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Almost twenty years ago, while in undergrad, I had the opportunity to travel to Belize with a group of Chemistry and Biology majors to study the tropical reefs off the coast of Ambergris Caye. It was an incredible experience, to swim with sharks and turtles and eat conch fritters on the back of a boat all day while we learned about the fragile nature of the reefs.
While there, we also took advantage of an opportunity to travel inland to the jungle on the border with Guatemala. On one of our day trips, our advisor told us we were going to explore a cave, and we all thought this sounded great. I had been to a few caves in Northern Arkansas, and I loved the experience.
We arrived at the entrance to the cave and I saw the paved path with a handrail that stretched into the cool darkness. All of us piled out of the van, me in swim trunks, a t-shirt, and flip flops. Since it had a path, I thought, this was going to be wonderful–and cooler than the weather outside. The guide handed us helmets with lights, and I didn’t think much of it. We all talked nonstop as we laughed and began walking.
We followed our guide, and I noticed after about fifty yards or so that the paved path ended. We were now on wet dirt. Soon the hand rail ended, while we kept going deeper still. I remember the sound of us all growing quieter and quieter.
Some four hours later, I think, we emerged on the other side of the cave after literally crawling through mud, sloshing through water, helping pull each other over enormous boulders, balancing on top of piles of rubble and falling repeatedly to scrape our knees and legs and hands. Some lights had gone out and we had to lead each other by our voices and holding hands. Some folks just cried wondering how long it would take for us to get through to the other side. Whatever we had thought the experience was going to be like, those four hours were nothing like what we expected.
When I stepped out of the mouth of the cave, I was drenched, scraped, covered in mud, and bruised. Both my flip flops were broken, and I could only shuffle my feet on the remnants to keep from being completely barefoot.
I thought back to the feeling in my gut when my hand had touched the last part of the rail before it ended and I stepped deeper into the cave. Something told me this was not going to be what I expected.
When we all had made it through the cave, I was shocked when our guide told us we had to walk a mile, I think, through the jungle to get back to the van. I looked at my feet and the unpaved jungle path in front of me, and I walked some of the way barefoot and some of the way shuffling on my destroyed, flimsy shoes. When we made it to the van, I remember being absolutely silent on the ride back to the compound.
Over the past two weeks that I took to read, write, rest, and do some much needed inner work, this memory came swirling in my heart, because this is what I have felt like during these days. This image speaks to me: thinking I had a good idea what to expect when I packed up my office on March 13 to “work from home for a while,” thinking we would be back in the nave first on May 24, then later, today, July 26. Today was the date our plan was supposed to launch with a gathering of forty people here. Those plans, while solid, are postponed indefinitely.
Over these days, weeks, and months, my soul has experienced the paved path ending. Then the handrail ending. Then the journey continuing, the experience of being drawn deeper and deeper into the cave of my own heart. Moments of crawling through mud. Times of holding each other up. Experiences of pulling one another over boulders and falling down piles of debris. Intense moments of tears with other times of laughter that comes out of this shift in perspective when we realize how so much in our well-planned lives has been absurd. Times when our lights have blinked out and we have had to share with those around us. Picking each other up off the rubble and tending the scrapes and bruises of our hearts.
Yes. This is what I have felt like. I am in this cave, traveling through. We are all here, aren’t we? Already we are bruised and scraped, our bodies and hearts, and our egos and their constant desire to control and grasp onto something for certainty. We are muddy and tired. My flimsy shoes broke a long time ago, and I find myself barefoot, with sensitive feet trying to find a safe pathway through the rubble. Something comfortable. Something familiar.
Make no mistake about it: we will emerge on the other side of this cave, but we are in it right now. We are in it. And caves are powerful metaphors, my friends. They are places of transformation: specifically, they are metaphors of the divine feminine, that symbolic dimension of God that encourages us to recognize the potential of suffering. Not to glamorize it or fetishize it, but to realize that transformation takes place through suffering, when the superficial aspects of ourselves are stripped away and we have the courage to face the deeper growing edges of our souls. When we are reborn. We experience new life. We are transformed.
In a powerful way, then, images and experiences like the cave can give our own understanding of baptism and our participation in Jesus’ suffering a greater depth than we might normally experience in our well-planned liturgies. Experiences of these pandemic days can do this too.
