This prayer is a quiet and quick murmur of desperation upon learning of the start of war, uttered by the protagonist Francie Nolan in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:
“Dear God,” she prayed, “let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry . . . have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere–be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”
It’s a prayer for attentiveness, for awareness, for full embodiment. An honest prayer to be fully alive.
We Christians talk about the two natures of Christ; how Christ was “fully God and fully human” at the same time. And I think we often take the humanity for granted; he had a body, and that was enough to call him human. But I wonder if full humanity is something to attain, like wisdom and mindfulness.
Which is what makes it a Christian prayer. Not because it starts with “Dear God,” (which prayer from any religion would do in translation). It’s a Christian prayer because she prays with a foundation in the belief of the importance of incarnation — the incarnation of her own self. Because God made flesh and named it good, and God chose to take on flesh and be embodied with us.
For discussion: Have you ever had moments that gave you a similar desire for life? What was it?
I was recently told that my work offends non-Christian artists. In books or movies, I see images of incarnation, baptism, eucharist, crucifixion. Or, I see parallels between this narrative and the narratives that are found in scripture. Or, I see parallels between this character or person and aspects of Christ’s identity. I see Christian symbols everywhere. A reader told me that it’s inappropriate to have these Christian understandings of secular art, that it may be offensive to the non-religious artists who create these narratives.
Which is hard to hear, because I see God speaking everywhere. The symbols and narratives from Christian scripture are still very much at play in our world. The human condition hasn’t changed; the scriptures are still very much relevant; it is only on the surface that our situation appears to have shifted.
To help clarify my understanding of Christian symbols in narratives, this post is the beginning of a series on symbol and metaphor in culture and Christianity. Since this is the work that lays bear the structure for my posts on culture, I’m calling them “Foundations” posts; you can click the Foundations category to see them all.
Part of the reason similar symbols are found in both Christian narratives and “secular” narratives is because of the essential, elemental nature of symbols. The basic elements of human living are consistent across space and time. We all have more or less similar body structures, composed of similar substances, that act in similar movements. We each have breath and air, we each have a relationship with water (which comprises the majority of our bodies) and with fire (even if that fire is just in the sun). It is precisely because these things are so essential to our lives that they become the center for many symbols: body parts (eyes/sight, ears/hearing, feet/transportation, etc.), air, water, fire.
Landscapes and their flora are also commonly used symbols. Due to physical locatedness, landscapes may not seem to be immediately ready for broad use, but though we may not have experience with a landscape, we are able to imagine ourselves into it. For instance, I live in Seattle, the Emerald City, but when a friend says he’s going through a spiritual desert, there’s no need for explanation. Similarly, animals, for all their great global variety, are common symbols: it seems that humans don’t associate earthworms with peace and freedom, just as we’ve not looked at a lion and thought of death and decay.
The physical structures of human living are generally consistent across time, space, and culture. And so what we humans use for symbols are these same fundamental materials of our human lives. It is not coincidence; it is precisely why these objects become symbols.
Material Objects Hold Spiritual Truths
The essence of a symbol exists the way it does because it is the essence of that object’s function in the real world.
To begin: there is a real world Object, which has a certain type of Function. The Object becomes associated with the Function. That Function is external and real in the world, but people notice that it connects to an internal reality as well — the Function is in some way real and present in the internal experience. People begin to use the Object to represent the internal reality that feels similar to the Function — the Object has now become a Symbol.
If that use of the Object as that Symbol connects with other people, it becomes a community Ritual that externally conveys collective inner realities. The material and the spiritual are now held together in the Object-Symbol; just as the Ritual utilizes the Object’s original Function, the presence of the Object may conjure the experiences and meaning of the Ritual.
In various communities, the Object may represent various Symbols and/or become the center of various Rituals, though these various uses still point back to aspects of the original Function. The Object and the Function are always singular, no matter how plural the Symbols and Rituals derived from them are. The Symbols and Rituals always point back to the initial, natural way of things. But: the Rituals shift, and the Symbol may take on new meanings as a result.
Over time, the Object-Symbol has added texture and heritage from its use in these Rituals, which means that the Symbol can be used in ways that add to, remix, even violate those Rituals in order to create new Rituals that convey new layers of internal realities — new Symbols. So when the Object is referred to in a narrative, it is important to understand what the culture understands the meaning of that Object-Symbol and how that Object-Symbol interacts with other Object-Symbols in the story.
