Sunday, March 29, 2009


Sermon Lent 5
March 29, 2009

My wife, Rose, tells the story of how, in the summertime when she was a little girl, her parents used to send her to stay with Ma Bolden down the road. This was out East, in Maryland, out in the country where she lived in Prince George County. Ma Bolden had a little house with chickens and rabbits in the back yard; and in the summertime there would be days and days of stifling heat and humidity; 95 degrees with humidity so thick they used to say it was like living inside a dog’s mouth. And then, every once in a while, at night, when they were sitting out on the porch talking and watching the neighbors, Ma Bolden would get up and without a word go inside the house and turn off the radio and all the lights, and then take her seat, in the dark, in the corner of the house.

The first time this happened Rose was a just a little girl who loved to chatter away as little girls do; and when Ma Bolden turned off all the lights she said, “Whatcha doin’, Ma Bolden?” and Ma Bolden just said, “Shhh.”

“But watcha doin?”

And she said, “Shhh. God’s talkin’”

And as they sat there in the silence, she heard the thunder, way out in the distance: the thunderheads were coming, from miles and miles away, rolling over the graves of Gettysburg and the cities of Baltimore and Washington, DC until they were right on top of them and they were in the middle of the storm and the house was shaking with a fearsome sound.

Shh. God’s talkin.

We have seasons and moments in our lives when we are busy and we are stressed and our ears are full of the noise of everyday life, radios and tvs and people talking and children chattering and everyone having an opinion about this or that.

And then there are moments when we would do well to turn it all off, and sit still, and listen.

In the 9th Century BC, the prophet Elijah was on the run from Jezebel, the Phoenician princess and queen over Israel; she had purged the kingdom of all the prophets of YHWH who had spoken out against all her foreign gods and pagan practices; there had been a great slaughter on both sides; and now Elijah was running for his life. (1 Kings 19: 9-12) He ran for 40 days through the wilderness and came to a cave on Mt. Horeb, where he sat down and listened for the voice of God. There was a terrible wind, so powerful as to break mountains, but God was not in the wind; there was a terrible earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; a terrific fire, but Elijah heard nothing.

And then there was the sound of sheer silence.

Shh. God’s talking.

200 years later, the prophet Jeremiah was listening. His people had either been at war or been occupied by foreign armies for at least 150 years. Nearly all of those wars had been lost; generation after generation had endured terrible humiliations from the occupying armies, especially the Arameans, and for the past 100 years, the Assyrians. The Assyrian empire was one of the first great conquering world powers, and everybody hated them.

And during this entire terrible time of war and loss, the people of Israel had been asking God “Why?” Why are you punishing us? What have we done wrong? What do we have to do to get you on your good side again?

Well, the prophets had the answer: “Obey the covenant established by Moses. Follow the rules. Do what God has told you to do and God will protect you.” But that was not so easy; after all the people of Israel were under occupation by foreign armies who had imposed their foreign gods. And every time Israel and Judah stood up to them, they were crushed. So they couldn’t win for losing; and now the whole idea of a covenant with God was being questioned. Maybe we’re not so special, they began to think; maybe we’re not the chosen people after all; maybe it doesn’t matter if we worship Baal or YHWH.

And then something new happened. Nobody really thought this day would ever come but finally the Assyrian empire started to crumble. The Assyrians, finally, were learning the terrible lesson that so many other conquering empires over time would learn: that it was possible for an empire to be too big; that there was only so much territory an occupying army could control; there were only so many resources available to feed and equip an army that enormous; and now they were fighting rear guard actions in distant lands, and the occupying army that had controlled Israel and Judah had to retreat, and for the first time since the days of Solomon, the people of Israel and Judah were free.

And into this new moment of history stepped a young, talented, ambitious king named Josiah. Josiah consolidated his forces; he gathered his army, and riding his chariot in the name of YHWH, he took control, finally, of his land – all of it, the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom, reunited for the first time since Solomon; and finally, there was peace.

Josiah believed he had heard God’s answer to the great question his people had been asking; now, finally, they could purge their nation of foreign gods; and finally they could restore the Temple in Jerusalem to its pure and holy state. They even, in the course of their renovations of the Temple, found an ancient scroll from the time of Solomon, upon which was written the holiness codes of King David’s priests. This, Josiah believed, was the great answer to his people; finally, they had found the rule book written by God; all they had to do was follow these rules, now, they could restore the ancient covenant with God that was given to Moses; and God would protect the nation once again; finally, as long as they obeyed these rules, this peace would last.

