Archive for November, 2021

“When monuments fall,” (Sermon, Advent 1 2021)

‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
29 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 â€˜Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’

Luke 21:25-36

There is something so special about coming home to the west coast after a long trip. Whether the time away is two weeks or two years, to be greeted by the art of Bill Reid at the Vancouver airport; to drive home through rain or rare sunlight and drink in the vastness of the ocean, whispering cedar trees, moss carpeting old growth branches and forest floors, and the cobalt embrace of those mountains is powerful and comforting.

I think of the particular delight I felt many years ago after coming home from nine months living in the UK and seeing how big those trees were. Surrounded by the broads, marshes, and comparatively friendly woods of Norfolk, I’d forgotten how big trees could be. I’d forgotten the haunting chill at the base of my spine that accompanied the early morning call of a raven; the smell of the sea that sometimes met my nose six blocks from shore; the way a cloudy day could turn the landscape into a painting done entirely in shades of blue – a true Advent tapestry.

When I lived in England, the home that bore and nourished many of my ancestors, I felt tied to history through the landscape but also the architecture – public houses, town squares, churches, standing stones. Here, much of the ancestral architecture of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples has been lost to history or actively destroyed by settlers. Here, it’s elders that hold the stories, and the land itself. This is in keeping with God’s truth, for it is land that owns and keeps us, not the other way around. While so many of us believe that we are the supreme architects of civilization, the land silently builds us, cell by cell, until it is permitted through the grace of God to unbuild us, to repurpose us again.

On this day when we’re walking into Advent, the season of prophecy, and celebrating 45 years of women’s ordination in the Anglican Church of Canada, I share words from Bishop Yvette Flunder, pastor of the City of Refuge United Church of Christ in Oakland, in a 2017 sermon titled “From Monuments to Movements.” As she reflects on her life in California she says,

“The San Andreas Fault yawns and moves and stretches consistently and constantly because we are upon a living earth. We build dead buildings on a living earth. And our history tells us no matter how fabulous and magnificent we build our architectural renowned structures and monuments, they are dead structures on a living earth, and they can be utterly destroyed in seconds by a certain kind of seismic event. Even our monuments have to respect our movement.”

She goes on to briefly talk about how buildings in California are retrofitted for earthquakes, saying,

“We try to make a building act like living things act. Palm trees know what to do. When the earth shakes, the palm trees lay down and then they come back up, because they have roots, and because they are living in a place indigenously. Even with everything we do, with the multiple billions of dollars we spent in San Francisco, some of our buildings still fail because the earth is a mighty living thing. Those of us that are of the church and in whichever way we acknowledge and worship the divine, we must know the difference between being a monument and a movement.”

In today’s Gospel, in response to a crowd admiring the stonework of the Temple, Jesus says, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Scholars of history know that this proved correct. The Temple was razed to the ground in 70 CE, Rome’s retaliation for the brave revolt of the Jewish people against imperial rule. Of course, what brought down that monument was not earth but Empire. The glory of Solomon, a beacon to Jews for five hundred years, a monument built to celebrate the incredible resilience of a movement, was reduced to rubble by the Romans, who stole the spoils of the temple, including its holy vessels and sacred menorah, to finance the building of the Colosseum in Rome.

The Gospel of Luke was composed after the destruction of the Temple, while conversations about why God would allow such a horrific act were getting heated. The infant church was beginning its long and painful split from Judaism, which poured love and work and scholarship into the movement that had always shored up the precious monument of the Temple. A monument is not an inherently bad thing, but a movement will always outlast a monument. In this prophecy of Jesus, the writer of Luke shows us a man who, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel before him, confers a sacred meaning to tragedy. Movements can stand up to earth and Empire because they are led by prophets.

And indeed Jesus also says that the land itself will become a prophet. There will be signs in the heavenly bodies and the sea. He tells the crowd that just as they would look to fig trees to know the season – and they would have, as people of the land – so they can look to the world around them to predict what is to come. “When you see these things taking place,” he says, “you know that the Kingdom of God is near.”

And friends, latter-day children of Jesus’s message, what do we see?

Many who have come in the name of the Lord claiming to be our saviours, who only lead us astray.

Wars and insurrections.

Earthquakes, famines, and plagues.

