For the past couple of weeks, the Scriptures have been the telling of the Passion Gospel according to Matthew. It's always a little strange to be in the midst of what we call "ordinary time" and then have readings from the "anything but ordinary" story that's told in the moment of Christ's willingness to lay down everything, including his life, to follow God's will. But I think it's important during these summer months in the South that feel like central casting's idea of Hell that we have this reminder that "ordinary time" is the terminology of the church; nothing in the journey with God is really "ordinary." Christ's act of love, an act that we are to emulate by loving in His same extravagant way, doesn't take a summer vacation.
What struck me as interesting in this visit with the Passion narrative was my encounter with the part where Jesus is brought before Caiphus the High Priest. This is a role I've read twice before on Palm Sunday, each time making sure that my reading doesn't trip over into melodrama, but does convey the anger and the accusatory tone that is in the text. Lectors in church are normally encouraged to remain passionless as they read which bleeds over into the Palm Sunday reading of the Passion. But I find that to be a terrible mistake. This moment is tense, and intense, and to read it like it's a dinner menu doesn't give the listeners a chance to be immersed in this story.
And that's exactly what happened to me last week as I read aloud Caiphus' quizzing of Christ, "Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God?" As I said, I have read those words again and again. But as they left my lips this time, I could hear in my own voice that I have been just as defiant and demanding of God. My 2014 has felt weighted down with grief from death upon death of my mother and friends and colleagues. I have experienced loss of some clients with my move to a new location. I have grieved the separation from my community at St. John's (necessary as it was), and the constant questions that come around when people want to know why I am not attending church there any more. I have wrestled with pain at my elbow, a difficulty for one working in a profession that requires physical strength that puts stress on my joints, and a reminder that my body needs care, too. As I read those words aloud, I could hear behind my reading my own demand:
"If you are the Messiah, then what the fuck, man?! Why do I feel so alone? Where are you?!?! What are you doing to me?!"
This isn't what Caiphus was driving at exactly, but it was the underlying attitude I heard in my voice. In this moment, during this "ordinary time," I realized that I was pissed off.
These are the kinds of conversations that I can really only have with God. Any time a human being, be it a friend who is ordained or not, attempts to help me discern these questions, they invaribly fail. Not because they don't mean well, but because there is no tidy solution and easy answer. And, even more importantly, this is my complaint, my wrestling match, my moment to duke it out with God, and there is no room for another who has her or his own gym bag filled with complaints to work out with the Holy Spirit. At a time like this, I find it simpler to get away from others and engage God myself, without human interference. I have done this before. This is what the trips to the labyrinth in Gainesville were all about. Or the trips to the base of Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire. But, without the benefit of either of those two thin places, I just needed to sit in prayer. My spiritual director sent me a Mary Oliver poem. It gave me something to ponder:
"What do you want me to do with this one wild and precious life?"
The answers have been coming in a cavalcade of dinosaurs, my symbolism of God's call on my life. For those who don't know the story, my mentor and friend, Mtr. Lee Shafer, dared me to ask God for a sign of whether I'm called to the sacramental priesthood. She pointed to a gecko running along the steps of St. John's.
"You could ask God to show you a lizard," she said.
"No, I won't. There are too many of them around."
Sitting in my car in the parking lot and pondering what I might ask for, I arrived at what I thought would be the fail safe image.
"If you want me to be a priest in the church, show me a dinosaur!" Ha! I knew that was impossible.
But then, what is the line, "for nothing is impossible with God"? Two to three days after I put that out there, I was sitting in a booth at a local restaurant, staring at one of the TVs. At a commercial break, a huge T-Rex filled the screen, announcing that "the dinosaurs were coming to the Leon County Civic Center!" I took a sharp in-take of breath. No one around me knew what was going on, but as I watched many more dinosaurs wander around on the TV screen, I thought, "No!! You can't be serious?!"
Very serious. Dinosaurs have cropped up in conversations, and at many different times and occasions when I am engaged in what might be called "theological reflection." Even on my first visit to Sewanee with Lee and her husband, during a "Law and Order" fest on the TV, a commercial break featured a T-Rex running across the screen. I bolted straight upright in my chair.
And Mtr. Lee just laughed and laughed.
"You saw a dinosaur!" she chuckled, "and it was at Sewanee!"
And they're back. Even more than just the presence of the dinosaurs has been my sense of what it is to be a Presence to people in crisis. Friends just as wracked with doubt and grief as me have been turning to me recently, and I can feel my self being lifted up out of the way to find the right balance between words, and actions, and listening deeply to what they're saying. The theologian Henri Nouwen makes the case that Christian leadership, and the ministry needed today, is for leaders who are willing to enter into the suffering of another. The one who is capable of serving another is the person who is sitting among those at the gate, carefully binding up her own wounds as she prepares to offer that service of binding to someone else.
"The spirit of The Lord is upon me," says the prophet Isaiah. I feel those words.
Which then brings us back to the readings for the daily office and the constant reminder that Jesus came not to be served, but to serve. His is the blueprint for our lives if we are willing to drink from that cup, and accept that we have been baptized both into his death and resurrection.
Who says this is ordinary time?