Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young
“Come Holy Spirit. Heal and deepen and strengthen our hearts. Amen.”
This week my friend Taylor asked a difficult question. He’s about thirty and works in technology. Religion simply does not make sense for most people around him. Taylor has undertaken a tremendous challenge. He is reading 177 great books from Socrates to Heidegger. He said, “My faith is so new and fragile. It has completely transformed my life but I worry that something I read or learn might undo it.”1
Today we will consider this question in light of two of the most powerful religious experiences in recorded history. Some of you know that in one month I lost two of the most important spiritual friends and teachers of my life: my college chaplain Peter Haynes and our former dean Alan Jones. During one of the busiest weeks of December I went back to Orange County for Peter’s funeral. Our old church, St. Michael and All Angel’s in Corona del Mar, had hardly changed.
Since I arrived a few hours early I went walking around the U.C. Irvine campus. Winter holidays meant that I probably saw only three people. On that glorious day the sycamore trees were shining. Suddenly I found myself outside my old office and it all came rushing back to me.
My wife Heidi and I were barely acquainted when she met me at that reception desk for the first time. When she hugged me I had this overwhelming feeling that we were connected. Words really fail me here but it seemed like a part of her spirit came into my heart at that moment. I felt like someone who had been in the dark coming suddenly into bright light. No one else noticed. Heidi did not at all feel the same way. But thirty years later that place brought the moment back as if it had only happened an hour ago.
My point is that moments of transcendence come and go. Not even everyone who is present shares the same feeling about what is happening or even notices that something special has occurred. We want to hold onto it but life always sweeps us forward.2
1. Text. In the Second Book of Kings the prophet Elijah puts his mantle, his cloak on his student Elisha. Later, “the Lord [is] about to take Elijah up to heaven” (2 Kings 2). As he
walks along with Elisha, Elijah keeps repeating, “Stay here, for the Lord has sent me to…” and refers to each of several places (Bethel, Jericho, the Jordan). Elisha says, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” Elisha goes to the end.
As God takes Elijah into heaven, Elisha cries out “Father, Father… when he [can] no longer see him, he [grasps] his own clothes and [tears] them to pieces.” Elisha loved his teacher so deeply. Maybe he also worried about becoming the teacher himself, about being alone without his mentor. Last week Cricket gave me Alan’s clothes, his cloaks. I have been wearing them and I have been wondering the same thing myself. We are always being challenged to grow in spiritual maturity even when we resist.
The second text comes from the exact midpoint of Mark’s Gospel. The first eight chapters are the ascent as Jesus offers healing and liberation to everyone he encounters. The last half follow him as his enemies gather strength and ultimately kill him. Just before this fulcrum however Jesus introduces the most difficult teaching of all. The greatest one does not amass earthly power or earn a kind of exemption from suffering. The Holy One and we who follow go into the darkness in order to serve.
In the dreamlike story of the transfiguration Jesus wears brilliantly shining clothes as he speaks to two prophets (who are also murderers). Some people see a connection to Jesus’ baptism and also to his death on a cross next to two criminals. For me what matters most is the mystical revelation that Jesus is God’s child. Seeing ourselves and other people as children of God is the most important spiritual realization of all.
2. Doctrine. For me, this is the central truth of faith. Let me talk about two other ideas related to this. This first part is a little hard to understand. The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes about what it means to experience the resurrected Jesus. He writes, “The apostles witnessed… Jesus… in a real encounter, themselves on one side, alive but moving forward to death, and He on the other, alive from the dead, alive no more to die, alive eternally even now in time… He made known to them this side of His (and their) death wholly in light of the other side, and therefore that He made known to them the other side, His (and their) life beyond, wholly in terms of this side.”3
The purpose of these stories is for us to see the reality of our life from the perspective of eternity and to see our home in eternity from the perspective of this life. This is another way of talking about being children of God. When we realize that we are children of God, that we are intimately connected to eternity, we experience what Alan Jones used to describe as “living from the heart.”
