’t just a temporary interruption, that life was emphatically divided into Before and After, I thought I’d miss the Internet and Netflix the most. But it turns out I’ve never really gotten used to not being able to pick up a bunch of bananas or a few pears at the store.

Last night I dreamed I was a raven. I flew over the landscape and saw everything empty and lost. Then I knew I didn’t have much longer.

Once I told my darling boy that ravens meant a death was coming. He told me I was ridiculous and superstitious, that birds didn’t know anything about human affairs and wouldn’t care if they did.

But the few birds left here are brooding, silent ravens. They gather on the silent power lines and whisper among themselves, a susurration of wings folding and refolding while they wait.

Year 6. Midsummer.

I never had the slightest interest in being vegan. I thought they were ridiculous, but as long as they didn’t shove their chickpeas in my face, I lived and let live. But now fate has made me one.

At first, there were a few local farms where we could get diary and meat at increasingly exorbitant prices. But the cows and pigs were butchered in night raids. The chickens were eaten by foxes and coyotes, some with two legs. After a while, you didn’t ask what kind of meat it was, but even those unnamed animals gradually disappeared.

Bacon is just a faraway dream now, and milk a fairy tale from ages past. I’m certainly free of saturated fats and processed sugar. I’m also hungry and cranky all the time, but there’s no one here to be cranky to.

Except maybe the ravens. They gather on my porch, sitting on the railing, looking in, like avian stalkers. My darling boy was wrong. They do know about human affairs, at least this human’s. And they watch with something more than idle curiosity.

Year 6. Late summer.

I don’t see the point anymore of describing life since Then. If no one is left anywhere, why would it matter? I thought I wanted to leave a record of events, but it turns out I’m not that noble. I just want to be done and free.

If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change anything, because it would make no real difference. Maybe I would tell my past self to love even more juicily, to wallow in kindness. Those memories sustain me now. I am the only one left, but I’ve received and given great love, and the mark of that is yet on me. The ravens receive tribute enough, but they have never known love, and they crave that mark.

They fill my ears with their harsh croaks like a crusty old man who smoked a pack a day for seventy years. I can’t concentrate on anything, and part of me wants to go with them, to have everything finally be over. Why exist when there’s no one to exist with? But the body hangs on, willful and ignorant of the vast emptiness of days.

Year 6. Early fall.

I dreamed I was turning from a woman to a raven, and two ravens were helping me. One kept telling me to remember being human, and the other kept telling me to think like a raven. I wanted so much to completely leave my skin behind and fly off to the other world, fully fledged. But I couldn’t, because I had not yet received the blessing. The ravens wouldn’t tell me how to get it or who to ask, but I couldn’t cross the barrier without it.

I woke up trying to spread wings I no longer had. I felt like a lost angel.

Fall.

I fly every night, and await the blessing and release from the tired, broken remains of this world. And when I cross over, I’ll fly the seven skies to find my darling boy in whatever his new form is. I don’t care anymore about humanity or survival or leaving anything behind. In the end, I just want to be with my love and the rest was just commentary and busywork.

Dear sweet past self, you were so naïve. You never knew that the heart drives everything we do, and that the only choice, in the end, is to follow it, to become transparent as ice, melting in the warmth of it. You never knew that one day, you would become the last one, because who could bear knowledge like that? You never knew that one day, you would become a bird.

I sing now like the wind crashing against stone. Only my hands are left. The blessing is here.

I fly.

Item     13987-4405-723

Site      Leviticus Plains, Area 6, Quadrant 7

Description of Find(s)    Diary or journal

Context/notes: Found next to partially decomposed corpse in freestanding dwelling in Quadrant 7. Presume deceased is author. Author may have been lone Quadrant 7 survivor of aftereffects of the Event. Found in book: seven feathers, possibly Corvidae; small slip of paper, probably from fortune cookie, reading “Luck is coming your way!”; unlabeled b/w photograph of man, medium hair, dark eyes, about forty years old.        

Mean Girl

Lately I’ve seen a lot of click-bait, generally with titles like 25 Family Photos That Will snarkyfaceMake You Cringe, or 37 Selfie Fails. Yes, I have clicked on some of them. And a couple of images in the text and autocorrect compilations were very funny.

But as I was scrolling through one featuring awkward Glamour Shots photos, I paused. I thought about the use of those women’s images, I’m assuming without their permission, and the very concept of mocking someone as entertainment.

In their day, Glamour Shots were a somewhat expensive Thing and I know a lot of women went there to feel beautiful and special and fancy. If that involved a large feather boa and zippered pleather jackets, so what? I thought about those women, and their fragile faces, shy and vulnerable, trying to inhabit their idea of beauty. But they were already beautiful in their hope and their courage. They just didn’t know it, or feel it, or think it, which is why they went to Glamour Shots in the first place.

And to dismiss them by snarking about their photos is callous and cruel. I’m not completely opposed to snark; occasionally it emerges as self-defense. Nor am I unversed in the ways of snark. It’s one of my natural talents, apparently, though I am trying to reduce, even not eliminate, my use of it. I’m not innocent here. But when we start using snideness and meanness as income generators, as entertainment, as an acceptable part of our daily life, then we have a problem.

Because if we want to be kind to one another, if we want to learn how to love others and the world, then mean-spirited lists aren’t the way forward. Maybe we’ve always been mean, petty creatures, and social media just gives us a way to let it all show, inadvertently or deliberately. But even if this is part of our past, why are we making it part of our future?

I’m not even close to enlightenment, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to fuck up more than once in my remaining time in this body. So maybe I’m not the best spokesperson for being kind and calling a moratorium on meanness. But I also know that I don’t want to be a maker, or a consumer, of mean, spiteful, hurtful lists. I want to be better than that, to consider others, even strangers made of pixels on my screen, and try to be my best self.

