Grace Episcopal Church has suspended all in-person campus events, activities, and worship services until further notice. Please visit our Grace@Home page to see ways we are staying connected to one another, to Grace, and to God during the days ahead.
422 Brenau Avenue, Gainesville, GA 30501
When we were looking for a new house early last year, we worked with a realtor and gave him a random mixture of qualities and items that we were looking for. I wanted a fireplace, Lisa wanted it not to have many repair issues, we knew we were getting cats, and Evelyn, I think, just wanted her own space.
When we went to visit the house we eventually bought, I remember walking in and noticing there was an incredible niche built in the dining room wall. I knew my three-foot tall Buddha statue would fit perfectly there. When we walked in the living room, I saw an incredible fireplace, and I knew I would fit perfectly there. The windows were incredible, and there was a great patio. I thought to myself, “this house has good bones.”
I hear that phrase all the times when folks are looking at homes: good bones. They are key in making sure all the other parts and pieces of the house fit well and function appropriately. Good bones are essential in a house, and they should not be overlooked.
Good bones are also essential in a spiritual community, and this has been the image that swirled in my heart this year as I sat with this pivotal text from John 14. To me, this text lays out the essential framework for a Christian community, on which every other aspect of its life finds its proper place. Good bones should not be overlooked.
So what are the bones of a Christian community? Simply put, an awareness of our union with God and one another in Christ. In this deep knowledge of union, of our interconnection with one another, every other aspect of our lives as a community takes root and bears fruit. This deep knowledge is the soil in which our lives are grounded. It is essential.
The image from John 14 is beautiful and powerful:
In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.
In this day and age, it is to miss how important this image is, because we live in a particular culture that emphasizes separation, that reinforces an illusion of being strict individuals, set over and against each other. This illusion fosters a hyper-competitive mentality with a sense of scarcity. We pit ourselves–or are pitted–against our neighbor in a zero-sum race for more power and control. The best illustration of this might be the juxtaposition of observing the Advent Season of waiting and watching for Christ to come into our lives while watching folks literally run each other down with shopping carts at a midnight Christmas sale fighting over the latest Betsy Wetsy doll. You remember those.
There are only so many Betsy Wetsy dolls, yet Christ’s Presence flows into each and every heart. One image reinforces competition for a perceived need, while the other image–the true reality of our existence–nurtures a sense of the divine indwelling in each and every person, indeed in all creation. Scarcity and abundance laid bare to see. What is the narrative we will live out of, to put it that way?
On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.
Jesus says that this deeper realization will be given to us, and he challenges us, through his own life, to put ourselves in a position that makes us more amenable, open, to receiving it. In other words, to cultivate a practice of prayer that will nurture our hearts to be open to this awareness of union, the good bones on which all else in our lives is arranged. For those who look to Jesus as Lord, practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice nurtures transformation.
The deep teaching of Christianity, as a practice of faith, shows us that we are in union with God and one another. Like St. Catherine of Siena said in the 14th century, “the soul is in God and God is in the soul, like the fish is in the sea and the sea is in the fish.” How could you even think to separate the two?
Now of course, we take the next step, don’t we? If God cannot be separated from us, from any of us, and we all share that basis of our existence, then how can we possibly understand ourselves as separate from each other? How could you even think to separate any of us? That, friends, is the bare bones truth of what the Christian contemplative tradition teaches us, and it changes everything about how we see the world.
But we struggle to live into this awareness, don’t we, because we are surrounded by alternative narratives that serve other purposes. This is why Jesus spoke so much about economics and political and social concerns, because he knew the tensions so well that people faced in community and our sinful tendency to look out only for our own self-interest. I want this. I want that. Give me this. Give me that. As Christians, we are called to ask ourselves if we dare measure our sense of our rights against our responsibility to our neighbor, to the most vulnerable?
I love the way that Thomas Merton speaks about this:
One of the paradoxes of the mystical life is this: that a person cannot enter into the deepest center of himself and pass through that center into God, unless he is able to pass entirely out of himself and empty himself and give himself to other people in the purity of a selfless love.
And so one of the worst illusions in the life of contemplation would be to try to find God by barricading yourself inside your own soul, shutting out all external reality by sheer concentration and will-power, cutting yourself off from the world and other people by stuffing yourself inside your own mind and closing the door like a turtle. (New Seeds of Contemplation, 64).