Alan used to quote Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), a great Muslim mystic, who wrote, “the greatest sin is what brings about the death of the heart. It dies only by not knowing God. For the heart is the house that God has chosen for himself, but such a person has taken over the house, coming between it and its owner.” Alan goes on saying when we are separate from our heart we wrong ourselves. “[S]o many of us are experts at self-sabotage because we are not in touch with the heart.”4
3. Application. So how do we realize ourselves and others as children of God? How do we grow in consciousness of eternity? How do we live from the heart? Let me close with two examples. In his memoir Laurens van der Post (1906-1996) writes about two brothers who grew up in South Africa. They were six years apart in age. The older one was handsome, athletic, reliable, intelligent and a kind of natural leader. The younger one was also very capable but suffered from a terribly bent spine. He also had an incredible singing voice.5
Eventually the younger brother came to the boarding school where the older one was an admired leader. There were some embarrassing moments. One time a group of boys ganged up against the younger brother. Jeering at him they ripped off his shirt to expose his back. The older brother could hear this happening and did not go to rescue his younger brother. He could have intervened but he did nothing. And the younger brother was never the same again. He went back home to the farm and lived as a kind of recluse. And sadly, he never, never sang again.
Later the older brother was stationed in Palestine during World War II. Looking up at the night sky he woke up to what he had done. He knew he had to acknowledge what had happened and ask for forgiveness. He made the difficult wartime journey home. The two brothers talked long into the night with the older brother apologizing. They cried and embraced and the breach between them was healed.
After they both had gone to bed, deep in the night, the older brother was awakened by the sound of his brother singing – beautifully. That is what forgiving does. It enables us to find a voice for singing. Grace Cathedral is a place where we sing together. It is a place where we try to live from the heart.
From the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit, let me share a conversation between an older toy and a younger one. “What is REAL?” asked Rabbit when they were lying side by side…, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?” “Real isn’t how you are made,” said Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you…””
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes,” said Skin Horse… he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt… It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand… once you become Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”6
If one could say what God is, that would not be God. God is not an idea or an argument, God is revealed to us in moments of transcendence. God is the meaning, the holiness that transfigures us when we are in touch with our hearts and the world.
Yesterday Taylor had more to say about how a Christian should respond to atheists. He writes, “I used to be so interested in “apologetics” – in finding the perfect, irrefutable response to any line of attack on my faith… but I think I’m coming to realize that the correct response to a staunch atheist is to show through my life what God has done for me, and to love them and see God even in their critique itself.”7
Encountering God is like falling in love with someone you do not yet know. It is being reconciled to your long lost brother. It is living from the heart and becoming real forever. May the fiery chariots of heaven, and the pure brightness of the prophets always guide you closer to our true home in God. Come Holy Spirit. Heal and deepen and strengthen our hearts. Amen.
1 He reads about atheists who argue that our religious impulses amount to no more than the misfiring of neurons in our brains. Conversation on Thursday 8 November 2024.
2 Today’s sermon follows the same structure that the old puritans used. We will start with the texts, then a doctrine that arises from them and then applications to consider what they might mean.
3 Karl Barth, “The Doctrine of Reconciliation,” Church Dogmatics Volume IV, tr. G.W. Bromiley (New York: T&T Clark, 2004) 352-3.
4 “And we are called to be a community of the heart first by affirming that God, Christ, the word is present in every human heart. And second, that God’s presence in every human heart is confirmed and strengthened and celebrated in our two great sacraments of baptism. And the Eucharist and the religion of the heart is simple and universal. And without heart we are nothing. A great Muslim mystic Ibi said, the greatest sin is what brings about the death of the heart. It dies only by not knowing God. For the heart is the house that God has chosen for himself, but such a person has taken over the house, coming between it and its owner.”
“A person like that is one who most wrongs himself. A person like that is the one who most wrongs himself. And it’s true that so many of us are experts at self-sabotage because we’re not in touch with the heart. And as a community of the heart, we know we have to learn to forgive each other and forgive ourselves. Just listen to the readings. For today, communities like ours tend to miss the point and betray their vision. And yet, and yet God still loves us and comes looking for us, there’s always room.” Alan Jones, “Living from the Heart,” Grace Cathedral Sermon transcript, September 2004.
