On Taking Up Space

(Here’s the audio.)

In the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus is speaking to the disciples, and maybe a bit more of a crowd, too, and he tells them, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God.”

*

My children like to spread out. You may have noticed, if you’ve ever sat near them in an alcove here at Saint Andrew, that though they are small, they can unfold their little bodies, stretch their limbs in every possible direction, and generally make their presence known. Maybe they’ve leaned on you in the process of seeing just how expansive their frames can be. I don’t usually worry about that here, because this place is filled with kind and generous and patient people.

But we were in a restaurant lobby recently, and when we arrived we were the only ones waiting, so my seven-year-old found an empty bench and laid down on it. More people came through the door, they were given longer waiting times and buzzers, and they looked around for seats.

I asked my son to sit up. He groaned, but he obliged – partly: he leaned his back against mine, but kept his legs sprawled out on the bench. People began to fill in the seats near us, some people glanced at him. I asked him to put his legs down, and he did – and then he flopped over, laying his head on what could’ve been some other guest’s seat. I was so frustrated – and so, you know, fearful of being judged – that finally I hissed at him, “Could you please just not take up so much space?”

And as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them. Because that’s the question I’ve heard in my own head so many times – my parents didn’t ask it of me, but I think so many people hear those words anyway, maybe not out loud, maybe especially girls, maybe especially when they’re young, or maybe especially everyone who has ever felt like their body or their hopes or their quirks or their fears or their passions or their ideas don’t quite conform. They try to make themselves smaller, less visible, less obtrusive, because there is always the echo of that question: “Is there any possible way you could just not take up so much space?”

Of course, there’s something to be said for giving space to others, for giving seats to the older people, balancing gingerly with the help of a cane in the restaurant lobby. And so I hugged Oscar close to me and I prayed that was all he heard me saying.

*

A few years back, a community theatre did a production of Godspell, that seventies Broadway musical based on the Gospel of Matthew. When the actors began the song whose lyrics are our verses for today – they poured off the stage and down into the audience, spreading their energy through the crowd, picking specific people to sing to.

A grinning cast member approached the woman who had the aisle seat in a row near the back – an older woman who’d come to the show by herself. The cast member took her hands in his, and sang to her, proudly, almost, like he’d written this line of the song, just for her, he sang, “You are the light of the world.” And he squeezed her hands, and he danced away. The woman lowered her hands back to her lap and stared at them for a minute. Then she turned to the man seated next to her, a stranger, and she told him, “Nobody’s ever called me that before.”

And this is not what the man seated next to her said in response, but it is one possible answer; he could have said: Of course they haven’t. No one has ever called you that before because scholars are scared of these verses, and they have effectively waged a campaign to complicate what appears to be some of the most straightforward language we ever get from our holy stories. They want to make Jesus’ words about Jesus, not about us…even though what he says is, “hey, you!” And in the original language, the “you” is emphatic.

But there are scholars who are equally emphatic that “Jesus is the only one who really shines in the Gospel of Matthew” – they’re writing about the transfiguration, that story where the disciples are standing away from Jesus, and they see him sort-of glowing, and hear a voice telling them to pay attention – “Jesus is the only one who really shines in the Gospel of Matthew, but through obeying his teachings, his followers can reflect that light from him.”

And another says, in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers that he is the light of the world, so here in Matthew he’s extending that metaphor to include the listening crowd.

But no, he’s not. Jesus does not take an idea he had in John about himself and pass it on to the crowd in Matthew. The Gospel of Matthew is written down probably twenty years before the Gospel of John. And the writer of John is notorious for taking words the community spoke about Jesus and putting them in Jesus’ mouth instead, to give them authority. Which is to say “you are the light of the world” came maybe decades before “I am the light of the world.” And it’s likely that Jesus never said the latter. He didn’t much like to talk about himself.

So, why the work? Why the intense effort on the part of interpreters to make these verses say something they’re not?

Maybe because we have confused promise with pride, identity with egoism, celebration with conceit. We have been taught that it’s not polite to brag, that touchdown dances ought to be modest, that we should apologize before we offer an idea (“this probably won’t work…), that we should shrug it off when we receive a compliment (“this old thing?”).

And so we think that to believe that we are the light of the world – to live it – is to be in danger of taking up an awful lot of space. We think it sounds like talking about how great we are. The only one worthy of that sort of allowance would be Jesus.

*

But say you’re there. Say you’re on that hill long ago, that you’ve come out to hear this itinerant rabbi speak. Jesus isn’t that cast member from Godpsell. He doesn’t come to one old lady and take her hands and tell her that she is the light of the world. He could, and it would be true. But he says it to everyone gathered. Everyone. He does not know what they believe or how they behave and it’s almost as if he doesn’t care – he doesn’t need that to name them in this way.