Arrests and persecution of righteous seekers of justice. Corrupt court systems that punish them while allowing oppressors and murderers to go free.

Betrayal, splitting of families along political lines.

Cities and wilderness surrounded by armies, overrun with police who tear-gas and beat and abduct the citizens they’re meant to serve and protect.

Signs in the sun – heat domes, infernos, drought. The roaring of the sea – floods, tsunamis, and hurricanes.

The Jewish people could not by any means have stopped the juggernaut of the Roman Empire from shattering their beloved monument to God’s unending salvation.

Our earth, never a monument but a living thing, is now beginning to treat us, humanity, like a monument, shaking us, scorching us, flooding and drowning us, leaving us homeless, not in spite of us but specifically because of us and our actions, because we consistently refuse to turn aside from our monuments, monuments which, unlike the Temple, glorify greed rather than God. Empire shattered that monument, but Earth is shattering ours. A prophet can topple Empire. A handful of them can even topple something as monumental as a doctrine enshrining thousands of years’ worth of church-sanctioned sexism.

But there’s no toppling this planet. It’s our home.

Is there no good news to be had?

“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Already there are people standing up and speaking out. Just as prophets within the church and in every time and place challenged Empires and authorities, the Indigenous peoples of the world and our children and grandchildren are leading us.

They are the living sign. Our redemption is drawing near.

There are as many ways to respond to the call to climate justice as there are people on this planet, and you know the ones to which you are called. If you don’t, pray. It will come to you. I trust you. I trust that God speaks to you, and will tell you what to do.

Bishop Yvette says, “Our history is filled with monuments. Thank God for earthquakes.”

In this season of Advent, we herald with hope everything that is to come: life, peace, joy, and love. When the procession passes by on its way to a new earth, led by prophets and children and gods who do ridiculous things like clothe themselves with precious human flesh, will we join in their song, and will we follow?

“Embracing Fluidity” (Sermon, Reign of Christ/Transgender Day of Remembrance 2021)

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

John 18:33-37

Somehow, once again, the wheel of the year is completing its revolution and we are heading into Advent, but not before our regularly scheduled stop at the weird junction of prophecy and fulfilment that is Reign of Christ Sunday, or Christ the King Sunday; the day where we celebrate a king or ruler who is anything but, a scorned desaparecido, a victim of state violence hung on an instrument of state violence; the day where we fix our gaze on that atrocity and say, “Yes, this is the one to whom we have given our hearts.” Yikes.

But it’s not just any Reign of Christ Sunday. Yesterday, people across the world gathered to mark Transgender Day of Remembrance. Transgender Day of Remembrance was begun in 1999 by Gwendolyn Ann Smith to honor the memory of Rita Hester, a trans woman murdered in 1998. The vigil commemorates transgender people lost to violence, often by reading the names of those reported murdered across the world. It always takes a long time. This year, in fact, has been one of the deadliest on record according to a study by the Human Rights Campaign, a queer and trans advocacy group.

It is imperative to mourn the monumental loss of these beloved children of God through public grief. And I also want to say that all too often, the only stories we hear about what it means to be trans or gender-nonconforming are stories of degradation and misery ending in violent death or suicide. Those stories are far too common, but if we focus on them to the exclusion of all else, it subtly tells us that this is the lot in life for all trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people, and therefore to be expected, even accepted, and that is not true. We live lives that contain joy and beauty and delight, and we deserve joy and beauty and delight just like anyone else, and joy is an act of resistance.

So now let me introduce you to one of my favourite nonbinary artists: Alok Menon, a writer, performer, mixed media artist, and public speaker. Like me, they use they/them pronouns. They also dazzle me daily on Instagram.

Alok is ethnically Indian and has a lot of body hair. They make a point of keeping it visible and unshaven, and have rocked sensational makeup with a full beard and a boat-neck dress, or an incredible patterned pantsuit with heels that raise them to heaven. They regularly explore, through lovely illustrated book reports, how the policing of gender cannot be untangled from colonial and racist mindsets. It’s a fascinating lost piece of history. Even hair removal in women only became seen as mandatory in the late 19th century and was explicitly tied to white supremacy – because the hairier you were, the less evolved you were said to be. When the few models of what it means to look nonbinary are almost always willowy hairless androgynous types like David Bowie or Tilda Swinton, Alok, with their brown skin, fluorescent palette, flawless makeup, and five o’clock shadow magnificently shows us a fully realized paradise of gender freedom.