This is getting hard to handle. Let’s use an example.
Water Becomes Symbol
For this example, water will be our Object. It’s an easy symbol in that it’s all over the place, but also somewhat difficult for the same reason — there are many forms that water can come in (oceans, rivers, lakes, wells, bubbles, showers, baths, floods, tsunamis) and there’s an heritage associated with each form, giving the symbol a lot of texture. For the sake of this post, I’m discussing water in a rather general and benign way (we’ll deal with the variations of salt and destruction and temperature another time, as they tend to be remixes on the core Symbol).
Water has a certain type of Function in the world, and did before it became a symbol, before language was a human technology, before humans walked the earth. The Function is this: Water sustains life. That was true in the beginning, is true now, and will always be true.
At some early point in human history, people noticed that wherever there’s water, there are living things; where there’s much water, there’s an abundance of green and moving creatures. And the inverse is also true: where there is little water, there is little green and fewer creatures. People noticed that, in order to revive a plant, animal, or person, water was necessary. I imagine there were times when the fields were withering with brown plants, and then rain came and gave the field new life. I imagine there were times when a traveler had gotten lost in the desert and was hallucinatory and weak, but after being given water, he was revitalized (a word that literally means “to give life again”).
Notice: at this point, this language is not symbolic. It is simply describing reality. It is describing what literally happens when water is present.
It would have only been later, after these observations about life’s ability to renew, refresh, and revitalize, that someone would have thought, I know what that feels like. I have known in my soul what it feels like to be dry, and then something comes along and I feel like I have been given life again. Perhaps people started saying to their friends, “Some part of my inner world has been in a desert, but has just found a well of fresh water.” Now, the Object (water) and its Function (revitalization) are being used to describe an internal reality – water has become a Symbol.
Water Becomes Ritual
We can say with some certainty that using water to describe an internal experience was a symbol that connected with others, because we know it became Ritual.
In parts of ancient Egypt, the dead were submerged into the cold water of the Nile to convey that, though their life as it had been known was gone, in some way they will experience a new life. Entrance into the ancient Egyptian cult of Isis required a ritual of submersion into water as an outward sign to symbolize that an internal new life was beginning. In these rituals, the material use of water became tied to the spiritual experience of revitalization.
For the Jewish people, water was used for the washing of bodies and clothes as a sign of purification (“purity” itself being an abstraction of concepts related to life and wellness). In a community where the scriptural texts were memorized, such use of water would likely conjure memories of the Jewish community’s heritage with the symbol. People might remember “the Spirit of God who hovers over the waters” before the creation of life (Genesis 1). They might remember Moses leading God’s people out of slavery in Egypt, through the parted waters of the Red Sea, and into new life as a free people (Exodus 14).
In the beginning of the Christian era, Jewish communities adopted the custom of submerging converts: seven days after circumcision, the convert would be submerged, naked, in a pool of flowing water and would rise as a “son of Israel” (the familial language of “son” ties the practice to “birth” and, thus, to new life).
Notice that different groups utilized the water ritual with great variety. The submersions — called baptisms long before the holy dunking of Jesus — used various types or bodies of water, each with their own particular narrative. Some groups submerged the living, others the dead. Some groups submerged entire bodies, some only parts. Some groups baptized the clothed; for others, nudity was a requirement.
Yet despite the many differences in these rituals, the Symbol of water remains singular, and water’s Function as a provider of new life can be easily traced throughout the Rituals. The use of the Symbol in narrative and in Ritual varies, but it always points back to the original, pre-symbol Function.
‘Tis the season for decking the halls, listening to carols, and trying to manage the expectations and social norms of gift-giving.
In recent years, I’ve noticed increasing discussion on wanting Christmas to be less materialistic and more focused on Jesus, most often applied to gift-giving. One trend is this gifting rhyme: “One thing they want, One thing they need, One thing to Wear, One thing to read.” Another method is that each person receives 3 gifts, representing the ones given by the wise men. Others write of themselves as anti-materialistic and advocate for a “gift-free Christmas,” spending time and money on those in most desperate need.
In a society where citizens are viewed primarily as consumers, the choice to consume less is a laudable defiance of cultural norms. And yet the language of becoming less materialistic or anti-materialism somehow chafes.
