Archive for April, 2019

“A Feather on the breath of God,” (Sermon, April 28th 2019)

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:19-31


The German Medieval mystic, polymath, and saint, Hildegard von Bingen, once wrote,

‘Listen: there was once a king sitting on his throne. Around him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honour. Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along. Thus am I ‘“A feather on the breath of God.”’

It’s a lovely image, isn’t it, so deeply layered – guilded columns, kingly robes, and a tiny, vulnerably fluffy thing hovering, perhaps in a golden bar of sunlight, a smile on a royal face.

This quote came into my head a week ago as I observed Holy Saturday with a group of Inayati Sufis.

Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam whose most famous ritual is whirling, spinning around and around as an act of ecstatic prayer, which Sufis can do for long periods of time without getting dizzy or falling down.

There are many branches on the Sufi tree, and the Inayati Order is a modern one, established by Inayat Khan, an Indian dervish and teacher trained up in the much older Chishti Order. Khan felt called to unite East and West in the Sufi tradition, and so he went to the United States, adapting the rituals as he went.

The group I associate with was introduced to me by Seemi Ghazi, a professor at UBC who came to do a clergy professional development day on Islam. I had encountered whirling before and was so moved by it that I asked her if there was a way for someone like me to participate without compromising my faith or being disrespectful of hers.

She laughed. “Muslims love Jesus and Mary too. Come join us.”

I went to my first Friday zhikr and fell in love with the prolonged free-form chanting of that service. Before we began, I was taught the basics of whirling. Somehow, despite my fear of dizziness, nausea, and falling, the first time I did it with them I managed to do so for almost ten uninterrupted minutes.

Whirling is all about letting go. My assumption, like most people’s, was that the trick lay in resting your gaze on one spot in the distance to steady you. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Sufis do not do this – in fact, most of them whirl with their eyes closed! Some Sufis focus on the thumbnail of the leading hand, and some simply “soften” their gaze, resting on the feeling of solidity between the spinning foot and the ground, like a tree rooted deeply in the earth. The body itself is straight up and down, like the number one, a sacred number for Muslims, who are radical monotheists. As they whirl, they often sing ecstatically, “La illaha illallah,” “There is no God but God.”

A few weeks ago I was asked to help plan and play harp at a Holy Saturday Yalova sema, or informal whirling service, at the prayer space a dervish couple had built in their basement. This was a small room with many angles and a skylight in the top. The wood is highly polished and the acoustics are incredible.

Through email a group of us drew out the many complimentary themes of death and rebirth appropriate for such a time, and found both Taizé hymns and Sufi chants that would work together.

In most Sufi services, one of the dervishes told me, the music is performed with careful attention, while in Vancouver it was often more like jazz, with spontaneous improvisation. I felt such incredible resonance within me as we moved between “Lord, have mercy” and the analogous, “Estaghfirullah,” and the incredible heartbeat of the Taizé  hymn “The Lord is my Light” combined with whispered utterances of “Hayy, hayy, hayy,” the Arabic word for “life.”

Eventually I left the harp to join the whirlers in the very small space. My as yet unskilled whirling is relatively slow, but as I continued and my arms opened up into the standard posture of prayer – one pointed to heaven, one pointed to earth, for divine power to run through the body – I felt myself wanting to go faster and faster, like I wouldn’t be able to stop myself, a feather hovering dizzyingly on the breath of God.

I held it in, because I knew that if I tried, I would probably fall over and take a couple folks down with me!

Later, I confessed to another dervish that I had felt myself almost surrender to that impulse. She chuckled and said, “Your heart did.”

The disciples watched Jesus topple pillars of reality, rip up the roots of their assumptions, and send them whirling into a new way of being. He made sacred abundance from profane elements, unraveled old understandings of royalty, knit them up into new tapestries of vulnerable grace, shattered even the hardest stone tablets of truth like death in the story of Lazarus. With countless deep breaths Jesus sent them spiraling up to hover in sun-kissed flight – feathers on the breath of God.

Then, one horrible Friday, the breath disappeared.

The feather is pulled back to the earth by the weight of its calamus and plummets. The world intrudes upon ecstasy with hard truth, a hard “No” again.

No, death is always the end.

No, liberation is only won through violence.

No, strength comes from a closed fist, it can’t come from a hand pierced with a nail.

No, kings are never crucified.

You were wrong.

You don’t come back easily from a hard fall like that.

And yet.

Three days later, one feather, somehow, finds herself again borne up, and her song manages to pierce through the doubt and failure and fear…and then, suddenly, the breath returns, and despite all horror it breathes peace, peace, peace, and they are all propelled back up into the stratosphere.

All but one…and it ain’t gonna fall again, thank you very much.

I have so much sympathy for Thomas. He was a faithful thinker, one who pondered and loved deeply. He was prepared to die with Jesus visiting Lazarus in Bethany despite the threat of stoning. At the Last Supper, he says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” He seemed to understand that his teacher, his friend, was worth dying for. And yet all of that conviction melted away in the horror of the Cross. Maybe he had never truly known that depth of conviction and love for someone else before. Maybe there was no way he could piece together the broken pillar he had erected, no way to remember that he had already seen death made a mockery once, no way to find the breath beneath him again.

And how it must have stung to hear this tearful, awed, jubilant proclamation from his friends: “We have seen the Lord!”

It couldn’t be, he must have thought. We’re back on earth, remember? Closed fist, closed hearts, closed grave. Dead is dead is dead.

No breath. No life.

And yet, even despite all this, he came to be with them again.

Still seeking. Still loving.

And discovered that he was no more on earth, but in free flight, in open hands, with an open heart, before an empty grave.

Because love blows open all closed things, and holds what once was dead aloft to be warmed into life by the sun again.

Because God has confronted every solid truth that stands in the way of life and shattered it in the sunrise of new life, new wisdom, new truth – and with the gift of that very breath that holds us up, empowers us to do the same, to proclaim that death is not the end, and that we can always choose healing, forgiveness, and resurrection.

What possible response can we offer but unbridled, dizzy, falling-down love?

I’ll close with a poem from Abu al-Hassan al-Kharaqani, a 10th century Sufi teacher, translated by Omid Safi in his beautiful book Radical Love.

“Don’t be meek in this love…

For God is bold, and likes those who are bold in adoration.

This path is for the bold, the intoxicated, the love-crazed.

With God, being love-crazed, intoxicated, and bold works.”

Sand and Bone Track #8 – When I survey the wondrous cross

Sand and Bone Track #7 – By a river in Babylon

Sand and Bone Track #6 – The Cost (For Dietrich)

Sand and Bone Track #5 – Ubi Caritas