Alok’s look has received a lot of scorn and anger from bigots, but to a comment as predictable and unkind as “You are not a woman, bro. Man up,” Alok consistently responds with things like, “You mistake your armour as an identity and your pain as a personality. You are climbing a tree that bears no fruit. Ascending a ladder that goes nowhere. What you seek isn’t here with me. It’s within you. This isn’t about my freedom, it’s about your repression. You resent me because I live what you fear. I love you because I have no fear. I’m sorry you’ve been told you can’t express yourself. You can. I promise. Have a great day!”

Jesus, betrayed by his disciples and turned in by his own people, terrified of the Empire crashing down on them as they had before, is hauled before Pilate, governor of Judea, who’d come into Jerusalem from his resplendent seaside property to remind those gathered for the subversive festival of Passover, a celebration of liberation from another Empire, whose boot they were under. Pilate seems baffled, even amused, and clearly expects his presence will be enough to cow Jesus into blubbering submission.

But Jesus does not respond that way at all. The scene is heavy with irony. His tone is impossible to gauge. It’s easy to read contempt. But it could also be a tone similar to Alok’s, a calm refusal to be humiliated.

In a post titled “Grammar Lessons,” Alok writes, “My first word was irony. Growing up a boy, they called me too feminine. When I finally claimed femininity as my own, they called me a man. These are grammar lessons: some of us are only allowed to be thought, never to think.”

Jesus didn’t have worth in the eyes of Pilate or Empire. He was only allowed to be thought. And yet here, he proves that he can think. And to his credit, Pilate seems intrigued by this, asking, “What is truth?” although he doesn’t stick around to hear the answer. Instead, he becomes profoundly unsettled the more he learns about Jesus.

The refusal of oppressed peoples to be confined always does that to Empires. It happened before Pharaoh and now it’s happening before Pilate and will continue to happen until the world runs out of either Empires or humanity.

Alok writes, “Being nonbinary is about embracing my fluidity. My becoming. My journey without fixed destination.” Perhaps that’s one reason why trans and gender-nonconforming people are murdered constantly. To small-minded tyrants, that is the only way to deny us that fluidity, the only way to make us freeze in place.

How sadly mistaken they are, in light of the story of Jesus, for God through Jesus embodies the most sacred truth of what it means to be trans: the inability to be frozen in place. Jesus is born a boundary-breaker, divinity taking human form, and for his whole ministry, he broke down walls. Here, in the space between Pilate and Jesus, oppressor and oppressed, ruler and subject, bully and victim, God starts the work of breaking the boundaries between life and death.

And now the real work begins. Those of us who are trans have to be brave and live into the holiness of being trans-formers, radiating the beauty of in-betweenness. We have to love ourselves because as long as we exist, we embody a kaleidoscopic world of beauty and freedom, refuting all that refuses diversity as unkempt and uncontrollable. We prove God’s fullness. We are an outward sign of the inward grace of reconciliation.

There are lots of practical things allies can do like sharing and respecting pronouns, speaking out against transphobia and transmisogyny, and challenging unjust legislation that oppresses trans people. But you can also help us by doing what we’re doing: loving and leaning into the parts of yourself that defy convention. The more you shine, the brighter the whole world becomes.

And so we remember those taken from us, but we do so knowing that those who murder and abuse and oppress thought they were throwing rocks into a pond. Little did they know they were throwing stars into the sky. Little did they know that those who come after will use those stars to guide their way across oceans of their own seeking and struggle. Little would they have ever suspected that these deaths they hoped would intimidate only gave the rest of us a cloud of holy witnesses, a galaxy of saints.

Little do they know that in the aftermath of the Christ, death no longer freezes anything in place.

As Alok says, “What if this world was just one draft? What if everything could be rewritten? …There are ideas we haven’t considered yet. Feelings we haven’t encountered yet. Love we haven’t surrendered to yet. “Yet” is the most wondrous word ever built. Let’s live there together.”