I think it chafes because Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. Christmas is about God becoming incarnate. God valued the material world so highly that God became fleshy, substantial, material. Throughout his life, Jesus seems to deeply understand the importance of the material. He understands the necessity of the material category we call food, and he fed people. He understands that a host’s social standing is deeply effected by the material stuff of drink, and he turned water into wine. God in Jesus understood that the material stuff of a having a body matters in one’s ability to be in relationship with humans, and Jesus was resurrected.
One way to orient the birthing moment of Christianity is the moment in which spirit became flesh. The good news of Christianity is that the God of love and blessing and peace came to earth to show us that the values of love and blessing and peace are most visibly manifested when they are embodied. Our values are niceties until we live them. Our values are most powerful when they show up in our material life.
Everything in the gospel texts points me to the conviction that we Christians are called to be more materialistic, called to be better materialists — even as we are called to resist consumerism. So while I’m an advocate for consuming less, in order to do so I think we need take materialism more seriously. We need to become a better materialists.
I’m certain that many who state the desire for less materialistic Christmases are actually aiming for less consumeristic Christmases, but it’s important to accurately name our concern, especially when representing our religion to children or outsiders. If we position Christianity as being against the material world, it can convey that the very worldly concerns of hunger and shelter and wound-tending don’t matter to Christians, when nothing could be further from the truth. If we teach anti-materialism we are too easily teaching contempt for the material world. When such contempt is taught, we should not be surprised by those who profess Christ while lacking compassion or urgency in caring for the poor: the body and its needs are themselves material, and so in that system of thinking, the body and its needs are worthy of contempt.
Perhaps the greatest response to the Christmas story in which God becomes material is to listen deeply to the call to be more materialistic, wildly materialistic, sincerely and passionately and deeply materialistic.
And by deepening our materialism, we must become more seriously anti-consumerism, for the material world becomes far too precious and valuable to simply use and dispose.
In following Jesus, may we follow in his embodied awareness that matter matters. May not only our Christmases but also our lives be distinct in that we passionately and sincerely value the material. May we hear the word “materialistic” not as a curse or insult, but as a blessing, a compliment, and as a call.
May your Christmas season be filled with love, joy, and peace, outpoured in beautiful, delicious, comforting material goodness for you and your loved ones.
This sermon was written for St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington for Transfiguration Sunday. The gospel text was Mark 9:2-9.
There’s a game my husband and I play on our commute — maybe you play as well. The game is called: Is Rainier out? It’s initiated each time we near the West Seattle Bridge; either he or I will say, “Well? Is she out?” And we’ll examine the conditions, gaze into the sky, debate about the level of visibility. Whether we estimate correctly or not, when she’s out, we both feel like we won.
Perhaps this game is part of the reason it makes sense to me that the word “cloud” shares the same root as the word “clot,” as in a blood clot. They both come from clod: a clump of earth. Clouds are clumps of sky; clots are clumps of cells. It makes sense to me that these two words, cloud and clot, share their parent: both, material, stuck together; both capable of blockage and obstruction.
In this city, we know clouds intimately. We are familiar with their presence, familiar with their comings and goings, familiar with the way they seem to shift our landscape, shift what is visible and what is hidden.
My parents recently visited from Michigan, where they know clouds well but know very little of giant clods of earth. During their visit, as we drove about, they would comment on the landscape: the water, the green, the flower buds. The rain. But it’s winter; the view of the mountains, and of course the views of Mt Rainier as well, were continuously limited by clotty clouds, blocking our sight.
I tried to explain to my parents what they were missing. “There’s a glorious mountain rightoverthere.” I showed them photos that didn’t do it justice. I pulled up a map. They said, Yes, sure, we know, we understand. But I knew they didn’t fully understand. They had the right concept — a hill but bigger, with snow on top — but they didn’t fully understand the right meaning. The clouds blocked their experience, and thus blocked their sight.
Peter, too, has the right concept but not a firm grasp on the right meaning behind it. The week before Peter sees Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop, Jesus asked him, “Who do you say I am?” Now, Jesus had triumphed over every foe: he had cured illnesses, debated critics, soothed nature, controlled spirits. And so Peter responds, “You are the Messiah.”
Peter was able to sincerely confess Jesus as the Messiah. But, like my parents relying on photos to understand the experience of a mountain, Peter was relying on insufficient images to understand who the Messiah is. He believed the Messiah to be the one who will triumph over every enemy, natural and spiritual. The one who ends all suffering and death. The Messiah has come, and Peter believes that as a result he will see an immediate end to despair, betrayal, grief, suffering, death.
