Monday, September 10, 2012

Dear Gabe,

Dear Gabe,

            When I met with your mom and dad to plan your baptism, they told me that you have a thing about getting water in your face.  They said you don’t particularly like it.  “He’ll not be too upset,” they assured me.  “He’ll just turn his head and try to avoid it.”  So I sent them home with an assignment to practice with you.  I don’t want for your first experience in the Christian Church to be unnecessarily disturbing.  And, Gabe, I’ve been practicing too, in my mind at least.  I have been thinking that I want to make sure that the water that comes over you, even if it stuns you and takes your breath away, even if it jars you a bit, will run back into the font and not into your face.  Because the last thing I want to do is to give you a scratch in your soul that, though you can’t remember it consciously, will on some level make you ever feel that somehow your Christian community or Jesus or God’s Spirit, would do anything at all that would not respect your little body.

            The truth is, Gabe, we have been waiting for you all our lives.  I don’t mean that, of course, in a literal way.  I mean that you come, as does every child and every person, as Jesus himself came to us.  You came as a baby.  Already you are no longer a baby, but a visibly growing boy.  We don’t yet know what your life will bring, or what all the gifts are that you’ll share with us, your family and friends, as a companion on our journey.  But just as Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, so you will as well.  And little by little we’ll glimpse things like hope, joy, promise, humor, and insight from the things you do and say.  It was like that with Jesus, I feel sure.  He did not start being wise when he was grown.  He did not start being loving or caring or sensitive when he started his public ministry.  He, like all of us, grew into what he became from seeds that were planted when he was born and even before he was born.  His parents cultivated those seeds, tended them, nurtured them so that in time they would bear fruit.  All the while, what they saw coming to life in him was the Life of God.  We don’t have many stories—only one really—of Jesus as a boy.  It is a story about how his parents got all upset because he stayed behind to talk to the teachers in the Jerusalem Temple while they were making the trip home to Nazareth.  He was inquisitive, probing, searching, and interesting.  People began to see in him glimpses of what God is like.

            So when I say that we have been waiting for you all our lives, I mean that we are always eager to see how God shows up and comes out in a person’s life.  Would it happen if we did nothing but just observe you, listen to you, let you alone to be whatever you will be?  Perhaps.  But most of us, like your parents and godparents, think it is probably a good idea if we give you a little structure, a bit of support, some steady help.  We recognize that structure, support, and help are not any better than the degree to which they enable you to be Gabe.  So that is why we have come together today to baptize you.  We really believe, Gabe, that God’s spirit does live within you, and that by making a place for you in this community of God’s people, that spirit will grow stronger and begin to flourish.  Today we are making promises that we will do everything in our power to hold you up as you grow and develop.  And we believe that if we do this, you’ll have every opportunity to show us God in the life of Gabe.

            And speaking of Gabe, Gabe, it won’t be long before you hear your name in church in another way.  If you were a Joseph or a Mary or a Moses or a Daniel, you’d hear your name quite often in stories.  But you’ll hear a story along about Christmas time every year that the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee to a girl whose name was Mary.  You’ll hear how Gabriel announced to her that she would have a son and that she would name him Jesus.  You’ll hear how she had a hard time believing that such a thing could happen, and you’ll hear how Gabriel assured her that nothing was impossible to God.  I wonder if you will wonder about the connection between that Gabriel and you.  I wonder if you’ll begin to see yourself as someone who, in your own way, does the work of God.  I wonder if you’ll begin thinking of yourself as one who announces good news at important moments in people’s lives.   I don’t know.  But what I do know is that we’ll be here to help you figure out who you are and what you are going to do and how you can live for and with God.  And I can tell you that we are going to be very interested in what you tell us.  Your story, whatever it is, will be as holy as the Angel Gabriel’s story, as Mary’s story.   And you will have a place in the great big story of how God loved the world, and gave his Son to heal and save the world so that everything and everybody could share God’s life and love.

            One of those stories in the great story is about a time that a woman encountered Jesus, desperate to get him to heal her little girl who was seriously sick.  It is a strange story in many ways, because Jesus at first seemed not to want to help the woman, we are not quite sure why.  The easiest explanation is that the woman was “different,” and she seems to have been something of a pest, poor thing.  What we know is that the woman stood toe to toe with Jesus and said that even though she came from a different people and spoke with a strange accent and perhaps worshiped in an odd way, she still had a claim on him and his healing power.  And what we also know is that Jesus was deeply impressed with the woman’s faith, and promised her that her daughter was whole and well because of the mom’s faith.  That story, Gabe, has a lot to do with your baptism, believe it or not.  When we take you today and pour that water on you—carefully, Gabe, making sure that it doesn’t get in your face!—you’ll be like that woman, totally at the mercy of the priest, the people, the world, even God.  If you were a grown man, you might even put words to it all like, “God, have mercy!”  You might feel that life was bigger than you could manage, and that you’d somehow reached the limit of what you could do on your own, that you were like a little toy duck in your bathtub, just bouncing around with nothing to say and hardly anything to do beyond bobbing till someone picked up you and put you back in your place.  But at the moment the water touches you, it is like the finger of God connects with you, Gabriel, as the one who is going to announce God’s News.  You’ll come alive (maybe with a cry—it often happens) like a black-and-white drawing coming to full color, a still picture coming to animation.  You won’t see it and neither will we, but you’ll be as full of God’s life as the Angel Gabriel ever was, as close to God as Mary when she said, “Let it be, let it be,” as much a child of God as Jesus was when at his baptism he heard God say, “You are my son, in whom I am well pleased.”
© Frank Gasque Dunn 2012

Monday, September 03, 2012

Capital Project

            King Solomon built a temple.  That is quite a story.  His father, David, had established the capital in the old Jebusite city of Jerusalem, and had brought there the central symbols of Israelite religion:  the Ark of the Covenant, the tabernacle, and the priesthood.  David had wanted to build a temple, but God had said, “No thank you,” and insisted instead on establishing a house, a dynasty, for David.  Whatever the reason, somehow or other David never got around to building it.  There was always a strand of tradition that was fundamentally skeptical about, if not opposed to, the notion of a temple.  The Ark of the Covenant was moveable.  So was the tabernacle.  People sensed from the beginning that when Israel settled down, something would change.  They said that they feared becoming like all the other nations.  And they were right.  For the old basis of unity, the covenant allegiance with Yahweh, gradually gave way to empire.  Loyalty to the king and the king’s agenda supplanted loyalty to the Covenant and the Covenant’s God. 