And so a terrific and terrible zeal seized Josiah and all the people; they routed out all impurities from the land; which meant that anyone who was married to a foreigner was forced to chase their spouse away or be killed; anyone who was caught worshiping a foreign god was killed; all the priests of YHWH, spread out across the kingdom, were told they had to move to Jerusalem and become part of the centralized Temple priesthood, all the better to control them and keep them from foreign influences. All the local shrines – whether to YWHW or to foreign gods – were destroyed and everyone was told that from now on they would worship only in Jerusalem, where they do everything according to the book. This would become known in history as Josiah’s reforms.

For the most part, the people went along with all this – because this was the answer they had been waiting for: the great promise of a restored kingdom was finally coming to pass, because the covenant with God was re-established and God would protect them now. And among the most enthusiastic of the reformers was a young man named Jeremiah. He cheered on Josiah as the purity of God’s law was established. And then, for almost 30 years, he watched what happens when you try to force people to conform. He watched as the Temple priests competed for power and influence; he watched as the people resisted being told what to do; and he saw, with his own eyes, that even a country with the very best of intentions would fall very short of its dreams.

Back in Ann Arbor, a friend of mine, who was a very cynical and world-weary lawyer, made the decision to change his membership from one church to another. A little while later I asked him, how was it going at his new church; and he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, you know, the law of jerks.”

I said, “The law of jerks? What’s that? He said, “Oh, it’s simple - no matter where you go, the ratio of jerks to non-jerks remains constant.”

In a way, this was Jeremiah’s insight: no matter what you do to impose reforms in a community, there will always be people who will use those rules to gain advantage, exploit the weaknesses in the system, seize control of assets, and take power. And so, over time, Jeremiah became more and more critical of Josiah. Then he experienced the final disillusion: the armies of Babylon were now on the march, taking over the vacuum left be Assyria’s fall, and nothing would protect them. No amount of perfectly conducted sacrifices on the altar, no heights of ritual purity, would keep the armies of Babylon from crushing Israel.

So Jeremiah sat down and listened for the word of God; he turned off the lights, so to speak; he sat very still; and he heard the thunder, coming his way.

He was one of the first to see that what was needed was a new covenant; a different kind of covenant entirely; not something imposed from above but something established within our hearts:

The days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.... I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts...

Armies will come, and armies will go; empires will rise and fall; the covenant is not found there. The covenant is found here, inside us.

The thunder is not out there; the thunder is in here.

Shh. God’s talkin’.

600 years later, Jesus came along; of course he knew the story of Elijah and Jeremiah. He had taken a good long look at the Temple and the holiness codes and the jerk ratio was plain to see.

He saw that something new was needed.

So he marched into Jerusalem; he came to the Garden of Gethsemene; he stayed awake through the night; he listened; and he heard thunder in the distance.

Jesus had a sense about moments. “This is moment,” he said.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Our Anger, Our Bodies

Lent 3
March 15, 2009

We’ve been together now for five and a half years; we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well. Some of you know that I have anger issues.

The other day I was telling my therapist about the time, ten years ago, when in the middle of the night this guy broke into my house while my family and I were sleeping on the 2nd floor. I woke up to the sounds of him moving around downstairs. I got out of bed; when he heard my feet hit the floorboards he flew out the front door. The police caught him a few minutes later with our money (8 dollars) and our maxed-out credit card stuffed in his pockets. It turned out this was his third strike; they told me he could go away for life - I didn’t feel right about his going away for life for stealing 8 dollars and a credit card so at his sentencing I intervened and asked for mercy on the man.

Which he got – his sentence was reduced to 6 years. He was out in three.

After I told the story my therapist looked at me with these very peaceful blue eyes that he has and said, “And what did you do with your outrage?”

My outrage?

Yes, your outrage. The man broke into your house! It would be normal for you to feel some outrage, wouldn’t it?

Well, you see, of course I had outrage; but I didn’t allow myself to feel it – because, I told myself, I had to be a Christian; I had to be a priest; I had to do the right thing and wear my collar to the sentencing hearing and even visit the man in jail and hear his confession ... and somehow I thought that meant I didn’t get to have my outrage.

