The Sparrow | Words of Wednesday

And deeper, in a place she rarely inspected, there was a part of her that wanted to believe as Emilio seemed to believe, that God was in the universe, making sense of things. –Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow


I was introduced to the science fiction novel The Sparrow through Krista Tippett’s podcast, On Being. An account of a Jesuit mission to “know and love God’s other children” (the ones not inhabiting Earth), the story — written by a life-long scientist, former atheist, and later-life convert to Judaism — deeply intrigued me.

I’ve been immersed in The Sparrow‘s world for about a week now, and though I’ve yet to reach the end, I already know that I would highly recommend it. Whether you’re interested in sci-fi, or faith, or just a really well-crafted narrative, this book is for you.

And, yet, I don’t recommend it lightly. Whatever the above quote may imply, this is one of the most uncompromising explorations of devastation I have encountered. It is, in its way, a subtle, deeply original, and utterly un-didactic retelling of the Old Testament book of Job. What does one do when it is God who destroys one’s faith? God, as Emilio tells us, who breaks one’s heart? 

Whatever peace I’ve made with the presence of suffering in the world (a peace predicated entirely on the incarnational presence of a God who enters into that suffering — wearing it like skin — in all times, and all places), this text (more, perhaps, than any other) has forced me to wrestle again with who God is and what God wants from us. How to reconcile the paradoxes of Old and New Testaments — of a God who both gives life and takes that life away.

And this I think is the point — these questions, this wrestling — and why I can declare Russell successful, regardless of where she takes the narrative from here. Whether she concludes with consolation, or answers, or only with silence, she has forced us to look again, question again, wrestle again. To acknowledge that we are mortal and dust, and God is mystery, vaster and deeper than any expanse of space, or time, or unknowable universe. 

And so, as Marc, one of the book’s priests, declares, “Perhaps we must all own up to being agnostic, unable to know the unknowable.” And yet, he continues, “The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds.” 

So, with Job and Jacob and all the patriarchs of old, we must keep wrestling, keep questioning, till we meet God face-to-face, receive our true names, and hold our hands over our mouths. 

“And then,” Marc finishes, “we shall dance with God.” 

Lilac Breasted Roller in Flight (Naibosho Conservancy, Kenya)

You can listen to the On Being episode that first inspired me here

 

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Eucharist

Calvary Episcopal Church, Santa Cruz
Sunday, 28 October 2018

The priest wore red
today, as he held his hands
aloft over bread and wine.
The color of martyrs and
remembrance, Christ’s passion
leaking from instep and
palms, blinked rapidly
from stinging eyes (oh, God,
were there flies? I’ve never thought
about the flies — the agony
of a body so taut, it can’t
even twitch to drive away
the swarms which gather,
like clouds without rain, or
so much dust in the desert,
to feast upon the bleeding flesh
of the too-soon dead),

yet today was not meant
to be a day for red.

Eleven are dead,
yet they never asked
to be martyrs (do any ask
to be martyrs?), as they
gathered to worship, to
celebrate, to pray, “on a quiet
drizzly morning,” just another
Saturday. Just another
sunrise, just another breakfast,
just another day
until it wasn’t.

We kneel at the altar,
my unpierced palms open
to receive the dry and tasteless
wafer, the wine smooth and
sweet (no hint of vinegar or gall)
on chapped and broken lips. We say
the “Our Father,” the offered
bread still heavy on my tongue,
and ask deliverance
from evil

— but whether his
or mine is left unspoken
as the music swells and the cross
processes down the nave,
and through the open door into
the sunshine of an ordinary
street, an ordinary day.
Pater dimitte illis: dare we
follow in its wake?

Written following the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

Resurrection

The cross on the wall
of every church
I’ve ever called
my home (evangelical
gypsy that I am)
has been empty,
harmless.

Nothing but the sheen
of polished wood,
a finish so smooth
I want to rest my cheek
against its softness —
a pillow, like Jacob’s rock,
on which to dream
of promised blessing.

Nothing to hint
at blood
or guts or the stench
of remembered
pain.

After all,
it is the ending of this story
that we love.

And so we skip ahead —
an empty tomb,
a bloodless cross,
a king triumphant
on his clouds.

