Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Given, to the Glory of God...

It feels like I’ve been away for awhile. I would like to take this opportunity to put to rest any rumors you might have heard that I was taken away by men in white coats after the Christmas Eve service. There is no truth to that rumor. But I did go into hiding after Christmas - to finish my doctoral thesis, which I’m happy to report was accomplished – and then I took a few days of vacation to catch my breath and prepare for the New Year.

As some of you know, I rather needed the break. During the Christmas services, a couple members of our congregation expressed concern for me – one said, “I recognize the signs of depression in you.” I was a little bit surprised by this – because actually, I really haven’t been feeling all that depressed. It’s a little more complicated than that, actually - and also not very complicated at all.

The not-complicated part simply has to do with the stress of finishing my doctoral thesis. It’s not easy doing that while also working full time through Advent and Christmas. So if I seemed a little distant or pre-occupied during that time, that’s a big reason.

But the more complicated part, coincidentally, has to do with some of the themes we’re dealing with this morning, as we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, and dedicate our new stained glass windows to the glory of God and in memory of Don McIntyre and Diane Williams.

I know this is going to sound kind of strange, but in a way I’ve been kind of envying those stained glass windows.

Let me explain.

There was a preacher once who was giving a children’s homily and he asked the kids if they knew what a saint was, and a little girl raised her hand and pointed at a stained-glass window and said, “The saints are the ones that the light shines through.”

Which is just about the best definition of a saint I’ve heard.

People who have had religious or mystical epiphanies often describe their experience in terms of light, a superabundant light that illumines everything, including their own minds and hearts and souls. People who meet them during these times say that they seem to be lit from within.

They say this is what it’s like to experience the glory of God - the Greek word for “glory” that’s found in the Scriptures – “doxa” – means (among other things) the brightness of God, shining like the sun – the angels are said to manifest God’s glory in the magnificent, uncreated light they give off.

Some of us have had a taste of this glory when we’ve dedicated ourselves to God. Just like when we dedicate a stained glass window, we say that the window is “dedicated, to the glory of God, in memory of so-and-so.”

During the season of Advent and Christmas, with all the talk about the light coming into the world and lighting of the candles and the following of the star, and then with the new year and the dedication of Jesus and all the to-do about New Years’ Resolutions, I was feeling like that was what was missing in me; I needed to find a new way of dedicating myself to the glory of God – and I wasn’t sure how that would happen.

In today’s Gospel Jesus dedicates himself to the glory of God by submitting to baptism. Everyone is mystified by this: Why would Jesus need to be baptized? John the Baptist tries to talk him out of it. But Jesus knows what he has to do. Maybe he was feeling a little bit like me, I don’t know.

But he kneels down in the river; he bows his head; he lifts his heart and opens himself up… and in response, the heavens open up; and they are flooded with the uncreated light of God’s glory - and a voice is heard: This is my son, the beloved; with whom I am well pleased.

This is why I was kind-of been envying those windows. I wanted to be like that image of Jesus back there in the “artichoke window” – I wanted to feel God’s light shining through me. I wanted to be “Given, to the Glory of God…”
…but the more I craved that light and that Glory, the more aware I became of the shadow side of all this brilliance.

A few weeks ago we had a lunar eclipse on the same night as the Winter Solstice; a very rare event, apparently; so Rose and I stayed up and watched the shadow of our earth, with all our busyness and striving and consuming, overwhelm that round full moon; until the moon turned into a red ball, like a hot coal, covered in a layer of ash, glowing in the darkness.

It took about an hour for the moon to be completely covered; Rose had to get up early the next morning so she went to bed and I stayed up for another hour or so, staring at that moon, meditating on light and shadow. It was kind of confusing, spiritually, in the midst of all our bright Christmas celebrations, in the middle of my own existential yearning for light and for Glory - to shift my focus a little bit - to pay a little attention to shadow… but it felt that God was encouraging me to let go of all my striving after light for a little bit…

This was not easy for me.

Maybe I’m not the only one who feels the presence of that shadow side a little more keenly than we’d like; and the more it seems to overwhelm us, the more urgently we run the other way.

So I just stopped running. And I found myself in a pretty dark place. And I was there for a while.

And then, one day, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to talk about it. And so I did – to my best friend; to my men’s group; and then, finally, when she got home after being away for a week, with my wife. For a couple hours I poured it all out for her – my grief, my anger, my sorrow, my doubt – and she just listened, and listened…

That’s when I realized it’s one thing to be wallowing in your own darkness; it’s another thing entirely to take someone’s hand, and step into that territory together. It’s as if the friend brings a light with her; just having someone with you makes a huge difference.

And when we were done, I felt like we had gone into the heart of my darkness together; and it felt like, in the middle of all that muck and shadow, a door opened just a crack; and the light came streaming in.

The words from John's Gospel come to mind: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overwhelm it."

Since then, some amazing things have been happening – too many things to talk about today – but amazing moments when the Spirit broke into my life in fresh ways; when the heavens opened up and a dove, so to speak, descended.

Since that time, I’ve been doing the work of dedicating myself, all over again, to the glory of God. As I think about and plan for the coming year of ministry and service, I feel a fresh energy to dedicate this year to God.

These moments of glory have reminded me, all over again, of some fundamental rules for the spiritual life:

1. We are not meant to do this work alone. Jesus could have baptized himself; but he went instead to John, and to his community. We all need spiritual companions, people who are not afraid of the dark; who can hold our hands and explore the depth of our lives together. The person doesn’t need to be a professional listener – they just need to listen. Sometimes we need to say, “I’ve got to talk to somebody – would you mind just listening for a little while?” or “Thanks, but I’m really not looking for advice right now. I just need to talk. Is that okay?”

2. Some of us, on the other hand, do need a professional listener, and when we do, we should get one. If you ever feel like you could use one, and you don’t know where to start, consider making a call to your friendly neighborhood priest.

3. The more we run away from our shadow, the more quickly it will overwhelm us.

4. Artificial light – man made light – is no substitute for the light of God; all the urgent , all busyness, all our striving, doesn’t begin to penetrate the shroud.

5. There are no shortcuts.

6. Finally, some things about God. God is playful, and joyful, and fun. God is surprising; God doesn’t give up on us. And the more we dedicate ourselves to God, the more light will shine through us.

This is a time of dedication; as we affirm our Baptismal vows, let’s take a moment to rededicate ourselves to Christ; that we might be given, to the Glory of God.

Somebody say... AMEN.

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