Or maybe the outrage just frightened me.

Therapists say that depression is anger turned inward. That’s true in my case; it’s also true for all the brooding Norwegians and self-destructive Irishmen and persecuted Huguenots who were my ancestors.

I grew up living in my head. I know I’m not alone in that – many of us live in our heads far too much; we associate our selves with our thoughts; we make our livings with our minds; we spend endless hours staring at disembodied words made out of electricity on a computer screen and the rest of our time watching disembodied electronic images on a TV.

In the meantime these feelings – which live in our bodies – in our chest and our gut and our voice – have no place to go, so they turn against their host.
But as I get older I realize that I can’t continue to ignore my body without experiencing some pain – coming from my body. Pain is the body’s way of getting our attention and teaching us its ancient wisdom. As I ignore my body I ignore my emotions – because our emotions live in our bodies.

When we’re living in our bodies, our emotions come easily; they rise and fall and we become more human; when we’re living in our heads we can go for days without even knowing what we’re feeling – this is of course especially true for us men - until we find ourselves acting out:getting snarky, or snide, or resentful, or depressed, or withdrawn, or gossipy, or cynical, or blowing up over little things, barking at our children or our dogs or drivers on the road.

It is for this reason that I give thanks for our Gospel story this morning. Jesus is overturning the tables in the temple and driving out the moneychangers. It seems that Jesus was in touch with his anger. It seems he had no difficulty feeling outrage over what the temple authorities were doing in his house; the blood rose in him and before anyone could stop him he was changing history.
Come to think of it, I don’t suppose Jesus had much trouble with any of his emotions, nor with the generalized practice of living fully in his body. After all, he traveled a great distance just to have one.

This is why it’s a very good thing that we have been called to the Church of the Incarnation. Because here we honor the fact that God lives in the body. My body. Your body. This body – the Body of Christ. And because God has a body, God has emotions.

I’ve been making copies of this article by Barbara Brown Taylor – there are some copies available in Farlander. This article speaks to me of the heart of what it means to be a member of the Church of the Incarnation. It’s entitled “Practicing Incarnation.” She says,
...After years of watching bodies being dug out of craters in Manhattan and caves in Afghanistan, after the body counts coming from Southeast Asia, Gaza and Iraq, most of us could use a reminder that God comes to us not beyond the flesh but in the flesh, at the hands of a teacher who will not be spiritualized...

Now the words of my therapist return: what, then, do we do with our outrage? What, I wonder, would Jesus be outraged over if he in his body now? What holy outrage would be animating his sacred flesh?

I wonder: what feelings come up for us as we consider that question? Are we so busy trying to be good Christians that this question frightens us? As a church, have we retreated so far into our heads that we’ve forgotten how to be angry?

Some months ago, during a Sunday coffee hour, a homeless woman who is known to many of us went into the women’s restroom in Farlander Hall, turned off all the lights, locked herself in the stall and started talking to herself.

When someone walked in and turned on the lights, she got very upset; when a few of us tried to intervene she came out into Farlander, started yelling, threw a chair, then stormed out, kicking over a statue of one of our saints in the process.

Well, we felt we had to, we called the police, she was escorted away. But that’s not what I’m outraged about. After all, the woman is mentally ill. She suffers from an illness; she isn’t a criminal; she isn’t evil or morally depraved; in fact she is a lovely and good person who happens to have a chemical imbalance in her brain, which, we often forget, is a part of the body.

If she had a heart condition, she could get treatment; but because her disease is in the brain, she gets to live and sleep on the streets, in cold and rain, and be routinely subjected to predators, assaults, and the criminal justice system.

And even that isn’t exactly what I’m outraged about. What I’m really outraged about – what rises in me as a holy outrage – is the fact that it’s only after she commits a crime and goes to jail – a crime that is caused by her illness – it’s only then, in jail, where she will finally receive a bit of medical treatment for her illness. In other words, the only way she can find treatment for her disease is to be treated like a criminal.

That outrages me. And because it feels to me like a holy outrage, a sacred anger, I feel it is Jesus’ outrage too. And if that doesn’t outrage every one of us, I would be so bold as to say that we are living so far out of our bodies we might as well be walking on the moon.

