The Illusoriness of Reality

Like others I suspect, the reoccurring tension for me lies in my confusing what I can see with what really exists. I have two prayers that form the bedrock of my daily devotion that seem to help me with this.

The first is: Please God, show me what I have yet to be able to see. The field of my awareness takes shape from what I think I see in front of me. Yet, I know that what I see is actually the product of the interplay between an objective reality and my imagination that interprets what I see according to the available templates of my memory. I know this. Yet I live as if what I see and the way I perceive it is an accurate reflection of something objective, i.e. independent of my perception.

My second prayer comes from my adaptation of a line in the ancient Christian prayer known as the Salve Regina. This is a prayer of heartfelt intercession to Mary. It is a prayer I learned a long time ago and within my current spiritual practice it remains an artifact from the fervor of my Anglo-Catholic youth. It survives when many other aspects of this earlier spiritual phase have fallen away simply because one day I found myself unthinkingly changing the line that runs:

to you do we sigh, mouring and weeping passing through this vale of tears, to:         to you do we sigh, mouring and weeping passing through this veil of illusion. 

My adaptation reflects a shift in my spirituality away from a medieval notion of the plight of human suffering to a notion that suffering is a perception that is rooted in the tension between subjectivity and objectivity. Sometimes this tension reflects our imprisonment within the way memory confines imagination or put another way a reflection of being shackled by the familiar. However, this tension can also be a place of imaginative creativity when imagination breaks free an opens to new shifts in awareness.


There is a scholarly controversy over whether Ephesians is actually from the hand of Paul or from that of a later disciple writing in the style of Paul. The controversy over Ephesians is a modern concern and not one that would have made any sense to Paul, himself. Ephesians strikes a different tone with its focus on the qualities of an ordered spiritual life that indicates a less turbulent and more settled time than the one Paul lived through. Nevertheless in so many places it approaches the intensity of Paul’s vision. In the portion appointed for the epistle (Ephesians 3:14-21) on the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, the author, whether Paul or not, articulates a powerful Pauline vision:

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 

My heartfelt response to this passage is –if only. What I mean is, if only this expectation would resonate through my whole and undivided being. I long to expand my perception beyond the limitations placed by my need to stay within the security of what I already know. I so desire to comprehend beyond the limitations of what I think I see.  I long for this Pauline expectation to become my reality. I live in the tension between such a hope and my encapsulation within a small, limited, and overly self-referenced perspective; a perspective resulting from still being firmly on this side of the veil of illusion.


In John 6:1-21, the gospel appointed for Pentecost 9 we receive the miracles of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on the water. The feeding of the 5000 is one of those rare events recorded in all four Gospels.

John does not record many of the events that form the bedrock of the synoptic writers. Unlike Mark, Matthew and Luke, John is not writing a synopsis – general theological and chronological overview of Jesus life and ministry. John is constructing a theology of theophany i.e. God’s visible manifestation to humankind. He reconstructs the ministry of Jesus around seven signs, all of which focus attention on the nature of Jesus’ and God’s identity as intertwined. At the heart of John’s gospel lies his theology that in Jesus we see God; a God who reveals through signs or miracles.

Misapprehension, misunderstanding, rejection, are themes that run through John’s narrative of theophany because our ability to see reality is distorted by the veil of illusion constructed from our self-referenced and imaginatively encapsulated hopes and expectations. The crowds are firmly rooted on this side the of the veil of illusion, with Jesus on the other side. Interestingly, reality and illusion are often so close together, and can be likened to the opposite sides of the same coin.

The crowd is attracted to Jesus because of the signs he works, signs that make him a powerful target for the projections of their unrequited longing.  For the crowd, Jesus is Moses or Elijah come again. The prophet of old who will lead them from their current state of subjection into a new promised land. Ecstatic with expectation, they try to make Jesus a king – the Messiah who will deliver Israel from its bondage. These expectations are close to the truth but perceived from the illusory side of the coin.

On the other side of the coin, John tells the story of the feeding of the 5000 to create an echo between Jesus and Moses. In John’s version Jesus echoes God through Moses feeding the people with manna – limitless bread in the wilderness. After feeding the people John has Jesus go up onto a mountain beside the lake – a probable reference to the Golan Heights, but an echo of Moses ascending Mt Sinai to witness theophany.