So quick to preach
of heaven, where every
tear, like water in the desert,
shall turn to mist and be
no more, we forget
it was the world — this broken,
bloody thing, where thorns
grow wild and snakes
can bite one’s heel —
that he loved enough
to die for.

In a Jesuit chapel
on the outskirts of Nairobi,
I stare at the pierced and broken
body of the king I claim
to know. The crucifix a heavy,
holy reminder that to be human
is to break. That neither
love nor life will ever burst
into being on this globe
without the mother’s share
of suffering and pain. That on
the very morning we sing
“hosanna” and call the battle
won, the victory proclaimed,
Mary is weeping in the garden,
cursing an empty tomb,
a missing body, and our walk
to Emmaus has just begun,
tired travelers with blistered
feet, bereft and heavy
hearts.

Our hope upon the road:
that one day we may turn
to the stranger
at our side and recognize —
in the sound of our name
on their chapped lips or the broken
bread in their work-roughed hands —
that Life has pitched its
tent among us

(and today
is the day of resurrection).

On Mortality: A Lenten Reflection

As Lent begins to draw to a close, and we find ourselves moving towards Easter, I have been doing some reflecting on the paradoxes of this season.  This time of self-examination, repentance, prayer, and fasting. This time of preparing one’s heart for the cross.

Lent begins with the words, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Yet as the cross is traced in ash upon one’s forehead, there is a powerful irony in the words: for we are dust no more. The living breath of God has been restored to us. Christ became dust for our sake — became a mortal formed from clay, destined for death — so we could know life. Yet we are still poised in this space of in-between. Caught between the cross and the resurrection.

Lent calls us back to our mortality. Reminds us of our frailty. But does not do so in order to imprison us there. Rather, we are reminded so we might turn and be healed. When Christ declared that he came not for the healthy but for the sick, he was not implying a dissonance between those who had need of him and those who did not. Only that there were those who refused to acknowledge that need, for only those who know themselves sick will seek a physician’s care. As I have written elsewhere, I am coming, more and more, to believe that salvation through faith is not about being saved by faith — by one’s ability to believe passionately enough — but in fully submitting to the reality that one cannot save oneself, and in ceasing to strive to do so.

And perhaps it is that striving, that insistence on a closed, stubborn, self-sufficiency — a pride that demands we earn our own place in the world — that is, in itself, at the heart of our sickness. I doubt it was Eve’s longing for knowledge that brought death into the world, but perhaps it was a demand for that knowledge on her own terms — not a relational knowledge (and perhaps the knowledge of good and evil can only ever be relational if it is not to be destructive) but an independent, self-sufficient knowledge. The right to declare truth for herself and by herself. Give me my inheritance, demands the prodigal. I can do this on my own. But can such self-reliance ever be aught but a rejection of love? And can life exist where love does not?

The journey back to the Father, as Henri Nouwen reminds us in his The Return of the Prodigal Son, is simply (and not so simply) about allowing ourselves to be found by the love that has been pursuing us all the days of our lives.

Yet here, too, is irony and tension, for what lies on the other side of a closed, stubborn, self-sufficiency but a vulnerable, broken, openness? Nouwen writes, “It is precisely the immensity of the divine love that is the source of the divine suffering.” And so we are brought back to the cross and the life that is somehow found on the other side of death. In this upside-down economy, where the first are last, and the last first — where one must lose one’s life to save it — it would seem that to be whole one must choose to be broken, for Christ bears his scars even on the right hand of the Almighty, and if love wears the face of suffering, then, in wearing that face, one wears the face of God.

Do we have courage enough to root ourselves here? In an open, vulnerable, brokenness? To choose to reject the temptation of self-protection and the illusion of control? To recognize that only God can be perfect and sufficient in God’s-self, yet even God has rooted that perfection within relationality, and chosen the dependence, vulnerability, and heartbreak of relationship over an independent self-sufficiency?

Is it possible we’ve misunderstood, from the beginning, where strength, wholeness, and life truly lie? Misunderstood what it means to be like God?

Whatever the case, Lent reminds me that coming home isn’t about striving for perfection, but accepting imperfection, embracing my humanness (and the death that comes with it), and allowing God to meet me there with the love she has been speaking over me since the day I was born.

God did the work, all I must do is allow myself to be found. 

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountain and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.