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The Summer after my first year of undergrad, I returned to my parents’ house and got a job working at the paper mill with my father. I rotated through the same shiftwork schedule my father had worked for three decades at that point. It was not always pleasant, but I recommend that everyone have the chance to actually work shiftwork. There is some type of soul work that occurs when one works “the graveyard shift.”
One night, after coming home around 11 pm from the evening shift, the local fire alarm woke us all up. My father, part of our town’s volunteer fire department, ran out of the house to answer the call. I went back to sleep but woke up a few hours later when my father returned home I think around 4 am, came in my room, and told me that my oldest childhood friend, Bryan’s, house had burned completely to the ground. They thought something had fallen on a supply of dry gunpowder that his father kept in a garage closet, and it had exploded. The fire spread quickly through the attic, and it didn’t take long for it to get out of control. Thank goodness, the family had all made it out safely.
I leapt out of bed, threw on clothes, and drove the five miles down the road I had driven countless times all through school. When I pulled onto the dirt driveway, the small grove of pecan trees within which their house had sat was bathed in an eerie, warm, red glow. Every wall of their house had collapsed into the flames. Nothing was left standing. All you could see was a pile of burning wreckage.
Bryan, his father, mother, and sister, were all sitting in lawn chairs under the trees on the other side of the driveway, watching the low flames finish consuming everything they owned. I walked over, gave them all a hug, cried a little, sat down, and silently joined the vigil as we watched the fire burn. Bryan told me later how surreal the experience was to sit and watch his house collapse in on itself, feeling utterly powerless.
We have all had moments in our lives when our walls have come crashing down–whether literally or figuratively. Moments when reality as we knew it shattered and crumbled into a smoldering heap, leaving us in tears with only our questions that we fear may never be answered.
All will be thrown down today’s Gospel invites us to imagine. The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another.
Perhaps you feel this is an odd Gospel to explore, about walls crumbling down, when the world around us already seems preoccupied with decking the halls with boughs of holly. Fa-la-la-la-la. La-la-la-la.
But here we go, once again experiencing the brilliance of our lectionary cycle as our spiritual sight focuses on the particular dynamic of the reign of Christ, just what it might look like to delve into the depths of the transformative reality of following Jesus Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords.
All will be thrown down. Not one stone will be left upon another. If Jesus is so intent on building a kingdom, why are we called to reflect on buildings falling down? Welcome to the deeper waters of discipleship and an honest reflection on just what we are “hoping to build” as it were.
We humans are peculiar creatures, so driven by our pursuit to accomplish, to succeed. It helps enormously to keep in mind Thomas Keating’s description of how we so easily cling on these three emotional programs for happiness: our propensity to overly-fixate on security and survival, affection and esteem, and power and control. Part of our humanness lends itself to grasping, to trying to control, to holding onto power come what may.
So when we arrive at this time of year–every year in our liturgical cycle–we are challenged to examine our lives through the lens of Christ’s own reign. And we are not left comforted. And that is a grace from God.
Notice that, even when Jesus described this in-breaking reality to those gathered that day, with the image of not one stone will be left upon another, what was their first reaction? Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?
Give us a heads up so we can prepare, to make sure we have our feet underneath us. Safety and security, affection and esteem, power and control. Tell me when I need to mark the apocalyptic upheaval in my calendar, so I won’t be caught off guard.
We humans are peculiar creatures. Of course we don’t like to have our walls crumble down around us. This urge to protect is so deep we put it into nursery rhymes: Little pig, little pig, little pig, let me in. And I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down.
It’s in the Bible. And not one stone will be left upon another.
We become quickly reactive to the tumult of our lives, seeking to grasp and hold on, protect and defend. Here’s what I’m curious about: when it comes to our spiritual practice, the transformation of our hearts–which is the core of the Gospel’s call on our lives–this pattern of protection and grasping thwarts our growth, our expansion into Christ’s consciousness.
Put another way, before we immediately become externally reactive and set up our typical defenses against threats, what we we were interiorly proactive and curious about breaking down inner walls that constrict our spiritual hearts? Here’s a pivot.
What walls have we constructed in our souls that have closed us off from a deeper awareness of God’s indwelling presence in our lives–and in the lives of every person we meet and all of creation?
What soul work are we called to do that would nurture a deeper trust in the guidance of the Spirit–rather than continue in our scripts of grasping and power-games? How could the deconstruction of such fortifications be–in reality–a grace of God that actually allows us to relax into the wideness of God’s mercy?
Our world, our nation, and its fixation on this tribalistic membership mentality–I’m going to fight for my “team” and I’m going to go or relent or admit kicking and screaming–this posture doesn’t lend itself well to the soul work we are called to explore as people who claim they follow Jesus as Lord.
Jesus didn’t go anywhere kicking and screaming, and he seemed absolutely determined to break open every rigid social and political structure he got within sight of.
Perhaps this gets close to the heart of our spiritual practice at this moment of such anxiety and power-grabbing: If we really believe Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords, and if we are committed to following him as disciples, how are we actually called to do this deeper soul-work, this heart-transforming work, that yields to the Spirit’s movement?
I’m reminded of that moment in World War II, during the blitz, when Buckingham Palace was bombed. As Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, walked through the rubble, looking at the wreckage around her, she famously said, “Well, at least now I can look the East End in the face.”
There you go. In terms of your soul work, what do you need to look in the face? What do we need to look at in the face? What walls do you need to come down in order that you can actually breathe again? How do you need to relax your grasping–in order to realize more fully that God has grasped you. That’s grace.
Our impulse seems always to build walls, to try to capture, control, to build cages. Out of fear, if we’re honest. But how often are we really honest about that?
I’ll close with this poem by Hafiz, that brilliant 14th century Persian poet. It connects with our reflection, I think.
As the images wash over you, I invite you to consider: where are you in this poem? Who are you in this poem? How does your heart, your soul, sing?
The small man
Builds cages for everyone
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
November 17, 2019