It’s as if God’s self revelation is designed to actively trigger the people’s collective religious memory, creating an association between Jesus and Moses. God desires that the people see that in Jesus something radically new is coming to pass. Yet, then as well as now, humankind tends to limit itself to perceptions shaped by what it already knows. The need is for humankind to see something new. John sees in Jesus something new and he never seems to come to terms with the fact that most people around him don’t. Today, the danger is that we continue to construct God as a manifestation of our own self image – a kind of anthophany.

The feeding of the 5000 followed by the walking on the water are the fourth and fifth of John’s miracle signs. But, what is a miracle? Put most simply a miracle seems to be an event that on the face of it has no rational or logical explanation according to our expectations of how things work in the universe.

On one side we have the externalists, those who see miracles as events in time and space that are miraculous because they mysteriously and inexplicably suspend the Newtonian laws of physics. The miraculous becomes its own explanation. On the other side we have the internalists, those who believe the seemingly miraculous is a psychospiritual event – something occurring within the inner consciousness of individuals. Between these two positions is a profound theological disagreement. The externalists affirm miracles because God can do what God likes, that’s the function of being omnipotent. The internalists counter with, having set up the laws along which the universe seems to operate, God becomes confined by a self-imposed restriction to only operate as a good Newtonian.


For me, the question do miracles happen is the wrong question. Miracles are defined not by how they happen but by their consequences. Miracles change perceptions and the course of events. I am happy to be agnostic about whether they are external or internal events because I find this distinction to be an illusion. I have only my internal perception of any objective event in external reality.

I prefer to see miracles as those experiences that show us the more than what we are conditioned by memory-shaped imagination to expect. It’s not do they, or how do they, happen? It’s how is our sense of the possible reshaped by such events so that we make the imaginative leap into expecting more than we have dared to hope for?

The hypothesis that I have been at pains to articulate here is that the expectations of God’s KINGDOM are never limited to the possible or even to the probable. The expectations of the KINGDOM come to us in the form of a discovery that we are not limited by the boundaries of only what we can imagine.

The veil of illusion is permeable! Through courageous expectation and hope-filled action we are called to comprehend the breath and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge so that we may not only be filled with the fullness of God, but be those through whom God is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.

The Invitation of a Nightmare

Sermon for Pentecost 6 from Linda Griggs who is the Director for Christian Formation at St Martin’s, Providence.

Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.”

It’s like a train wreck, isn’t it? You just can’t look away. The story of the beheading of John the Baptist is a cultural rubbernecking phenomenon: composers, writers, choreographers, and visual artists have all interpreted it with varying degrees of lurid detail. Pastry chefs have even gotten in on the act: A fellow parishioner recently told me that she attended a presentation of the Strauss opera about this story, called Salome. When she arrived at the after party she was curious as to the contents of a cake box and couldn’t resist a peek. You are correct in imagining what was in the box. Another friend told me that this story is the first Bible story that actually frightened her. And I’m sure she’s not alone. This is the stuff of nightmares. And yet.

Nightmares have their place. A Jungian analyst once told me that, scary and heart-pounding as they are, nightmares can be invitations to transformation—in other words the collective unconscious is trying to wake you up to something new that you might be ignoring. So, rather than being frightened of a nightmare, you might want to see what it is trying to tell you.

So since we began by comparing today’s Gospel to a nightmare, let’s take it one step further and accept that it may also be an invitation—or even a challenge.

First, we need to remember that in Jungian dream work everyone in the dream represents an aspect of our own Self. It’s as though we are looking in mirror with more than one panel. That means that if your dream has someone in it that is saintly and perfect, that’s you. And that other person in the dream who is a real jerk? That’s you too. We all have our shadow.

So who are the characters in our nightmare/story? John the Baptist is a charismatic preacher who has been making waves all over Galilee, calling for repentance and amendment of life for everyone. He speaks truth, calling out wrong where he sees it, even into the highest and shiniest seats of Roman power and influence. John is arguably the focal point of story, yet he has been making way for another—one whose life, death and resurrection call people to a new Way of compassion, healing and reconciliation. Of all of our characters, John is the one we’d like to identify with, isn’t he? Courageous, eloquent, cousin to the Messiah…it’s easy to want to see him when we look in the mirror. Or is it? Are we ready to take the risks that John did? Maybe, before we jump into John’s sandals, we need to see who else looks back at us from the mirror.