As a church, what do we do with our anger? Our holy anger?

Some of us know about [name deleted] and what has happened to him. A former member of our staff whom we know and love, now in prison for the crime of being sick. We know about this; how do we feel about it?

Barbara Brown Taylor says,
When I hear people talk about what is wrong with organized religion, or why their mainline churches are failing, I hear about bad music, inept clergy, mean congregations and preoccupation with institutional maintenance. I almost never hear about the intellectualization of faith, which strikes me as a far greater danger than anything else on the list. In an age of information overload, ...the last thing any of us needs is more information about God. We need the practice of incarnation, [emphasis mine] by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned as dry as dust, who have run frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their bodies. Not more about God. More God.” [The Christian Century, January 27, 2009, p.24-5]

To be a member of the Body of Christ, especially an arm of the Body of Christ called the Church of the Incarnation, means living into the truth of our bodies; and sometimes that means dealing honestly – and tenderly, always tenderly – with our feelings. That’s why I know that while it can be risky for a priest to talk about the truth of his anger or his depression, there is no such risk for me here.


Until I try to buy life insurance, that is; or health insurance if I don’t have any. That’s when living into the truth can make your life difficult. And yet, if I don’t speak of it, and if none of us speaks the truth of our lives, who else would ever be moved to get help for their own issues?

It’s just that easy to pick up your cross and follow Jesus.

To have a body is to bear weight – and sometimes that feels like the weight of the cross. The early church fathers and mothers knew this; they knew that Jesus’ death would have had no meaning if he had not had a real body that died a real death on a real piece of wood.

These bodies that we have been given – these everyday miracles that we inhabit – they are pathways to God. We can trust them. Sure, they might be getting a little rusty and tired and worn out – they can even be dying on a cross of shame – but they are still our best pathway in to the heart of God and to the meaning of life.

This is crazy talk among the wise, as Paul said in our reading this morning, “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to [some] and foolishness to [others], but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor. 1:23-24)

The wisdom of God; the power of God; right here, in our bodies. For that and for all things, we give thanks to the Lord our God as found in the body of Christ Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

“Letter to a Christian sister, troubled”

You are not your car
You are not your house
You are not your job
You are not your children
You are not your face
You are not your thoughts
You are nothing
But a body, breathing
Life into soul.

You may have to fight for all these things
- These things you love but are not.
Fight then, like a wounded bear:
She turns, and roars, and fights on
not because she ought to
but because she is her body.

You can trust your body
You can trust your breath
You can trust the animation of your flesh
Because you are nothing
But a body, breathing,
By virtue of your virtue,
Having died to self.
And here you are.

You carry God within your body
He is crucified in your pain
He is risen in your breath.

Of course you know this.
And that doesn't matter.
Matter has weight.
Even air weighs more than thought.
Breathe this.
Breathe that.

Fight on.

-Matthew Lawrence
March 15, 2009

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Thresholds and Stars

Lent 2, Year B
March 8, 2009

It’s late at night; my best friend and I have been staring up at the stars for three hours, sitting on the back porch of a comfortable house in a rural suburb of Boston. The stars have emerged from the dusk into a brilliant spray of diamonds glittering against the black sky. For hours we’ve been watching the sky and talking nonstop; and now it’s around midnight and we’ve fallen into silence.

We sit for some time like that, enjoying what only the best of friends can achieve, which is silence between them.

After a while, I hear my friend let out a long sigh, and then I realize that he is weeping.

He turns to me, despair on his face, and says, “I’m dying inside.”

My friend had been living a life that many of us would envy. I certainly envied it, anyway, though I tried not to show it. He had an impressive job, a beautiful home, a lovely girlfriend of six years whom everyone knew he would marry. He was the wunderkind of his company, a brilliant and rising star in the corporate world: and he was dying inside.

He was like a man who hadn’t stopped growing and his clothes, which used to fit him fine, were now too small.

Over the course of the next year, my friend did what we do when we’re desperately unhappy: he got into therapy. And for a while this only made things worse – because it only made him more aware of his problem. His clothes just felt tighter and tighter.

Then he went to a monastery on a retreat. And again he found himself looking up at the stars and weeping. But this time he also had a prayer: “Help me,” he said. “I can’t do this without you.”

