There is a haunting line from W.H. Auden (sometimes attributed to Abner Dean) that reads, “Remember the gift, the one from the manger, it means only this, you can dance with a stranger.” We can all be slow learners when it comes to matters of ultimate importance, and, even though I have pondered these words off and on for years, a clear meaning eluded me until this Christmas. It happened when I was writing the sermon for last Sunday and re-thinking the story of the wise men’s visit to the infant king. Matthew says that they “knelt down and paid him homage.” He clearly did not meet up to their expectations–he and they were unimaginably different from each other, from different worlds. The rich and powerful knelt down and worshiped the poor and helpless little son of refugees. They danced with a stranger. They came to bring him gifts, but they were the ones who received the gift. That gift can be ours as well if we are willing to receive it and be transformed by it.
Our weather in Kentucky over the past few weeks has reminded me of another time some years back when I was living in Nashville and a big ice storm resulted in a lengthy power outage. That was in the days of answering machines, and I found myself calling home from work hoping that my machine would turn on and let me know the long wait was over. I remember my excitement when I finally heard my own voice answering me. A few days later, I made my first visit to Bicentennial Mall in Nashville and was reading the quotations, carved into the walls, about the history of the development of TVA. A quote caught my attention that read something like this: “The best thing in life is to have the love of God in your heart, and the second best thing is to have electricity in your home.” Tears of gratitude instantly filled my eyes–for both–for love of God and for electricity! I’m convinced that there’s not much in life that feels better than gratitude. This week–when so many of us were listening to sleet fall outside–the lights didn’t even flicker! I’m grateful for gratitude.
A few days ago, a church member gave me a belated birthday present with these words, “I think you might find a gem for a sermon in this book.” The text of the book is a transcript of George Saunders’ convocation address in 2013 at Syracuse University, where he teaches creative writing. The title is Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness. I read it in twelve minutes. You can also view it on You-Tube in about the same amount of time. The first thing I thought about after reading it was the Bible verses that I learned in early childhood, one of them being, “Be ye kind one to another” (Ephesians 4:32–KJV, of course!). So simple? Ought to be. It’s one of those things that is “simple” but not “easy.” Saunders explains that we are born with “built-in confusions” about who we are. Those “confusions” always lead us to having to work hard if we are ever to let go of a deep level of self-centeredness—which seems to be basic to the human condition and inevitably leads to misery. The sooner we get to work on that self-centeredness, the more time we have to enjoy being kind—and the more joy and peace we will experience in our lives and share with the world. We have countless times to practice every day—to ask ourselves the question over and over, “Am I being kind right now?” We will never regret it.
Those of you who know Grace Church Hopkinsville know that we have a beautiful labyrinth, build in 2007, that is a replica of the one at Chartres Cathedral in France, built around 1201. Our Chartres labyrinth is truly a treasure for the church and the community. So, I’ve been a little disappointed that we don’t have more “regular” walkers. But, at the same time, I understand–because, for most of us, it takes quite a few times of walking the labyrinth to “get it.” And, before we “get it”–whatever that means for us–the walking can feel like a chore–something we want to get behind us. Early this summer I had my first “got it” experience. For me, it was the day that I was entering the labyrinth and rather suddenly had the awareness that I was truly on a path into the heart of the Divine–the Sacred–the Holy. It was that day when I knew that I was walking into the heart of God! And, when I reached the center, I wanted to stay there for a long time and soak it in. That day I knew that being in the heart of God is not simply positive thinking. It is not simply an affirmation. It is a reality–a reality that is both mind-boggling and heart-boggling. Your “get it” may be different from mine. God comes to each of us in the way that we can uniquely receive God. But, for most of us, it takes time and effort. Come walk with us!
If you haven’t met Gracie yet, come by my office sometime. Gracie is a giraffe designed by the “Melissa and Doug” company, and she looks over my right shoulder when I’m sitting at my desk. I think she’s beautiful, and I’m getting very fond of her. Gracie was given to me by my grandson, Luca, for Christmas—she was on my “wish list”! The idea for Gracie came up when I went to a conference on “Deepening into Living Compassion,” sponsored by the Nashville chapter of Non-Violent Communication. The originator of the NVC movement—which is a worldwide movement—is Marshall Rosenburg, and Marshall uses two symbols to represent the difference between violent and non-violent communication. When he is demonstrating or talking about violent communication—either toward others or toward ourselves—he wears a pair of “jackal ears.” When he is demonstrating or talking about non-violent communication, he wears a pair of “giraffe ears.” The giraffe is a symbol for having a “big heart”–because giraffes have especially large hearts for pumping blood up that long neck and down those long legs—and because giraffes obviously have a wide perspective—seeing from that height. At the November conference, the presenter (Robert Gonzales) had a giraffe like Gracie sitting next to him. My Gracie is a metaphor for communicating compassionately. When we communicate non-violently, we are communicating with a big heart and a wide—or broad—perspective—we are communicating compassionately and avoiding any attempt to be hurtful in any way to the one or ones to whom we are speaking. I’m hoping that I will become more Gracie-like and that Grace Church will become more Gracie-like and that we might even spread Gracie’s message beyond our church—so that Hopkinsville becomes more Gracie-like!
Several weeks ago, when I was visiting with my daughter and three-year-old grandson, we went whale-watching off the coast of New Jersey. Of course, we didn’t see any whales, but we saw lots of dolphins, and they were magnificent! So sleek and graceful! The little one was quite taken with them, and, with a gleam in his eyes and moving his upper extremities to simulate the movement of the dolphins, proclaimed, “They’re my girls–they like me!” Now, we could just write that proclamation off as a three-year-old’s narcissism–but could it be something more? I like to think of his words as a sign of the breakthrough in the evolution of consciousness that so many people are talking about. Is it possible that a tiny little boy is aware of his connection with dolphins? I think so–and I hope so. And I hope that awareness doesn’t stop with dolphins!
There are a lot of bloody passages in scripture–mostly in the Old Testament–but our gospel reading from this past Sunday strikes me as the bloodiest! If I were British I would say that it’s bloody bloody! Jesus is talking to crowds and is trying to make sure his message about who he is gets across to them, so he uses vivid language. “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me” (John 6:53-57). How are we to understand this message? What does it say about the Eucharist? We could ponder the meaning for a lifetime. What does the Eucharist mean to you? There is no one correct answer. We invite you to respond!