            By the time Solomon ascended the throne, conditions were right for going ahead with the capital campaign and the resulting building project.  Borders were secure.   The throne, by the time Solomon had executed his competition, was established.   And, as people would soon find out, the new king was an ambitious king.  He liked building things.  He was fond of great big projects.  And he was wise.  He knew that if he could organize the religious personnel, rites, and rituals and keep them not only centrally located but within spitting distance of the royal palace, religion would be much more of a unifying than a dividing force.   Politicians like that.  They like having a tame religion that operates on schedule, preferably one that blesses their projects.

            Brand new, a stunning architectural achievement, the temple was ready to be dedicated.  Solomon was virtually the whole program that day.  Imagine.  The king himself, not merely attending and participating in the ceremonies, but in the role of the chief consecrator.  Of course, the report we have is from a later historian [the Deuteronomist]  who puts his language into the mouth of Solomon.  But no matter.  Knowing what we know about Solomon, we find none of it surprising.  He invoked tradition and reminded God that God had made an everlasting covenant with the house of David.  He asked for help.  He acknowledged that God, who could not be contained in the highest heaven, certainly couldn’t live in such a temple as he, Solomon, had built.  Nevertheless, he prayed that God would regard this house as special.  And he prayed for God to protect the people, forgive the people, responding to their crises like droughts and famines with caring intervention.  He even prayed for the foreigner who might come and pray towards the temple, that God would hear that prayer as well.  He prayed that God would prosper the causes for which armies fought, and hear prayers for the warriors directed towards the temple.  And he wrapped it up with a peroration again pleading for mercy and forgiveness (who does not need both?) for all and sundry who prayed towards or were connected to the temple. 

            We might be tempted to say that this whole episode, interesting as it is, is little more than an example of old-time religion of little use today.   It has a tribal quality to it.  And some of that tribalism lives on.  Indeed a good bit of geopolitics in the 21st century is played out around the nation of Israel and its traditions, its enemies, and its past.  But the scriptures are like an onion.  There are all sorts of layers well beneath the obvious.  This is no exception.  “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?  Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”  That is an amazing insight in any age.  The “thick darkness” in which God is said to dwell resonates with anyone who has tried to meditate or who has practiced centering prayer.  Underneath all the prayers for protection and forgiveness, we still hear the unmistakably familiar cries of help that come out of us almost despite ourselves when we are in deep trouble.

            And although it is not as magnificent as Solomon’s temple, St. Stephen and the Incarnation is a church that is just as holy a place.  About everything you can imagine has gone on here over the eight decades these walls have stood.  Not all of those things would make it into the Bible, but some of them would and did.  Here people have prayed.  Here they have sought peace and reconciliation.  Here they have fed the hungry and consoled the grieving and dying.  Here they have celebrated the arts and made music and laughed and cried and applauded courage and organized efforts for justice.  In short, here in these walls, people have done the work of, and sung the songs of, and argued the nature of, and met God.  We did it and we do it because those are human things to do, all of them.  And humans never meet God outside human experience, always within those things that make us human.  We encounter the Divine whenever we do what the Divine does, whenever we love what God loves, whenever we allow ourselves to become vessels that hold God’s spirit or conduits that transmit God’s power.  We treasure times when that happens, and sometimes put up tablets or monuments to mark a sacred event.  But even more than that, we build altars and light candles and say prayers in sacred places.  We keep returning to those places even when the religion changes.  You can go to Rome today and worship in Christian churches built on the sites of pagan temples in antiquity, and you can go to Britain and drink from wells that once were holy to Druids and whose gushing water of life we associate with our Christ.

            But it is never the temple or the church that needs to be dedicated, though we do it to mark it off as sacred.  It is the life of the people, the community, the relationships that beg for dedication.  In the sacred places, the most that we can hope to do is to sense the Presence that others have sensed, to catch the beam of holy light that others have spied.  And most of the time, if what we catch or spy is genuine, it will not keep us inside the building, it will impel us to go forth.  Because God really never settles down, but is always on the move.  The Ark may stop, but God keeps going and calling us to follow. 

            The highest heaven cannot contain thee, much less this house that we have built and are rebuilding.  We know that. And to borrow some words from one of our best poets, R. S. Thomas, we sometimes find ourselves pretending, maybe, that we lay this trap for you God, entice you with candles, as though you would come out of the darkness like some gigantic moth, to beat here.  We know better.  But we return to the patterns and memories so deep within us that we are only dimly conscious of what they are.  We whisper a prayer—help—thank you—forgive—I’m sorry—I love you, I love you, I love you—striking our prayers on our stony hearts, hoping to God that one of them might ignite, and cast on these walls its light, so that we can see the shadow of one greater than we can understand.*

*  “The Empty Church,” in R. S. Thomas, The Poems of R. S. Thomas (Fayetteville, AR:  University of Arkansas Press, 1985), 122.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012