“A God who cries,” (Sermon, All Saints 2021)

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

John 11:32-44

Good evening, St. Brigid’s. Today is the feast of All Saints, and at this time of year, we talk about death. I just wanted to preface with that, in case you’re feeling raw. If you need to take a break, it’s okay.

Seven years ago, on a Wednesday in early April, my father got up, made coffee, went downstairs to warm up his wife’s car, and dropped dead of a massive heart attack. He was sixty-four years old.

Image description: My dad Richard, a smiling white middle-aged man with a mustache and in a checked shirt and brown blazer, stands between my laughing stepmother on the left, a middle-aged white woman with short red hair and a white knitted top, and me laughing on the right, a white nonbinary person with dark hair and a black and white dress, holding a glass of white wine.

It was about three weeks before I was scheduled to go to ACPO, where prospective candidates to ordained ministry are interviewed by ordained and lay members of the church. It was about five weeks before I was due to graduate with my Master of Divinity. The time passed in a whirlwind. I would have saved myself a lot of heartbreak if I’d taken time off to grieve, but I didn’t.

Hard-won wisdom.

In September of that year, I was sent to St. Philip’s in Dunbar Heights to begin a parish internship. Our current bishop, John Stephens, was rector there at the time, and we sat down to decide some of the duties I would be given. One of my first ones was to give the Gospel reading at a midweek service in November.

On that day, I went up to the front of the chapel and opened the Bible.

A passage from Matthew’s eighth chapter. I didn’t look at it ahead of time.

First mistake.

Everything was fine until I got to verse 21.

“Another of his disciples said to Jesus, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’”

I lost it. Not copiously, but enough that everybody noticed and it felt super awkward. By the way, in case you’re wondering, our soon-to-be Bishop John hadn’t checked it either and he was mortified. So don’t send him any hate mail, he’s a good egg, I promise.

Now I find it funny – both the circumstance and the memory of John’s face. But at the time, it really wasn’t. Not only because it hit so close to home, but because it felt so effing cruel. Let the dead bury their own dead.

It felt like Jesus telling me I could be Clare Morgan, child of Moira and Richard, or Clare Elisabeth, Christian and would-be priest in God’s Church, and I had to choose. It felt like a total denial of the howling abyss of my loss. And we seem to constantly be called to deny the reality of death and loss, both by our wider society but also often in the church. It happens among a lot of evangelicals and Fundamentalists who act as though expressing grief is a denial of heaven and God’s plan. It also happens among the conspiracy theorists we see on the news and online – people who deny COVID, genocides, and climate crisis, who try to convince other people that terrible acts of terrorism like mass shootings are just “false flag” operations for…what purpose exactly? Who knows? So many of us don’t want to confront the depths of human depravity or even the far more mundane reality of mortality.

But no matter how hard we try, we can’t deny death. You have known it in your own life, surely. I’ve buried many of Christ’s beloved as a priest, and in May of 2014 my stepmother and I set free my father’s ashes in the mountains of Squamish. I watched them blowing up the side of those mountains and knew he was not coming back, ever. He may endure in the winds and the trees there, and I’ve felt his presence keenly, but it was not in any way I had known it before. He had occupied a space in time with a body. Now, that body, which I loved, which had a smell and a physical solidity, no longer exists. The living are the only ones who can bury the dead.

In the beautiful book Out of Darkness into Light: Spiritual Guidance in the Qur’an with Reflections from Jewish and Christian Sources, the former Episcopal priest Anne Holmes Redding writes:

“God alone is timeless, without beginning or end. …The rest of us must deal with time and the confines it imposes, the most dramatic and mysterious of which is death. Death appears in many guises and at several levels of existence: for individual beings; for relationships; for societies and other groups; and eventually, according to the scriptures of the Abrahamic traditions, for the cosmos itself.”

Jesus, far too late, comes back to Bethany, and meets Martha and Mary, grieving the loss of their brother, Lazarus, whom Jesus loved. Martha manages a profession of faith when she sees Jesus, but not Mary. All she can say is, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

This is true. And now it’s too late.

