Last week was clergy conference – a time when clergy from around the Diocese get together and try and have some fun. Yeah. It’s a challenge, since often what we end up doing is talking about our work and worries from our churches, and so our anxiety increases, rather than diminishes. Our Bishop, Greg, is truly trying to create an environment to nurture us, and we are trying to let go of our work and just be present with one another. The ocean helps.
The French word for ocean is “La Mer” (MER) which is the same word for “Mother”, spelled “Mere”. The ocean is like the mother of us all, of all life, and for me, someone who has always lived on one coast or another, the ocean is where I go when I need nurturing. So I’ll admit it – I bugged out on some of the plenaries, and just spent time at the ocean. (The Bishop said it was ok!)
Being near the ocean reminds us of what is fundamental to life: the vastness of God’s creation, the power of it, and the beauty. I find the ocean immensely comforting, with its patterns and tides, its changeless change; always there, washing all things clean, smoothing rough edges with its caress. Like a mother, the ocean is full of life, and can be a little moody; the ocean is a force to be reckoned with, and brings nourishment to so many. La Mer, and La Mere are both challenging and nurturing, strong and beautiful.
Beautiful, also, is today’s reading from the letter that some attribute to the Apostle Peter. Written in a sophisticated Greek style, it uses poetic language to exhort early Christians to live Godly lives, full of Love and connected by community. It commends us to put away such unhealthy practices as malice, insincerity, envy and slander, and instead – using the image of a life-giving Mother – to long for pure, spiritual milk, milk that will help us to grow into our salvation.
Like the sea, mother’s milk can be mixed with the salt of tears. To quote from Hamlet — as we study Shakespeare and the Bible this month — his mother, Gertrude, tells her famous son, “Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain”. I remember this line so well from when I played Gertrude, and how it rang especially true for me, as the mother of a son living with bi-polar disorder.
Like 6.2 million other American mothers, night after night I cried in frustration, confusion, helplessness and fear. For months, I cried alone, and in shame. Yet, like the ocean, I kept on loving, kept on living. And I managed to find blessed community in the National Alliance on Mental Illness, where I met other mothers and fathers who were looking for answers and hope. The Lord’s house has many dwelling places, and God made a way. As today’s choir anthem — from the Soweto Gospel choir in South Africa, says: “I will rise from all my tears to the light o’er this world, I will sing salvation’s song . . .” The tide goes out, and comes in again. Jesus died and rose again”.
Jesus tells his disciples in John’s Gospel: “Do not let your hearts be troubled”. Do not let your hearts be troubled? With so many worries sometimes weighing upon us, how do we keep from being anxious? It can be tempting to try and simply fix everything! Logic tells us that if we eliminate everything that can go wrong, we eliminate our need to worry. And we all know how well that works!
Rather than soothing our troubles, this kind of thinking cultivates an atmosphere of anxiety. Many churches — even our entire country right now — live in such an unhealthy environment of anxiety. I imagine that this anxious culture tempted the disciples, who were going to lose their leader, their teacher. For the early Jesus movement, virtually everything felt uncertain. They had good reason to feel troubled! And Jesus, through the Gospel writer, encourages them.
Only the Gospel of John — the latest of the Gospels, written long after Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection — contains such a lengthy “farewell discourse”, in which Jesus take time to tell the disciples how to live together after he is gone. Notice, he doesn’t focus so much on the details, but rather on relationships: he starts by washing their feet, and telling them to love one another. The term Jesus uses for “dwelling” does not refer so much to a place to live in heaven, in some distant future, but rather to a way of living in relationship with one another and with God, right now. Right here; right now.
If children teach us anything, it is the ability to dwell in the moment! Have you seen a newborn infant as they are nursing? They are absolutely, completely present to that moment of nourishment, they are fully bonded, in relationship with their mother, or to the person who is providing mothering to them. That bond is inseparable: even in the darkest moments, when my son was far away physically or spiritually from me, I always knew when he was in trouble. It is a bond that goes beyond space and time, beyond borders and barriers, between countries and jail bars; even reaching beyond the grave when needed.
In such a bond, God longs to be in relationship with us: not worrying about the future, or dwelling on the past, but being in the present moment of gratitude, and peace and fullness. The kind of moment that washes away all doubt, that surrenders all worry; a moment standing at the ocean shore, letting the waves of God’s mothering love crash upon us and wash us.
People often ask me, “how is your son doing?” I tell them, “Today he is well, and I give thanks for today.” I dwell in that hope, and do my best to give hope to others in their time of tears. “I will rise from all my tears to the light o’er this world, I will sing salvation’s song , Hosanna, Hosanna, to the Lamb that was Slain, Hosanna, Hosanna, Jesus died and rose again”.