And he felt something shift. Deep down inside, something changed. Later, when he told me about it, he said he felt like he was standing in front of a threshold, and all this time – for years, really – he thought he had to walk through it alone, and he had no idea what was on the other side, and the prospect was completely terrifying.

And then, that night, it felt as if there was a hand reaching out toward him from the other side of the threshold; and he felt a sense of peace and certainty come over him; and he knew at that moment that when he crossed over to the other side, he would not be alone; that, in fact, his long loneliness would be over; and that he would be fine.

It’s a dangerous and beautiful thing, to look up at those stars.

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Jesus said that.

Lao Tsu said it with different words, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”

All of us have thresholds we must cross; all of us have moments when we have to let go of what we are, in order to become what we might be. Some of us are facing the final threshold. Others among us are just getting started. Some among us have found their peace with this crossing; they have seen the hand reaching out; and they know, deep down inside them, that when the time comes, they will be fine.

Others among us are not so sure; they have some more praying to do, and more talking with trusted friends to do, and more star-gazing to do.

We are not alone. As Paul said, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.”

Abram and Sarai think they know exactly who they are; they are desert people, wandering Arameans; they have scraped together a living out of the sand and sun for almost a hundred years; they are reaching the end of their lives and they are not unhappy.

And then, while Abram is looking up at the stars, an entirely new future opens up.

Sometimes this star-gazing can be surprising.

13 years ago, long before I even heard about the Church of the Incarnation in Santa Rosa, I found myself on a pilgrimage to Assisi. It was one of those threshold times in my life and I knew it. My ministry up to that point had gone well enough, but I was restless, and I needed new direction.

And so it was that on a bright sunny day I walked up a hill to the Basilica of St. Claire, and planted myself in front of the cross of San Damiano and began to pray. This of course, was the same cross that St. Francis had prayed before when he, as a young man, was at a threshold time of his life; when God spoke to him through the cross and said, “Francis, rebuild my church.”

I found myself praying for my vocation as a priest; I thought about this beautiful, historic institution we call the Episcopal Church; I thought about how it was losing members, like a patient whose bleeding wouldn’t stop; like the woman in the gospel story who comes to Jesus and asks for her bleeding to stop.

I felt my deep love for our church welling up within me. I thought about all the young people I knew, who had no interest in going to church, and I felt sadness for them, for what they were missing; and I felt a great sadness for the church, for what the church was missing by not having their creativity and fresh energy.

I must have been there about two hours, just sitting before the cross, and breathing, and praying, and feeling all these feelings; and it took that long for the words to come to me, and when they did, they felt like the hand reaching to me from the other side: “Matthew, rebuild my church.”

When I got home from Italy there was a message for me: I had been called as the chaplain at the University of Michigan. I had been called to represent the Episcopal Church to our lost generation of young people.

When I came to that job I brought those words and that passion with me. The campus ministry I inherited had given up on reaching the students on campus. There, at one of the largest universities in the country, in the middle of a place teeming with young people, the Episcopal Church stood empty and impotent, completely confused and stuck and unable to even imagine what kind of a ministry might succeed with the students there.

Within two years we were one of the largest and most active campus ministries in the Episcopal Church.

Seven years passed, and I interviewed for this job, and I spoke about my moment in Assisi, and about my passion for young people, and heads nodded, and the call was made. So I carried that sense of calling here.
But I made a mistake along the way. I thought I could just re-create my experience in Ann Arbor; I didn’t take enough time to figure out how my passion met your passion; how my sense of calling fit with your sense of calling.

And along the way, I never paused to wonder whether, in this particular place, with this particular ministry at Church of the Incarnation in Santa Rosa, God might have a different word for me. When I traveled across the country to be with you, I knew that God was calling me here. And I thought I knew how that calling might become real in the world. I busily applied myself to the Sanctuary Project, which morphed into CenterPoint, and in retrospect this felt a little like forcing the parish's foot into a shoe two sizes too small, or maybe, to use a more apt analogy inspired by the story of Abraham and Sarah, it felt a little like Sarah trying to have a child through a in-vitro fertilization. Meanwhile, this parish, at the tender age of 137 years of age, woke up one day to find itself pregnant the natural way, and gave birth to a beautiful new child, the Numina Center for Spirituality and the Arts.

And Sarah laughed.