At this point, you may be wondering what in the world this reflection has to do with anything we are experiencing now in this time of pandemic physical distancing. I know some say all this talk about contemplation and what-not doesn’t have a lot of bearing on “real life” issues. I couldn’t disagree more. This awareness is the “good bones” that we must continue grounding ourselves in as a community. This call to an awareness of our union with God and one another has everything to do with where we find ourselves now. In a sense, our Sunday school theory lessons are over and we find ourselves all called to live it now, to do it.
Look at where we find ourselves today. I am here in the chapel alone some 66 days after closing the campus after Children of Grace dismissed Friday, March 13. I am here this morning. Will is up there in the loft, quite socially distanced from where I am. I am here alone, without Cynthia or Mary, Edgar, our vergers. Alone. My family is at home sharing in the service from our house. I can’t bring myself to put on vestments, but I can try to be present here for those who may find this reassuring, that something is moving in the direction of healing. Many may find this comforting, while others may find their sense of grief heightened that you are not able to be here. I know mine is.
In days like this, sitting here, I ask myself, “Am I alone?” We are physically distanced from one another, but the truth of this Gospel text is that we never stopped being in union with one another–and that reality is the key not only for these days but for the basis of our existence.
This text lends itself to a remarkable reflection, doesn’t it? I am here, you are there. We are not together, but we have never been separate from one another–nor will we ever be. I can look out at where so many of you always sit. A part of me wants to say that, when I look around here and peek in the nave it is almost like I can see you sitting there, but that is not true. I don’t see you sitting there. I see you at home. I see you as safe as we can be. I see you where you are, and you see me where I am, and we feel all sorts of emotions with this. And, in all this, we have never been separate from one another, because all is held in God’s loving embrace.
This is why I am frustrated with some of the language folks are using during these days. Certain things are “in-person” while other things are “virtual.” I wonder if this is helpful, or if it honestly compounds the grief when we are powerless to change the fact that we cannot be physically present with one another. I want to move beyond being present “in-person” and being present “virtually” and wonder if we can reflect as a community on what it looks like, feels like to be present “heartfully.” Lovingly. Compassionately. Attentively. Honestly. With awareness.
I have shared so many conversations with clergy colleagues and friends from around the world these past two months, and Cynthia’s description of what we are all experiencing–every person in a church–is true. The question sounds like this, “What does it mean that for so long so many have been physically present yet spiritually distant, while now we are all at least catching glimpses of–if not being drenched in–an experience of being physically distant yet spiritually present?” I want us all to reflect on that question, because it gets at the heart of what we are called to share in our union with one another in Christ. And, if I can be so blunt, these deeper, spiritual questions are essential for us as we look at the next few months, at least, with some remaining physically distant for their own well-being.
This is the truth of what Jesus meant when he said “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me.” On Thursday’s observance of the Feast of the Ascension, Jesus physically leaves the disciples, in terms of his physical body, but he doesn’t leave them. The Spirit descends at Pentecost and Christ’s presence infuses their very beings, and the church as the gathered community comes to life through this awareness of union with God and each other. They can understand each other, the Pentecost text describes. That’s worth meditating on.
These next few weeks–or months, since we are powerless to control the timeline of health and wholeness–are going to ask a great deal of us in terms of how we can nurture our awareness of union with one another in God’s embrace. How can we cultivate a sense of Christ’s Presence in our lives, even as we struggle with grief, with the unfamiliar, with the longing for what we once knew and experienced? What will we do with our frustration, our disappointment, our anger, even?
We cannot go back, and we shouldn’t go back, because something has come alive within us, my friends! This deeper awareness of our union has taken root, and we are discovering the good bones that always existed as the foundation of this community and every Christian community. We don’t go back; we go better. We go forward, honest about what we feel yet–or and–making sure that even that honest grief is grounded in its proper place. Our selfish desires are laid bare for what they are: simple self-centered ambitions to “get what I want.” Frustrations are not squelched, yet they are reoriented, letting the energy of that deep yearning that we experience feed the fire in our hearts so that we come alive even more.
And when that happens, when those flames are stoked and burning bright in our souls, as Jesus said to those gathered there:
On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. May it be so, and may God bless you all.
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 17, 2020