Herod Antipas: the youngest son of Herod the Great; he had to struggle with his brothers to gain and maintain his position as ruler over Galilee and Perea. Further, his personal life is major tabloid fodder. He travelled to Rome to visit his half-brother Philip, and he met Philip’s wife, Herodias (who was also Herod’s niece). They fell in love. Herod divorced his wife, which did not go over well, and he and Herodias got married. So we can see that he was insecure politically and sketchy in his personal relationships, —and yet intrigued by the preaching of John. John struck a chord with Herod as he railed against him for an adulterous and incestuous marriage. Herod knew that John “was a righteous and holy man…When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. Can you just imagine Herod’s heart—wounded by political struggles, guilty about his infidelity and divorce, yet touched by God through John? Can you just imagine his heart being gently wedged open? Can you imagine him just beginning to nurture a flickering ember of repentance? Can you just imagine his personal failures just crushing that ember like a bug?

And we have Herodias. Unfaithful to her first husband. Probably insecure. And definitely angry. Imagine her fury with this popular upstart John the Baptizer who dares to speak such—truth. Truth that she will not admit to herself. Imagine her muttering to herself that John Must. Be. Stopped. Imagine her biding her time.

And the daughter. Scholars acknowledge that a transcription error in the text has named her for her mother, but tradition has named her Salome, so for simplicity’s sake that’s what we’ll call her too. Tradition has also portrayed her in a number of ways—as scheming, calculating, and even unstable. But look closely at today’s story. Salome is none of those things. She is a daughter. She is a step-daughter. She is a young woman in first-century Palestine. She is a dancer.

And when she enters the story, it begins to move. Up to this point I have imagined Herod sitting on his throne. John sitting in jail. Herodias sitting in the women’s quarters. But Salome dances. And does it so well that Herod’s guests are exceedingly pleased, and Herod decides to show off to his powerful and influential colleagues—to offer Salome some largesse to make himself look good—to give his pride a little birthday boost. So Salome completes her dance and, bidden to do so, breathlessly approaches her stepfather, who offers her anything she wants, even half of his kingdom. In response she zips to her mother, asking what shall I request. Herodias seizes the opportunity and tells her to request the head of John the Baptizer. Salome zips back to Herod: “‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptizer on a platter.’” Back and forth; Salome is synonymous with movement.

But strangely, while we see what she DOES, we don’t know how she FEELS. We are left to wonder about this young woman: Is she powerless? Arguably yes. She is a daughter. She is a young woman in first century Palestine. She doesn’t have a lot of power, even as daughter of a king. Her function is to Obey. She does what Mom says. She is powerless. Or is she? She dances. She moves between King and Queen. As long as she moves, the action of the story moves. As long as she moves, John the Baptist’s death creeps inexorably closer. Without Salome’s movement, Herodias’ revenge is incomplete. Without Salome’s movement, Herod still has a chance at repentance and transformation through a continued opportunity to listen to John.

Salome moves, and the tragedy unfolds. It can’t happen without her. Powerless? Yes, and no. She is also catalyst. She is agent. She is, unwittingly perhaps, in collusion as events unfold.

I wonder if we see parts of ourselves in this nightmare/tragedy. In the queen, furious at someone who bids her confront the truth of something she has done wrong? Do we see ourselves in the king, guilty and insecure, vulnerable to God’s grace and yet more vulnerable to his pride and political expediency? Or in the daughter, whose actions are both unwitting and yet crucially catalytic, acting as an agent for tragedy—even evil?

This is chilling. But if we are going to even think of looking in the mirror and seeing John the Baptizer the truth-teller, prophet and virtuous victim in this story we are going to have to admit that there are parts of us that are less than savory.

If we want to find the invitation to transformation in this nightmare—to find the Good News in this Gospel, we need to look in the mirror a little closer. Any of these characters can call to us—open a window on our faults and, yes, sins. Herod haunts me because of the missed opportunity—the heart almost broken open, and then hardened by pride. But the one that has most drawn me for the past few weeks is Salome herself.