The fact that Numina’s birth came so easily and so naturally is a testament to its fit with Incarnation. Going to the Rilke poetry reading last Saturday was so deeply satisfying; to see this sanctuary filled with lovers of poetry and the spiritual journey. What a thing.

And to be fair, there is a little bit of CenterPoint’s genes in Numina; the Friday night Taize service that Kayleen and Robin are doing is really a continuation and adaptation of our work with CenterPoint. This is a good thing.

And so now we stand at another threshold. What is God calling us to next? In five weeks I will begin my sabbatical with a trip to Utah and Arizona, where I'll be camping in the desert. For three weeks I will be living simply, hiking in the canyons and ravines, and spending my nights alone, staring up at the stars. I will be asking some questions: what's next for us? Where is God calling us to now? And I pray that you, too, as a congregation, will be spending some time with the stars.

We are in this together; we are on a journey of discovery and of blessing. We are not alone; there is God; there is Spirit; there is Jesus, reaching out to us. We will hear God’s voice; we will see that helping hand reaching across the threshold; and we will say, together, Amen.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Temptation

I read this story rather than preach a sermon on the First Sunday of Lent, 2009. The image of Jesus at the pinnacle of the Temple with the devil, tempting him to jump, had been on my mind for a few days. I wanted to approach that particular temptation from a fresh perspective. I wrote this on Saturday, February 28.

“The Temptation”

Mrs. Sanders watched as the pretty little girl, all of three years old, marched across the hospital waiting room and hit the Mexican boy squarely on the back of his head. The boy, no bigger than the girl, turned with a face full of outrage and wonder. He looked at the girl, and then looked up at Mrs. Sanders, as if she, somehow, was responsible. Then he let out a scream of admirable pitch and considerable force.

Mrs. Sanders instinctively moved to cover her ears, but then lowered her hands. She did not want to appear impolite. But Good God how she hated these waiting rooms. The families were so randomly thrown together; there was never enough room to ignore one another like decent human beings; and always there were the unruly children, more often than not speaking incomprehensible languages, and everyone worrying themselves sick over matters beyond their control.

She looked away from the boy, unable to bear witness to the chaos any further. She had her own problems.

She had been shopping at the Safeway when the call came in on her cell phone. It was Mildred, at the church. Why is Mildred calling, she wondered; she hardly knew the woman, though they were friendly enough, exchanging pleasantries at coffee hour every Sunday.

And then, before another word was spoken, she knew.

Mildred said, “I know how close you are to Christine”

Christine was as close to a daughter as Mrs. Sanders ever had. They had met at church, after Christine had left her drug-dealing creep of a husband and gone into rehab. She was a lovely girl who knew, way before her time, what it was like to lose everything and start over. Of course, she wasn’t perfect; she had relapsed once or twice; but she had held on to the same job now for three years and was twenty-three months clean and sober. They looked after one another’s cats; and every Sunday after the 8 o’clock service they went out for breakfast.

Over the cell phone, Mildred was trying to get the words out. “Some kind of accident on 101,” she said.

“Where is she?”

“I thought you would want to know ...”

“Where IS SHE?!” Mrs. Sanders shouted into the phone.

As she drove to the hospital she had a one-word prayer: “NO.” As in, Oh no you don’t, oh no you don’t, don’t you even dare, not on my watch, not this time, no sir-ee. No! No no NO!

The stupid elevator was too slow. She took the stairs and when she got to the ICU they wouldn’t even let her in. “Only immediate family, I’m sorry,” said the nurse, with what sounded like fake concern.

“She doesn’t have any family,” said Mrs. Sanders, in a desperate lie.

“Well, the rules are very strict,” the nurse said.

“But I’m her best friend!”


So Mrs. Sanders entered the waiting room and began her wait.

After a little while the priest came by, clutching his red leather book and looking harried. He kissed Mrs. Sanders on the cheek and told her to pray and then hurried into the ICU. He was in there a pretty long time. When he came back he held her hands in his. It looked like he might have been crying.

“They don’t know a lot,” he said. “She doesn’t look good. Time will tell. All we can do is pray.”

Around midnight, one of the nurses brought Mrs. Sanders a hospital blanket and a pillow. They had given up telling her to go home and get some rest. The room was empty now; the horrid fluorescents were turned off. An ordinary lamp on the other side of the room gave out a weak yellow glow.