In Mark’s account, the line of text after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus starts speaking of what is to come: his suffering, his rejection by all respected authority figures. Jesus tells his disciples that he will be killed. Peter is appalled and rebukes Jesus — death is a sign of defeat, failure of mission. Certainly the Messiah will not, can not be defeated. God will not abandon the Messiah in this way.
It is in the midst of this confusion that Jesus takes Peter, along with James and John, and they hike to the top of a mountain. On the mountaintop, close to heaven, Jesus appears as a brilliant, dazzling figure, and alongside him are Moses, the bearer of the Law, and Elijah, the great prophet. There can be no doubt that Peter was right in naming Jesus the Messiah. This is certainly God’s Holy, Chosen One.
And I imagine that Peter must have thought: this is it, this is the arrival of the Kingdom of God, from this moment there will be no more misery, no despair, no betrayal, no grief, no suffering, and certainly no death. He offers to make dwellings. He wants the Holy Ones to settle, to set up camp, to move into the neighborhood and build a permanent home. He wants this moment of glory to be where they stay.
A cloud comes over them all, and the voice of God speaks: “this is my Son; listen to him.”
Jesus is silent. The words we are to listen to are the ones that have already been spoken, the ones that Peter did not want to hear — Jesus telling of his upcoming shame, suffering, and death.
To Peter, who had been hopeful, even certain, that the world was done with suffering and death, this cloud might have felt clot-like. This cloud might seem to obstruct the settling of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. This cloud might be felt to obscure the immediate presence of the Kingdom of God by affirming that Jesus will, indeed, suffer and die.
I, too, was frustrated with clouds, during my parents visit. They had never been to Seattle before and I wanted them to have this image of dazzling beauty to take back home with them. I wanted the clouds to part and the sun to shine on the mountain and them to have the experience of seeing Rainier in all her glory.
But precisely because I was so focused on them seeing Rainier, I often missed the beautiful things we were able to see, the things my parents, in their enthusiasm, kept drawing my attention to: The moss growing thickly on banisters, turning a safety device into an enchanted thing. The incessant waves of water, their rhythm conveying something of the infinite. The way the clouds moved among the buildings. The clouds in all their beautiful grays. The very clouds I had been cursing have a beauty all their own.
Peter, too, wanted glory, and was slow to realize that there is beauty and glory in the grey, cloudy, clotty places; indeed, the voice of God, the blessing of God might be found precisely in the cloud that comes over us like a shadow.
In her poem Early February, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre writes:
Grace doesn’t always come as a rainbow.
Sometimes it hovers like a pewter sky
tucked in around the treetops,
bringing the landscape close to the eye.
Still, grace comes on a day like this
in odd disguises…
For the gifts of greyness let us give thanks:
cobblestones and flagstones and boulders of granite,
clapboard houses, dark-shuttered and lamplit in the afternoon,
snow on asphalt, pencil and charcoal,
the naked stretch of steel that protects us
at the bridge’s edge,
old movies from a kinder time,
the wolf and the owl — hungry and hidden —
the rabbit’s fur,
the hawk’s eye,
the dolphin’s back,
the cocoon where a caterpillar
quietly works out
Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, and Peter, John, and James — they do not get to stay on top of the mountain in the moment of dazzling and obvious glory. The Messiah will not avoid the hardships of human life. Jesus will not settle where it’s comfortable. Neither do we get to stay in shining moments for long, near heaven, on top of mountains.
The voice from the cloud comes to affirm what Jesus has told the disciples about his death, and to bless it. God comes in a cloud in a dramatic affirmation that Jesus will indeed continue to be God’s agent of redemption. Suffering is not the result of a withdrawal of heavenly favor. Death is not the result of a withdrawal of heavenly favor.
This God does not shy away from suffering. This God is not afraid of death. This God does not bypass the difficult things.
Jesus will not take the easy way, for he knows there is no shortcut to new life. And though we may look for shortcuts — the Seven Easy Steps to a Better, Fitter, Healthier, Happier, Richer, Kinder You — it should, perhaps, be unsurprising that we find ourselves with Jesus on the long, slow journey to salvation. So we go to the doctors appointments and treatments. We spend the hours in counseling. We show up again and again for the 12-step meetings. We apply for this job, and the next one, and the next. We grieve one day at a time. We come to prayer in rhythms, regular or irregular. These are our own slow, gray cocoons, in which we quietly work out our salvation.