We don’t get any sense of tone here, of course, but we are told that Jesus becomes disturbed. There are actually many arguments about what is the cause of his disturbance and his tears. Dr. Harry Maier, my New Testament professor in seminary, argues that what makes Jesus disturbed is actually the unbelief and misunderstanding of those around him, rather than the death itself – particularly the crowd’s use of the theologically loaded phrase, “Come and see,” a phrase Jesus uses to welcome people into new life which is repurposed here to lead him to the dead. Why would Jesus be sad when he knows what he is going to do, even before he got to Bethany at all? It doesn’t make sense.

This is a solid and scholarly argument, and honestly, between you and me, it used to be very important to me, as a scholar of John.

But now? Not so much.

I just want a God who sees those who mourn, and cries.

After losing my dad, I want a God who cries.

After nearly two years and 5 million deaths from COVID, I want a God who cries.

And then, I want a God who, in the face of that slammed door, in the face of, “Where were you?” in the face of, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days,” says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God? Remember what I told you. Remember what I showed you.”

And then shows us nurse logs; the depth of solstice followed by springtime, year after year; stars exploding outward to create more nebulae, more worlds, more galaxies, on and on until time has no more meaning than a baby’s babbling; shows us the oppressed rising up, refusing to be silent, refusing to stay wrapped up in their shrouds, refusing to ignore the call, “Lazarus, come out!”; shows us resurrection.

Continuing her reflection, Anne Holmes Redding, who is African-American, writes,

“On a pilgrimage in 2006, I had a lesson about this mysterious interrelationship of death, sacrifice, and new life. Our group was in a little boat on a rainy day, returning from Skellig Michael, a stony island off the west coast of Ireland, where medieval monks had built a monastery high on a cliff. As I sat thinking about my ancestors who had crossed the North Atlantic Ocean centuries ago never to return to their African homeland, the air seemed full of a presence. I had always had great respect for those enslaved Africans who had jumped overboard rather than continue on the ocean journey of oppression. But that day I heard a chorus of voices telling me, “Daughter, we are the ones who did not jump overboard. And you are the reason we didn’t.”’

Subsumed with joy, Anne writes, “I felt resurrected.”

God calls to us – calls us to burst forth from tombs of self-loathing, suffering, and death, calls us to come out (yeah, children, hear that call), but does not deny the reality of what we risk to come out of these tombs, does not deny that we don’t always choose them, and we can’t always skip forth as easily as Lazarus did, and cries.

And when we do burst forth, God turns to those who witness our exodus, and gruffly says, “Unbind them and let them go.”

“No God but Love,” (Sermon, October 31st 2021)

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ 29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ 32Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; 33and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.

Mark 12:28-34

On this day, one year ago, my husband and I went to visit our friends – the last time we were allowed to do so in person before we went back into lockdown. We always visit these friends on Halloween, because while we live in an apartment building, they live in a detached house, and we like to share their trick-or-treaters.

Mindful of COVID-19, our friends had meticulously constructed a candy zipline. At the top, on their front porch, we sat on their deck furniture with cocktails and a selection of pre-packaged bags of treats, topped with flickering LED rings and little hooks. Trick-or-treaters came to the foot of the stairs below and were instructed to stand next to a large inflatable ghost. When they were ready, the little bags were attached to the zipline, and sent down to them, and if you did it just right, they would land in the arms of the ghost, although occasionally they came in too hot and went flying into the bushes nearby. That’s what the flickering LED rings were for!

Treat bags ready for the zipline

The first trick-or-treater was their four-year-old neighbour – a mystic of the highest order. For when he received his treat bag and was prompted by his mother’s gentle, “What do we say?” he responded not with “Thank you” but a wordless shriek of pure delight.

Yes, I thought, as we all bent in half with laughter. That is what we say. That is what we say when we realize that human beings, who can be so very innovative in cruelty, will also occasionally sit down together to plan and experiment and spare no expense to make sure that Halloween still works in a global pandemic, because we will be damned if children in our community have to miss such a magical night.

That is what we say at the beginning of life, when the relationship with the mystical is much simpler, because magic infuses every part of our lives and all things, both good and bad, are possible – from Santa to monsters under the bed. It’s only as we age that our minds and hearts fill up with words and rhetorical equations, and while in so many situations this is quite useful and fun and indeed very precious to God it also does not function to impress or flummox or fool the Beloved, who will love us no more or less for how poetic or intellectually adept we can be.

We are allowed, we are free, to be as children.