He’ll go on, in this sermon, to give more instruction. These verses are the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, and it’s filled with imperatives: Be reconciled to each other, give your gifts in secret, pray this way, turn your cheek, do not worry, do not judge, do unto others as you would have them do to you. But before all of these, the very first imperative, the instruction from Jesus that precedes all the others is: Shine.

You are the light of the world. Shine.

*

The German poet Rilke writes that this has been the message since we first were human. In his telling of the creation story:

God speaks to each of us as God makes us,
Then walks with us silently out of the night.

And these are the words we dimly hear:
You – sent out beyond your recall –
Go to the limits of your longing.

Embody me.

Flare up like flame,
And make big shadows I can move in.

Jesus is not telling people here who they are. He’s reminding them: You are the light of the world. That truth is at the core of our identity – light is the first word that God speaks into being at the creation and in the Psalms, it is the image of God’s own self. For these people, light is already part of their self-understanding and their theology. Jesus isn’t telling them who they are, he’s telling them what to do: let it shine.

And we need this imperative because in us, too, right alongside the light, lives the fear that threatens every day to snuff it out.

A wise songwriter of our time tells us we are tragedy and triumph, broken and whole, all at once. We are mystery and knowing, innocent and aged, all at once.

And light can be indiscriminate, which is why to shine is not to brag. It is much more vulnerable than that. We may have made peace with the idea that tragedy and triumph have equally brought us to this day and shaped who we are but still, for the life of me, if the light that I possess could only fall on the triumphs, please, that’d be preferable… As if there’s some way to separate them from the tragedy. Some way to only put forward our wholeness, while our brokenness hides in some dark place, unexposed.

But that can’t be what it means to shine – that can’t be what Jesus invites us to, because we are not light for ourselves. We are not called to bask in our own glow. The call here – the identity – is in us and it is removed from us. It is for the world. And the world, my corner of it, is not helped, it does not heal, by hearing only my success stories.

*

I’m a student; I’m working on my dissertation. And I say that like it’s an ongoing kind of activity, which is a lie. It is a fits-and-spurts, stops-and-starts kind of activity. It goes like this: I read a lot. I get an idea. I’m pretty scared of it because I think it’s great but what if it’s a really dumb idea, or what if it’s already been disproven, or what if somebody else had this idea twenty years ago and I tell it like it’s mine and only expose myself for not having read their work, which of course I should have already done?

So I work myself through all those scenarios and then I go to my advisor and I say: “I have this idea.” And he says to me: “This is a great idea. Get to work.” And I go home and sit down and work and work and work and pretty soon I think: who am I to be writing this? Where did this authority that I’m speaking with come from? I am a fraud, and if I ever find any place willing to publish this it will only be to expose me for the fraud that I am. I should stop now.

And then I do, and I wallow for a while, and then I drag myself back into my advisor’s office and I say: “I had this idea…” And he says: “It was a great idea. Get back to work.” And I go home again, and sit down again… And finally, after this cycle had played itself out too many times, I could barely meet my advisor’s eyes but I sat across from him and I said to him: “Here’s what happens. Here’s what happens when I come in to tell you my idea and you tell me it’s a great idea. Here’s what’s going to happen over the next six weeks…” And he listened to me, kindly.

And then, after I admitted all of this terrible, ongoing cycle, he did not tell me all over again that my ideas were good ones and that I should get back to work. Instead, this time, he said, “Yeah, me too.”

He said, “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t fear I’ll be exposed for a fraud. There is not a lecture that I give or an article that I write that I feel like I have any authority to do so. He said, I wish I could tell you that it goes away. That you’ll graduate and feel like you’ve earned it and be released from this anxiety. But everyone I know struggles with it every time they try to say or write or teach something that matters to them. It never, ever goes away.”

And somehow that confession – somehow the light falling there, not on my advisor’s publications or awards or tenure, but on his fear – the illumination of that convinced me that I could keep moving through it, too.

*

The writer and teacher and activist Parker Palmer says it’s no surprise that all the world’s wisdom traditions speak of fear: he says all of them originated in the human struggle to overcome this ancient enemy. And despite the diversity among the traditions, they all issue their followers this high calling: “Be not afraid.”

Palmer says that as someone who is no stranger to fear, he’s had to read these words with care to make sure he doesn’t twist them into a “discouraging counsel of perfection.” But be not afraid does not mean that we cannot have fear, he says. It means that we need not be the fear that we have.

What would it mean, to admit that we can both have fear and be light? That we can both take up space with our lives and create it for someone else? What would our lives look like if we let shine our true selves, not only what we were proud of but those moments that connected us to one another, in our weakness, in our sorrow, in our insecurity?

What if the good works that Jesus speaks of – the ones that others will see, and know God through, and praise God for – what if that goodness was nothing more than the way we embrace one another through our fears, the way we say, “yeah, me too,” and in so doing, light someone else’s path a little farther?

