Again, I’m recycling content here, but I was tasked with writing a “celebration sermon,” and I’ve been thinking about celebrating in frustration and despair. Can Christianity be reconciled? Can the poor be fed? I don’t know, but I remain struck by the miracle of being. We exist, murderously and wondrously, and so I wrote this sermon.
Will you pray with me?
All the new thinking is about loss.
In this, it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea, that the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night, and in the voice
of my friend there was a thin wire of grief, a tone,
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you, and I. There was a woman
I made love to, and I remember how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boats,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.
I once heard the poet Christian Wiman speak at a faith conference about art and belief. He began with a prayer that was, like the one you just heard, actually a poem—actually, a poem by an atheist. His poem contained swearing. Mine, called “Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass, contained sex, and yet it still feels like a prayer to me every time I read it, or by now recite it, having spoken each line so many times.
In every one of his poems Hass channels a thousand glimpses of the world to give his readers a briefer glimpse of some deep ontological truth. My favorite spans sixteen pages and the cycle of his grief after a divorce, new love, and pilgrimage to a Buddhist mountain shrine. I spared you all a thirty-minute prayer. In “Meditation at Lagunitas” he explores another kind of grief and yet, like Moses witnessing the glory of God, finds himself changed after fourteen lines of being a quiet, joyful witness.
I prayed this today, because the events of the past two weeks remain heavy on my mind and heart. World Vision, one of the largest charities in the world, for almost 48 hours opened employment to gay Christians in legal, state-sanctioned marriage, and in those two short days Fundamentalists in our country raged so violently, cancelled so many donations, that the organization reversed its decision. LGBTQ people felt betrayed and scorned. Thousands of impoverished children lost financial sponsors. All the new thinking is about loss.
These events coincided with the lectionary reading of John 9, the story of Jesus healing a man blind from birth. The passage is long and rich and grapples with theological disputes that continue to ravage our world.
I spoke with my grandmother shortly after writing a piece about World Vision. She is a stubborn woman, raised in rural Georgia, educated daily by FOX News. We rarely agree. She asked don’t I think God is judging our country for the way we’ve behaved, for the way we’ve forsaken family? I quoted Jesus in John:
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
Through the phone I could hear her waving her hand, dismissing me. Perhaps most discouraging in the World Vision debacle was watching people speak of “love” and “God” and “the Bible,” without any indication from the other side that the words meant something. Talking this way, everything dissolves: justice, pine, hair, woman, you, and I.
We are losing our capacity to speak. Language has always been so tenuous, but what does poverty even mean? What does a picture of a crying African child still invoke? Am I the only one who thinks of a brochure before I think of a living person made in the image of God? Who can empathize with suffering in a culture that can’t imagine anything?
The Pharisees wouldn’t believe Jesus came from God because he healed on the Sabbath. Fundamentalists invalidate my faith because I love other men. Each particular erases the luminous clarity of a general idea.
Maybe there’s no fixing it. Maybe civilization has always barreled toward inefficacy, building towers and splitting atoms and spreading language to the benefit of no one. I recently met my favorite author, Marilynne Robinson, and asked her how she holds the glorious potential of humans with their predilections toward disaster. She said she used to worry about the environment; now she believes the earth is still around only by the grace of God.
Which is true. Humans will obliterate a species to increase their profit margin by any size, and yet elephants still move across the savanna. Fundamentalists preach vitriolic sermons, but gay children survive those churches, persevering in faith or leaving religion or pioneering new ways in which belief can grow. I don’t understand how hope works except to acknowledge it exists, and where it does, beauty results. Temple Grandin revolutionized slaughterhouse standards. Homer himself was blind. Some of the most gracious Christians I know are LGBT. There are moments when the body is as numinous as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
There is so much loss in this world we could grieve for a thousand lifetimes. “History,” Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “could make a stone weep.” There is tenderness too, and moments when we’re making love or climbing a mountain or waking up beside a child who crawled into our bed at night that we’re struck with pure wonder at existence. How else to account for the fact that we’re still here? That in the wake of wars and rape and typhoons we haven’t hurled ourselves off the highest cliff? Some glimpse of beauty always remains. So hope remains. We’re blinded by loss, but certain days, sight returns to us, surges forth with the glory of the world, and the glory of God.