This is what came flowing into my heart during my time of reflection: this memory of being in the cave, of the struggle of walking through it, of the relief of emerging on the other side of it, and of recognizing that something in me had changed while I was in it.
Something in us is changing. Can you feel it? What have you noticed in your prayers these months? The grief is there, yes. The anger and frustration and confusion, that is all there. But underneath this, on an even deeper level, what have you noticed about your life? What has surprised you, at being stripped away? What lessons have you learned about yourself, both encouraging and painful? What wisdom has been given to you?
This is our focus this morning, is it not? Wisdom. Where is the wisdom in these days? In this morning’s text, Solomon has a powerful dream, in which God speaks to him: “Ask what I should give you.” What would you say? In that moment, what would come to your mind? Power? Wealth? Health? Control? Prestige? Fame? Awe-inspring athletic ability? (Or is that just me?) Solomon asks for wisdom, “an understanding mind, able to discern good from evil.” In that moment of request, God responds to him:
Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. (I Kings 3:11-12)
Solomon had no idea of the real pressures he would face in his position of responsibility, but something in him realized that he needed to be grounded in this divine wisdom in order to face whatever would come. He needed to assume a posture that enabled him to pivot, to move wisely as he responded to the challenges of his life.
Such divine wisdom encourages the eyes of our hearts to open to see a wider perspective in each moment of our lives. This is the truth that Jesus sought to teach, and his method of choice was the parable, a particular practice that lays alongside a familiar experience with a deeper spiritual significance. Because it is difficult to engage these deeper glimpses of divine wisdom head on. We need an analogy, a symbol, a metaphor, or a story. We need insight to see how the familiar experiences of our lives, in fact, are transfigured, and we encounter more of the fullness of God’s wisdom. We are given eyes to see a deeper truth in what has been in front of us all the time.
Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.
Mustard seeds, yeast, nets and fish, pearls, and treasure in fields all become vectors of mercy, heralds of the Kingdom of God. Caves do this too, as do these days we are experiencing, my friends. Can we take on a practice that lays the particular pressures of our lives alongside the promise of God’s love, so that our eyes are opened to behold even these moments saturated with God’s presence? Not that God is causing this (that is a shallow interpretation), but that God is present within and among us. Now. Always.
So, while we can be honest about our frustration and anger at those around us; our fear at feeling out of control; our utter disgust at the arrogance and narcissism we see in certain so-called leaders; our concern for our health and our families; our grief at the death of loved ones; our hope that a vaccine will be found soon and that a spirit of sanity will descend upon this world and drive the demons of stupidity back into the depths from which they came–have I left anything out? While we should be honest about what we feel, we are also invited to meditate on this question: what is the wisdom being given to me in this moment so that I can respond to the challenges I will face with faithfulness?
Because we are not through the cave yet. There is more for us to experience, I think. There is more wisdom to be gained through these moments that we are sharing. Our hearts are being opened more and more to receive deeper glimpses of God’s grace that desires a more complete transformation of our entire lives.
I can tell you that, at this point in my meditation, the wisdom I am receiving is telling me to remain low to the ground (figuratively and literally), to be still, to be quiet, to listen deeply, and to speak the truth as best as I can in a spirit of love. I am being called to pay attention to my body, to where tension arises, when my breath becomes shallow and my heart rate increases. When my anxiety rises, and my anger flares.
I am being invited to realize more and more, as we have said, that we cannot own another person’s work for them. We are all called to stand on our own two feet, as we stand alongside each other and encourage each other in our practice of faith. Sunday School is over, we can say, and it is now time to practice our faith. To get really real as a Christian community.
When it comes to feelings of being out of control, perhaps we are being called not to ask “What are you going to do about it,” but “who are you going to be within it?” To sit in this space, to recognize the importance of the transition we are experiencing at this moment. To pay attention to where the Spirit is inviting us to go deeper. To trust that God’s presence is within us, beckoning us to this space of growth.
We are called to practice wisdom, which just might be the key practice that can help us all continue supporting one another as we take the next steps in these days. May God give us the strength and the grace to make it so.
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 26, 2020