So I’m going to stop clicking these lists. This may not make the world better, but it will make my life better. This might not make me as kind as I want to be, but it will certainly decrease my exposure to meanness. I think we all have enough of that in the world at large.

I’m still going to click on articles about adorable kittens, though.

Road of Stars (very short story)

Once upon a time, a man walked through the world, searching for his home. He had a starsstrong and valiant heart. The long grasses of the prairies twined around his ankles just to be closer to him. The maple and the pine alike trembled with happiness when he was near.

Once upon a time, a woman wandered through the world, searching for her home. She had a strong and true heart. Cats rubbed happily against her, and dogs wagged their tails at dangerous speeds when she was near.

In the third year of his wandering, he began to hear the leaves whispering at night. They did not guide his path, but told him secrets of the earth. They told him that roots began as the dreams of seeds, and sunlight tasted like the scent of marigolds. When he lay down to sleep, trees would lower their branches to protect him.

In the third year of her wandering, she began to hear the foxes singing. Their song sounded of rust and time slowly passing. They did not guide her path, but told her what was in their inmost heart. They told her that all cats were always searching for Apollo, hoping that he would descend to them in the beams of sunlight where they waited for his presence. Snakes dreamed of the flurry of wings. When she lay down to sleep, the animals formed a ring around her.

They found each other at the place where seven roads meet. He had been heading toward the sun, and she toward the moon. As the distance between them closed, each could feel the other’s vitality dancing around them, like silver in the sky. They were wrapped each other’s essence like a warm cloak.

After waiting there in that space for seven years, they reached out their hands and clasped them together. The force erupted from the earth and traveled through their bodies, and was transmuted as it collected in the air between them. Fire shot out from their joined hands, and great tides rolled toward them as the wind picked them up from the ground. The roads disappeared as they were carried into the heavens, where they wear a mantle of stars that make up an entirely new road, one that transcends time and space to go from one heart to another.

Road of Stars (short story)

starsOnce upon a time, a man walked through the world, searching for his home. He had a strong and valiant heart. The long grasses of the prairies twined around his ankles just to be closer to him. The maple and the pine alike trembled with happiness when he was near.

Once upon a time, a woman wandered through the world, searching for her home. She had a strong and true heart. Cats rubbed happily against her, and dogs wagged their tails at dangerous speeds when she was near.

In the third year of his wandering, he began to hear the leaves whispering at night. They did not guide his path, but told him secrets of the earth. They told him that roots began as the dreams of seeds, and sunlight tasted like the scent of marigolds. When he lay down to sleep, trees would lower their branches to protect him.

In the third year of her wandering, she began to hear the foxes singing. Their song sounded of rust and time slowly passing. They did not guide her path, but told her what was in their inmost heart. They told her that all cats were always searching for Apollo, hoping that he would descend to them in the beams of sunlight where they waited for his presence. Snakes dreamed of the flurry of wings. When she lay down to sleep, the animals formed a ring around her.

They found each other at the place where seven roads meet. He had been heading toward the sun, and she toward the moon. As the distance between them closed, each could feel the other’s vitality dancing around them, like silver in the sky. They were wrapped each other’s essence like a warm cloak.

After waiting there in that space for seven years, they reached out their hands and clasped them together. The force erupted from the earth and traveled through their bodies, and was transmuted as it collected in the air between them. Fire shot out from their joined hands, and great tides rolled toward them as the wind picked them up from the ground. The roads disappeared as they were carried into the heavens, where they wear a mantle of stars that make up an entirely new road, one that transcends time and space to go from one heart to another.

Foolish Projects

Start a huge, foolish project, like Noah. —Rumi

Warriors_Path_State_ParkAs the story goes, Noah built an ark on dry land, with only God’s word that there would be a flood. What the text leaves out is what others thought of this ark. Surely some people scoffed and mocked him, calling it his midlife crisis or his eccentric hobby. Likely some people were baffled but tolerant. Perhaps a very few wholeheartedly supported his endeavor. There is no mention of the doubt he must have felt, the questioning, the exhaustion from manual labor, or the alienation between him and those who didn’t understand. But in spite of all that, he held to his mission and built an ark, which proved useful in the end, not at all foolish.

When we are learning how to do what we were called into the world to do, we have our own apparently foolish projects that we simply have to undertake, regardless of what others think. Maybe it’s going back to school later in life, or building our own Walden, or learning to play the violin as an adult. Whatever quixotic task it is, you know that it is something you must do. This is what you are supposed to be doing, even if you don’t understand why, even if others cannot see its necessity. They don’t have to; this task is for you and the path you are meant to follow.

That doesn’t mean it will be a smooth path strewn with flowers, with occasional comfort stations where you can pause for a cup of tea. Maybe a few parts will be like that, but mostly it will be full of rocks and flat places and strange beasts. You can’t foresee the territory it will take you through, or whether you will ever reach the Grail castle. You may wander or fall off the path for a time, or curse the path when it is especially rocky, or doubt the path’s existence, but in your heart you know the journey is the only thing you can do.

Sometimes the path brings loss and anguish, and we stumble through the dark and cold, fervently praying for light to see our way. We are being broken. Not broken down, but broken open, so our carapace can fall away and our tender selves can emerge. We are built anew, stronger and more beautiful than before.

So start your foolish project. Persevere on your path, no matter what others say or think. Trust in the universe even when you can’t see the stars for the clouds. Become who you are, do what you were meant to do. Sail your ark until the waters recede and you step forth, bathing in the light of the rainbow.