If we really want to live out the light that we are, it is probably not possible to control exactly where those beams will land, or what they will make visible. Probably some of our tragedies, and some of our triumphs, all at once. But what might your lit-up life make possible for someone else? God only knows.

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My Deepest Me is God

Psalm 98, selected verses

Compose a new song, and sing it to the Eternal God
because of the unbelievable things God has done;
God has been true to God’s promises;
fresh in God’s mind is unfailing love
for all of God’s family.
Even the ends of the earth have witnessed how God saves.

So raise your voices; make a beautiful noise to the Eternal, all the earth.
Let your joy explode into song and praise;
Make music with the harp;
sing a beautiful melody with the chorus.
With trumpets and horns,
fill the air with joyful sounds to the Holy One.
Let the sea rumble and roar,
and all the creatures it holds shout praise;
let the whole world and all those who live in it join the celebration.
Let the rivers applaud
and the mountains join in joyful song
In the presence of the Eternal because He is coming.

*

Zoe and Carter, sister and brother, both travel with a sketchbook tucked under an arm, pens in hand. They’re both really talented, really creative, and they never just sit still during Sunday School –they’re always creating characters, drawing scenes from new original stories. A few weeks ago in Sunday School, we finished our conversation a couple of minutes early, and I told those two, “We’ve got this whole wall covered in chalkboard paint. You should fill it up!”

Lately, we’ve been putting a question on the chalkboard, inviting people to write their answers.: one month, the board asked where people wanted to travel to, one month it asked about a favorite memory, and it’s really neat to see the different answers scribbled all over as people add their own. This month, the question is: “What does love mean to you?” And there’s only one answer on the board – in all capital letters, someone has written, “total acceptance.” And around those letters was a lot of empty space.

So Zoe filled it – with this:
photo-19
Carter watched the drawing take shape, and he teased her, he said, “Ewww… Why is she pulling a layer of her face off?” and his sister told him, “It’s a mask.”

And I don’t know – I didn’t ask her if the drawing was in response to the question on the board – if maybe, to Zoe, love means just what she wrote: that you don’t have to hide your true self anymore. Or if her drawing wasn’t in response to anything, really; if this shy middle-school girl was just offering up an invitation to a room full of middle-schoolers – giving them freedom – saying the one thing they all really, really need to hear, and have such trouble trusting…

I also didn’t ask about the mouth. But I can’t help but notice that on the mask, the face has full, puffy lips, spread into a wide smile. And on the face underneath – the real girl has her mouth just slightly open. No false smile, no manufactured emotion. I don’t know why her mouth is open – but I wonder if maybe she’s about to speak…

Zoe’s gift – this permission-granting to her peers – it was quiet. Some of them had even left the room by the time she finished, so they didn’t see the picture until their next time there, a week later… Still, her offering reminds me of this other girl, who had a revelation of a similar sort, and was louder about it…

When she was a little girl, Catherine – she would come to be known as St. Catherine, of Genoa, but not yet – when she was a little girl, Catherine wanted to be a nun. Her older sister had joined an order, but when Catherine presented herself, she was refused – she was only 13. And as this was fifteenth-century Italy, soon after her parents married her to a nobleman and she was miserable for years and years – like, she prayed that God would make her really sick, so she could just stay in bed and wouldn’t have to be a wife – she said this prayer until one day, she was sitting in church, and she was so overwhelmed by God’s love for her – she felt it, so palpably, that she stood up in the middle of her confession, and walked through the sanctuary and out the doors of the church. She couldn’t stay where she was.

And after that, she devoted her life to caring for the sick – she began working at the local hospital, she eventually became its director, and she moved in to the facility, even as the plague swept through her town, she spent her days walking those halls, providing care for those in need. And doing this, she came to see herself – her own need, and her own strength – in those she cared for, and she came to see God in them, too – all vulnerability, all glory. And one day all this seeing became too much, and she left – like she’d left the church years before – but faster, this time she ran through the streets of her town and as she ran she shouted what she’d seen, she said: “My deepest me is God!”

My deepest me is God. That’s what she learned, about her true self, staring into the faces of her neighbors, sick as they were. That’s what she learned as they stared back at her, as she saw herself in their eyes. Catherine said to her patients, “Something of God is alive in you.” And the sick back said to Catherine, “You and I are not so different.” And Jesus, fifteen hundred years earlier, said, “I and my Father are One.” And somehow that’s all the same thing.

Maybe that’s why that girl’s mouth is open… maybe that’s what she’s saying, what she knows, now that her mask is gone. My deepest me is God.

*

It’s the same truth that the earth cries out in the Psalm – that God lives, in every inch of it.

Have you been to the ocean? When the waves fall on top of each other, it sounds like clapping, right? The Psalmist says those peaks are praising God as they crash.