5 “I read last week a memoir of Laurens van der Post who tells a story from South Africa. It’s a story about two brothers. The elder was handsome and athletic and bright and capable and out there and a natural leader. The younger by some six years was not very capable and was also deformed. He was a hunchback, said Laurens van der Post. But he did have a magnificent singing voice. When the younger brother, when the younger brother joined his elder at boarding school where the older brother was an admired leader, there were some embarrassing moments, particularly there was a cruel incident when a group of boys ganged up on the younger brother jeered at him, tore off his shirt to reveal his back and his brother, the older brother could hear this happening and he didn’t go and rescue his younger brother, he did nothing. He could have intervened and acknowledge his brother, but he decided to stay where he was.
He betrayed his brother and the younger brother was never the same again. He went home to the farm and became reclusive. And the sad thing is that he never, never sang again. Later, the older brother as a soldier in World War II was stationed in Palestine one night looking at the the night sky. He woke up to the fact of what he’d done. He knew he would never have peace in his heart until he went home and asked his brothers forgiveness. And amazing as it seems, he was able to make the incredibly difficult wartime journey from Palestine to South Africa. And he met his brother. The brothers talked long into the night, the elder brother confessing his guilt and remorse, they both cried, embraced, and the breach between them was healed. Later when they had both gone to bed, the older brother was woken up by the sound of singing.
It was his brother singing beautifully and in full voice. I think that’s what forgiving does. It enables others to find a voice for singing. And we are a community where every voice needs to be heard and sing out. Oh my God, it’s wonderful where a community active for justice because a community of the heart has to be. Robert Coles, the psychiatrist tells of a young man from Birmingham, Alabama speaking in 1965. He said, I don’t know why I put myself on the line. I don’t know why I said no to segregation. I’m just another white southerner. And I wasn’t brought up to love integration, but I was brought up to love Jesus Christ. And when I saw the police of this city use dogs on people, I asked myself what Jesus Christ would’ve thought and what he would’ve done. And that’s all I know about how I came to be here on the firing line.” Ibid.
6 Margery Williams Bianco, The Velveteen Rabbit, Illustrated by Monique Felix (Mankato, MN: Creative Editions, 1994) 10-11.
7 From Taylor: “I will leave you with a section of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, which I finished today. I thought of you and that you might agree with his words as much as I did.”
“I was only then
Contented when with bliss ineffable
I felt the sentiment of being, spread
O’er all that moves, and all that seemeth still;
O’er all that, lost beyond the reach of thought
And human knowledge, to the human eye
Invisible, yet liveth to the heart;
O’er all that leaps, and runs, and shouts, and sings,
Or beats the gladsome air; o’er all that glides
Beneath the wave, yea, in the wave itself
And mighty depth of waters. Wonder not
If such my transports were, for in all things
I saw one life, and felt that it was joy;
One song they sang, and it was audible-
Most audible then when the fleshly ear,
O’ercome by grosser prelude of that strain,
Forgot its functions and slept undisturbed.
If this be error, and another faith
Find easier access to the pious mind,
Yet were I grossly destitute of all
Those human sentiments which make this earth
So dear, if I should fail with grateful voice
To speak of you, ye mountains and ye lakes
And sounding cataracts, ye mists and winds
That dwell among the hills where I was born.
If in my youth I have been pure in heart,
If, mingling with the world, I am content
With my own modest pleasures, and have lived
With God and nature communing, removed
From little enmities and low desires,
The gift is yours – if in these times of fear,
This melancholy waste of hopes o’erthrown,
If, mid indifference and apathy
And wicked exultation, when good men
On every side fall off, we know not how,
To selfishness (disguised in gentle names
Of peace and quiet and domestic love,
Yet mingled, not unwillingly, with sneers
On visionary minds), if in this time
Of dereliction and dismay I yet
Despair not of our nature, but retain
A more than Roman confidence, a faith
That fails not, in all sorrow my support,
The blessing of my life, the gift is yours,
Ye mountains, thine o nature! Thou hast fed
My lofty speculations, and in thee
For this uneasy heart of ours I find
A never-failing principle of joy
And purest passion.”