As I have said, Salome is the catalyst. Without her, nothing happens. Yet she is in many ways just an extension of her parents and their own baggage. She is an ironic combination of power and powerlessness.

A couple of days after I found out that I would be preaching on this passage the horrific shootings in Charleston took place, with all of the events that have unfolded since then. This passage and these events became linked in the same way that you can remember where you were when something important happened. I couldn’t help but ponder the pain in the headlines somehow mapped upon the pain in this Gospel lesson. I felt invited by the Spirit to wonder if Salome has something to show us—like a nightmare bidding us to wake up to something we are uncomfortable seeing.

Does Salome somehow symbolize a dynamic in our society with regard to our painful and conflicted relationship with race? Are we, like Salome, an extension of the baggage of previous generations, seemingly powerless to respond to calls for difficult conversation, conversion and action for justice? Or are we actually powerful catalysts for perpetuation of the status quo?

If you haven’t seen the documentary, Traces of the Trade, I highly recommend it, but the first time I saw it, I was heartbroken by what I learned. It tells the hard truths of the wealthy DeWolf family’s close ties to the Triangle slave trade. They and their descendants were also prominent and influential in the Episcopal Church, including the founding and building of our own church. The Right Rev. James DeWolf Perry was 7th Bishop of Rhode Island and 18th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. The rich history of our denomination is interwoven with pain and a need for reconciliation. We need to consider the fact that our inability to see difficult truths may actually be an agent in perpetuating institutional racism today.

So as you can see, Salome haunts me. I wonder what we can do. I wonder where the Good News is in all of this. Have we, like Herod, missed our opportunity for grace? Are our hearts irretrievably hardened?

And then I remember. This story didn’t end with Salome’s final movements as she reached to take the platter from the soldier’s hands and turned to give it to her mother. There was one more action.

When the disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.” Where have we heard words like this before?

Friends, HERE is the Good News of this nightmare. This entire story points to resurrection and healing. Out of the nightmare of the tomb emerges the quiet echo of words of Jesus’ resurrection—a foreshadowing of Easter joy. It is a joy that prevails in spite of human frailty.

And today we see similar signs of resurrection hope in the face of tragedy. We see it in the wonderful photo of Bree Newsome who climbed a flagpole on the Statehouse grounds in Columbia, South Carolina and took down the Confederate battle flag. And the white woman, a descendent of Jefferson Davis, whose impassioned speech in the S.C. House terminated all last-minute efforts at delay and resulted in the permanent removal of the flag this past Friday afternoon. Now there are two women who are catalysts. We see it in St. Louis, Missouri– Christ Church Cathedral’s response to a spate of black church burnings with the interfaith Rebuild the Churches Fund. There is an agent of resurrection. We see it in our own diocese with the effort to establish a museum on the slave trade and center for reconciliation at the Cathedral of St. John. There is our own diocese, in collusion with Hope. And we see it in the wider church; the same church whose 17th Presiding Bishop was a descendent of slave traders, electing an African American as its 27th Presiding Bishop. Resurrection indeed.

But resurrection is not synonymous with rest. The nightmare is an invitation, but once we understand its call—its challenge, we need to pay attention. We cannot let our newfound understanding rob this story of its power to disturb us.

“When [Herod] heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”Amen.

The Chasm of the Unrequited

There is a deep chasm that lies between being sent and being received. Like the Grand Canyon, there is a huge contrast between the surface, which presents an unbridgeable span, and the base or floor, which is narrow and winding, across which a bridge can be made.images-5

The visual metaphor of the Grand Canyon offers an image for an emotional and spiritual chasm within us. We find in the readings for Pentecost VI the echoes of that experience, an experience of the particular vulnerability we name as the unrequited

The unrequited spans the experience between being sent and being received. For some of us, most of the time, and for all of us, some of the time, the fear of feeling unrequited prevents us from taking the risks we need to take in order to plumb the depth of the chasm. For further down, near the fecund floor there is a span that is narrow enough to bridge our fear of emotional vulnerability lying between being sent and being received.