And the mountains? The way they stretch toward heaven with a kind of majestic embrace of the earth? The Psalmist says that wide reaching, is song for God.

I remember having a six-month-old baby on my hip one afternoon when the wind blew through the trees, and the leaves, they shimmered in the sun, and he could not take his eyes off of them, I remember him leaning back, almost out of my arms, so he could see better – the way the light played on the yellows and the greens, he was captivated by all of these leaves, dancing for God.

One commentator says, “Just by being what it was created to be, all of nature praises God.”

It takes a long time for us to learn what the rest of nature already knows. Some of us never do. Some of us do for moments, and then we forget again. But this Psalm tells us – and so, our ancestors in faith tell us – that our voices are part of that chorus of praise; our instruments lend it depth. Just by being who we are, we praise God. By shedding masks, we let God live. Because my deepest me is God. And your deepest you…

And so to be who you are is an act of creative resistance. It is to say, to the rising tide of voices that tell you “you are not enough, and never will be,” that you always have been. If we trust that – if we trust the voice of God in us above all others – what would become possible?

*

Psalm 98 is an old, old song. And it tells us to sing a new song. It is an ancient lyric that the people of God would have sung in celebration, in worship. And it invites all its singers to do something else. It invites them to sing something new.

Some of the great poets did this – they took this instruction, to do something new – but only after resisting it at first. John Donne, George Herbert, John Milton – they all sat down, at one time or another, with a translation of the Psalms laid in front of them, and their own blank paper, their own pen in hand, and they attempted to render these same verses in their own poetic style. And each of them failed.

These men who had such mastery of the language found themselves stifled by their own assignment; they could not give new life to these old words. But each of them went on to craft some of most beautiful religious poetry the world has known, their very own works of praise and lament and questioning… John Milton could not rewrite the Psalms, so he wrote Paradise Lost. He wrote, “What is dark within me, illumine…” They were creators. The Psalmist knows that, about the earth and about each of us. So when he calls us to sing a new song, that’s really what he calls us to – to let the God that lives in us create.

But it’s a scary move – the one from recitation to composition, creation.

An old professor of mine wrote a book about a pioneer woman on the Kansas plains. It’s a tale of survival, and family, and rugged determination. I was a student worker in her office as she was writing it, and she used to bring me drafts to proofread. She’d bring in chapter after chapter, each one excited her more than the last. Until one day I was sitting at the student work desk and she walked in, holding a stack of papers that was visibly weighing her down. Her face was stricken. She was pale. And I asked her what was wrong, and she told me, “She’s going west.” I didn’t know who she meant, and my professor seemed frustrated by my asking, but she said, “Annie. Annie’s going west. Annie! I never knew she would leave…”

Annie is the protagonist, the heroine, in my professor’s book. So I still didn’t understand what she was saying. I said, “What do you mean? She’s your character! It’s your book! How could you not know?” I said, “If – if you don’t want her to go west she doesn’t have to go! Just, you know, write that she stays.” And my professor shook her head. She was so, so sad, but she said, “Erika, … I can’t make that happen. She’s already gone.”

And eventually, as she followed her character, my professor came to learn that going west was exactly what Annie needed to do. But here’s the thing: composition is risky. Living into our calling as creators takes courage because creation is free. We give life to what is part of us but not exactly us, it is from us but it is beyond us, too. Sing a new song, the Psalmist says, but what happens when we do? What will it sound like?

Maybe we can’t know. And maybe it doesn’t matter. Creation takes on a life of its own. Maybe it’s not ours to direct where and how it will go. Maybe it is only ours to help each other trust the impulse in us that wants to bring forth something new, some new song, some true self, some way for God to live.

Catherine of Genoa’s discovery, her song, that her deepest self is God, is more than that, of course. Because to know that about one’s self is to know that about all things. The deepest part of every person around her – the sister she envied, the husband she had such struggle with, the patients who were wasting away – the deepest part of each of them – God.

And you, and I, beneath all that we fear, and before we dress ourselves for the day with yet another mask, and beyond the real violence we do to ourselves and one another when we convince ourselves that we are not enough, you and I are creators. Something of God lives deep in us and when we allow it, it lives in the world, too, and it gives life. The call of the Psalm is to be free, so that God might be free. To speak and to sing, so that the voice of God might be heard. To learn the truth that the mountains and the waters have always known – that in creation lives a bit of the creator – and to rejoice in that.

We need each other for this work. Because there is so much trying to make us forget. We need the oceans and the leaves and we need each other. We need to say to each other, in big and small ways every day, “Your deepest you is God.” We need to listen to each other, and love one another, believing fiercely in that truth. My deepest me, and your deepest you, and the truest self of every other soul – is God, a creator. Trusting that, what becomes possible?