God does not bypass the difficult things on the way to salvation, but joins us in them. The savior we know is named Emmanuel, the God who is with us. Just as God was with Jesus in his baptism, God is just as much with Jesus in his suffering and death. And God will be just as much with us through our times of suffering and, yes, death, as God was with us in our baptism.
And God is with us through our despair, and is loyal to us when we are betrayed. And God intimately knows our abandonment. And God weeps with us in grief. And God suffers alongside us.
For this God, in Christ, goes through death, and blesses it, on the way to new life.
The only time in my life I was certain I was dying was when I was eight years old.
I had been running up Maxwell Street when I tripped. Most of my weight landed on my knee, which landed on a corner of a stair – Larry’s stair, actually. And it was Larry’s towels that were wrapped around my knee as I was placed into the back seat of Pete’s car, but not before I had seen the damage. The cut went to the bone. I had never seen so much blood before; there was no question in my eight-year-old mind that this was the end of my life.
Pete drove; Karen insisted on coming along. In fact, she insisted on sitting with me in the back seat. She squeezed beside me and peeled back the towels to see my injury and said, “Well, shit,” and I knew it was serious because she didn’t apologize to me for swearing.
She had run out of the house without grabbing a thing, and as Pete drove around town trying to contact my parents, Karen searched her pockets for something to give me, and offered me the only thing she had on her: a peppermint.
When Pete managed to get my mom on the car phone, I heard her voice and started sobbing: this, I thought to myself, would the last time I heard my mother’s voice. As I sobbed, Karen patted my arm and told me how brave I am. As I shook, she told me how strong I am. My breathing slowed; we made it the hospital; I grew into a well-adjusted adult who realizes her life was never in danger.
I tell this story as a testament to Karen’s character. Crises, fortunately, don’t happen all that often, but when they do, they have a way of revealing our identity, of illuminating the best and the worst in each of us.
I tell this story because in the midst of my young crisis, Karen joined me, came beside me. There was no question, for her, that she would be in that car, and that she would be immediately beside the person in need. And this was always true of Karen: no matter what I was going through, I could be certain that she would be in it with me. I could trust that she would recognize and name a situation for the shittiness it is.
I tell this story because it illustrates Karen’s generosity. A woman who wasn’t happy until everyone in her home had a full, cold drink in hand – of course she offered me a found mint. Even at the time, I’m pretty certain I laughed through my tears at the absurdity and helplessness of her offering a mint to an injured child. But that’s who she was: offering comfort and hospitality in the most tangible ways.
I tell this story because Karen always had a gift of narrating my best self — back to me. That day, while I was still sobbing uncontrollably, she told me I was strong. While I was terrified and trembling, she told me I was brave. Karen had a gift of sight, a gift that enabled her to see beyond behavior and into the heart of the person. She saw each of us as our best self, and told us who we are, with such certainty that we believed her – and moved toward becoming our best selves in response.
It’s true she offered this narration to me on that day I fell, but was equally true each and every time I saw Karen. Every time she saw me, she told me I was more beautiful than when she had last seen me – even when I was a gangly child and an awkward adolescent. When I was yet uncomfortable in my own skin, she saw me as beautiful.
As a child I was shy, quiet; I easily went unnoticed. But Karen noticed me, and exclaimed that I was smart and bright and brilliant; when I was easily overlooked, she saw me as shiny.
I wonder how she saw each of you, gathered here, the people she loved. I wonder about the too-easily unnoticed people that, in her eyes, are surrounded by light. I wonder who you understand yourself to be and who she believed you to be, and I wonder if you can believe that you really are as strong, smart, brave, brilliant, and beautiful, as Karen told you are.
And I hope you continue to become that person, that you continue to become yourself. I hope we all continue to become as lovely as Karen told us we are.
Because that, I think, is perhaps the greatest gift of Karen’s love: When we were yet unlovable, she loved us, and in doing so made us lovely.
I am indebted to her, to some degree, for calling me to become who I am, but it is not a debt that can be repaid. Rather, it is a gift that can only be passed on. May we go into the world and see others through the borrowed vision of Karen’s eyes. Through Karen’s eyes, may we notice the scared and see their strength. Through Karen’s eyes, may we look behind brokenness and see beauty. Through Karen’s eyes, may we look past the unlovable and encounter someone truly lovely.