Even God it seems has the experience of the unrequited. Time and again throughout the long history of a relationship with humanity, which for God appears to be a slow torture, the possibility of bridging the experience we name as unrequited is always held out as a possibility, a risk worth taking or in the memorable words of the divine Miss M: It’s the heart afraid of breaking, That never learns to dance.

God invites and yearns for our response. In addressing Ezekiel, God declares:

Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them. 

Ezekiel, like all the prophets before and after is the one taken from among us, who embodies God’s risking – spanning the chasm of the unrequited in the relationship God invites us into and from which we pull back.

In his second letter to the Christians at Corinth, a city that ranked among the big apples of the Graeco-Roman world, Paul wears upon his sleeve his unrequited experience. He plumbs the depths of this chasm to discover a space narrow enough to bridge the span. In the paradoxical relationship between weakness and strength, which at the surface of the chasm appear in their polarity to be so far apart, Paul discovers nearer the chasm floor, that they are more like the two sides of the same coin – strength is weakness and weakness is strength. This is quite a risk to take in a culture where it’s only strength, particularly the strength of authority and leadership that is respected. The human dilemma, then and now, is that we long for strong leadership when it’s leadership strong enough to show vulnerability we really are in need of. The nature of this vulnerability is to let others see that we too can be hurt and still continue onwards.

It is Mark, who through the plain-speaking of his gospel offers us a glimpse of Jesus struggling with his experience of the unrequited. In the face of his neighbors insult to him: is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary …. and they took offense at him – Jesus is dumbfounded by – at a loss to explain their hostility. In Matthew the townsfolk exclaim: is this not Joseph’s son who’s mother is Mary? Matthew excises the reference to illegitimacy that Mark seems to feel is important to keep in. Yet, even in Matthew his neighbors take offense at him. Luke omits any reference to Jesus’ lineage, legitimate or otherwise, but has the townsfolk move beyond taking offense to attempting his murder.

Jesus’ response to what must have been a deeply painful experience of the unrequited, is to send his disciples out into the world. He sends them out, in effect saying: go out and risk being vulnerable – take only a staff, no bread, no money, only sandals and one tunic, and go and stay where you are received and where not, take your leave shaking the dust from your feet. As he himself is doing, Jesus instructs his disciples to go out and risk being vulnerable, armed only with the message of healing for a world that is broken.

Last night, I watched Bishop Michael Curry’s charge for the Episcopal Church to go out into the world with the message of the gospel as a healing for a world that is broken. Bishop Curry was elected in these last days as the next Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. I then watched President Obama’s message of grace, amazing grace in a broken world, delivered at the funeral eulogy for the Rev. State Senator Clementa Pinckney.

Viewing these two men, back to back on Youtube, each the first African American to hold their respective offices, brought home for me the reality that it is through our experience of vulnerability in the face of perceived weakness that makes us fearful of the chasm of the unrequited. Like, Ezekiel, Paul, and Jesus, I heard bishop and president find the courage to risk plumbing the depth of the chasm, to risk the experience of the unrequited, there to discover God’s bridging of the chasm, not at its wide surface but nearer the floor, which remember is often a long way down from our preference to loiter at the surface, fearfully fixed upon our own self-protection.

The President reminded us on the eve of the celebration of the Forth of July, that we are plagued by our ignorance of history, and more significantly, that we are ignorant of one another’s histories. The President quoted the hymn Amazing Grace, the song of repentance of a former slave ship captain, no longer fleeing from his own history images-6

John Newton through his conversion and life-long repentance thereby embraced the call to live as one who is sent, regardless of the risk of not being received. For Barack Obama, in John Newton’s words there is clearly a personal poignancy combined with something Bishop Curry must also know well, the poignancy of being found by God despite rejection based on race.

Bishop Curry cited Julia Ward Howe’s words in what has come to be known as the Battle Hymn of the Republic. He took poetic license with her lyrics in order to amplify the meaning of his charge to the Church to go forth in the faith: that as Jesus died to make men holy, let us live to make all free, while God is marching on.

Whether it’s 1776, 1865, 1965, or 2015, the lesson of being sent and not received, which at each point is so painfully learned, seems to have to be relearned over and over again. Freud noted that what we can no longer remember we are destined to repeat.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise                                                                 than when we’d first begun.

One history   Another history 

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