She dozed for a time.

For some reason that she would never be able to explain, she wasn’t surprised when she opened her eyes and saw the visitor, seated across from her. He was studying her face.

There was no doubt in her mind who he was. Her grandmother had talked about visions and things beyond explaining that she never had reason to doubt.
He looked just as she had imagined: an intelligent brow, large eyes, a kind face. His hair wasn’t really all that long.

“Gloria,” he said. “I’ve always loved that name.”

Mrs. Sanders sat up. “What’s happened to Christine?” she said.

The visitor didn’t speak.

“Please! Tell me.”

He seemed to be waiting for something.

Mrs. Sanders met his gaze. In the silence, a heat rose up in her. “You have to save her,” she said. Still, he did not answer. She was trembling now. “She’s young,” she said. “You can save her!”

Finally, the visitor spoke. “You love her so much.”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“And you want her to be the exception,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“You want a miracle. You want a suspension of the laws of physics and chemistry. You want the laws of nature to be put on hold. Everyone and everything else lives and dies by these laws; but you want Christine to be the Exception.”

“Yes,” she said.

“You don’t know what you’re asking,” he said, gently.

Mrs. Sanders glared at him; she bunched her hands into fists. She thought she might hit him.

Finally, he said, “Let me show you something.”

Suddenly there was a brilliant, hot light; they were outdoors; the heat was nearly overwhelming. They were high up in the air; she saw thousands of buildings below them; they could see for miles in every direction. Mrs. Sanders thought they were flying but then she felt something hard under her feet and realized they were standing on top of a tower, looking down.

Someone else was with them, standing next to the visitor. He was short and thin and smelled bad. His head was bald and he looked miserable, like a soldier losing a battle. He was talking to the visitor; he had a high, raspy voice.

He said, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here. After all, Scripture says that the angels will bear you up."

The visitor replied, “Do you mean, the laws of gravity would not apply to me?”
“Yes, that’s right” said the little man, eagerly. “You would be the Exception.”
The visitor considered the ugly little man for a moment. Then a smile crept over his face.

“Little man, did you think I came into this world to escape gravity? Did you think I came so that I might be rescued from this earth?” The strangest, most intense expression came over his face – Mrs. Sanders couldn’t tell if he was about to laugh or cry. He bent down; for the longest time nobody spoke, but she could feel it: something indescribable was happening.

Finally the visitor let out a long sigh; he picked up a stone he stood, then tossed the stone. All of them watched the elegant arc of its fall. Mrs. Sanders remembered a geometry class, when the teacher effortlessly drew a perfect curve across the chalkboard.

“Look, what beauty,” he said. “You don’t get the beauty without it falling.”

In the ICU, Christine lay beneath a tangle of tubes and cords.

She was motionless, but for the steady rise and fall of her chest. The ventilator and its tape covered most of her face.

The priest had been there earlier. He had whispered prayers into her ear, and sung some psalms, and anointed her with some oil. She had fallen asleep in the middle of it all, a psalm dancing around inside her.

When she woke, the priest was gone. She didn’t know how much time had passed. It felt like night.

She closed her eyes, and the psalm came back to her. She saw herself, with long dark hair and a white dress, dancing, swirling, laughing and singing in a strange language.

Before she opened her eyes, she felt the visitor come into the room. She did not show any fear.

She recognized him by his perfect teeth. She had always imagined he would have teeth like this, straight and gleaming white.

His breath was close. It smelled like honey.

You know who I am, he said.

She nodded.

You know what time it is, he said.

She shut her eyes, looking for the dancing woman... and instead, found herself in a desert; all around was a vast wasteland of rock and sun. She was sitting under a canopy of palm branches. It was perfectly quiet. She felt very still, as if she had been meditating.

He was there.

He was wearing something loose-fitting, made out of linen. His hair was dark and shiny, and not all that long. He smiled at her.

George Clooney would envy those teeth, she thought.

I gave him those teeth, he said.

She laughed.

And then she was gone.

At the cemetery, with the sun pouring down, Christine’s remains were lowered into the ground. Mrs. Sanders waited while the people walked away. She stood alone at the edge of the grave for a while. Then she tossed her rose into the dark earth. She watched the curve of its arc as it fell, and gave thanks.