That’s why I love this prayer which my Sufi Muslim friends say: “La illahah illallah.” “There is no God but God.” God is our Source and our End, Alpha and Omega, Beloved and Lover, and many principalities and powers will attempt to jostle for position but nothing can replace God.

As the 12th century Persian poet Attar of Nishapur says,

“Look carefully!

This world, that world, are all God!  

There is nothing other than God,

and if there was, even that is also God!”  

“La illahah illallah.”

God is God, and God is Love. And if God is Love, then of course there is no God but Love, and that is the closest we adults can come to remembering the wisdom of children.

And oh wasn’t it wonderful to be so close, so intimate: welcoming children right up to our doorsteps, laughing barefaced across a table, singing shoulder to shoulder with those known and unknown to us, or being buried within one another’s arms?

Wasn’t it wonderful to love like a child shrieking wordlessly, throwing herself into a hug with abandon, rather than in this still somewhat abstract manner – in the way my hairstylist, who once ended our appointments with a hug, now stands before me and hugs herself instead; in the way we still press our palms together to offer peace, rather than touching; in the way we murmur “I love you” into the phone or a Zoom window, rather than into someone’s ear as we embrace?

Isn’t it wonderful when Love is so concrete?

Some days, I am filled entirely with “La illahah illallah,” filled entirely with wordless Love which is one and besides which is no other.

And some days I resonate more with the words of Chinese-Canadian writer Kai Cheng Thom, who includes the following poem in her beautiful book I Hope We Choose Love:  

what does it mean to be loved by a thing that cannot see you?

how does it feel to love a thing that you cannot see?  

Most of the time I’d say the human struggle of faith is with the latter half of the poem: How does it feel to love a thing that you cannot see? But over the last year and a half, I think a lot of people have been asking, “What does it mean to be loved by a thing that does not seem to see us here, suffering? For surely if it could see us, it would put a stop to all of this.”

Jesus and the disciples are in Jerusalem, so close to his own grand and wordless revelation of Love and, on the Cross, his own confrontation of this lonelier truth of Kai’s poem. And weaving his way through the high-minded debates and exchanges with scholars and sages and rank on rank the host of elitist clergy, he finds a scribe who asks a deceptively simple question – and perhaps indeed that question itself is also Kai’s question, slightly re-worded. What does it mean to be loved by a thing that we cannot see?

Here, in the holy city, before betrayal and denial and torture and abandonment, Jesus says to this young scribe, “To be loved by a thing that we cannot see is to admit that we do not exist outside of it – indeed, nothing exists outside of it. And if nothing exists outside of it, then we should act entirely within that orientation. And so if God is Love, we must love, for we are all one.”

As adults we often yearn for the so-called simplicity of childhood. But childhood is still deeply confusing, and likewise Love has always been this confusing, and the Truth is often this elusive, and there are as many ways to live the commandment of Love as there are those of us who live on this planet. While everything has been mostly upside-down over the last nineteen months, perhaps that part actually did stay constant: that divine Love at times feels alternately as heavy and warm as the winter woolen blanket on my bed, and at other times as high and cold and thin as mountain air. And for many of us, and especially transwomen of colour like Kai Cheng Thom, human love and safety feel just as uncertain as health has felt for us over the course of the last year and a half.

what does it mean to be loved by a thing that cannot see you?

Sometimes divine Love feels like the only thing we can really count on, and sometimes we feel foolish even thinking that.

how does it feel to love a thing that you cannot see?

I have sung songs of praise and whirled and embraced and danced alongside my friends and thought I would split like a ripe tomato with the juicy abundance of God’s love…and I have scrabbled about with ragged fingernails in the dark trying to find the smallest crumb of God to hold up to the light as an act of silent worship, and have ended up only with filthy palms and an aching jaw from the gnashing of my teeth.

We all have.

And yet.

Love is greater.

Greater than fear, greater than hate, greater than optimism, greater than cynicism, greater than confusion, greater even than hope.

Love is a wordless shriek of delight. Love is a sigh too deep for words.

“La illahah illallah.”

There is no God but God, and there is no commandment but Love, and Love is God and that is why the two clauses are wed.

As Kai Cheng Thom says, “It may be hard to believe in. It will be harder to live. I hope we choose it anyway.”