Following a Guiding Star

We’re approaching Epiphany on January 6—the twelfth day of Christmas, or “old Christmas” to some. I hear the word epiphany used mostly in the context of literature, probably because real-life epiphanies are rare. It means a flash of insight, a sudden revelation about the true nature of things. Something happens that triggers a new way of seeing things, a new level of understanding. A perspective that was previously unattainable suddenly becomes the new reality.

Photograph from the Hubble Telescope


Epiphany as a holiday, or holy day, recalls the story of the Magi from the East who, in seeing a new star at its rising, discerned that a very special child was born. The child’s star was such a powerful sign it moved them to set out on a long journey, following the star as it led them to see for themselves the hope that had come into the world. When the star stopped over the place where the child was, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw him with his mother, Mary, then knelt before him. Their appearance honored his singular fate as they offered him precious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Who couldn’t use an epiphany? We stand in need of a higher mind, a broader perspective. Or at least an idea we haven’t thought of before. Both individually and collectively, we live with conflict that seems irresolvable. One worthwhile goal can undermine another. Resources are limited but needs go on and on. The realities of life don’t fit together in a way that makes sense. How can a king be born in a stable? How can one who dies on a cross be a savior?

Carl Jung taught that learning to live in the dualities that life deals us is how we grow. We’re pressed to develop a broader view that somehow encompasses both. But there’s nothing comfortable about it. When we can acknowledge the individual value of those things that exist in tension, rather than rejecting one or the other out of hand, there are no simple answers. But in living with that complexity, rather than forcing an artificial simplicity, we become better, deeper, more thoughtful, more compassionate people.

As we move toward Epiphany, and into the new year, what kind of guiding star are we following? What is the vision that calls us to lift our gaze upward, above the daily routines, to cross the desert and move toward hope? What do we need to see for ourselves that will give life meaning? These questions aren’t easy, either. But in asking them perhaps we invite the possibility of Epiphany.

The Things that Save Our Lives

I’ve begun reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World, a title that speaks to the significance of our embodied lives and our daily experience of the world around us. Her book explores the meaning inherent in our physical existence. The chapters describe ways of inhabiting our bodies and our lives that help answer the spiritual longing for more—“ more meaning, more feeling, more connection, more life.”

“The accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life,” she says, “suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it.”

The friend who recommended this book called Taylor’s “an earthy spirituality,” and it is exactly that. She rejects the separation of earth and spirit, of body and soul, found in many spiritual writings. She sees that split as more an injection of the history of Western thought than the essence of a life of faith. She makes the point that Christianity at its heart reveres the life of the body through its reverence for the Incarnation. In her words, Christianity takes body and blood very seriously.

Barbara Brown Taylor is an excellent writer and I am finding both pleasure and meaning in her work. I appreciate the way she describes the practices that keep her grounded in the world and, at the same time, connected to the divine.

But the question that keeps prodding me is one she lifts up in her introduction, a question from which her book arises. Asked to speak at a church gathering, she inquired what the priest wanted her to talk about. In his wisdom, he went straight to the heart of life and asked her to “Come tell us what is saving your life now.”

There’s a question. What is so important right now that our lives depend upon it? How do we hold onto what will give life meaning or at least keep us from the pit of despair? Our answers change, but the question remains essential. I’m learning something from how she answers that question, and thinking about how to answer it for myself. I think conversations in which we can share the things that are saving our life are themselves part of what saves us.

For me, the process of learning to see helps. I’m learning to see how the spiritual resonates in the physical world, learning to see patterns in how life unfolds, learning to more clearly see other people. I think that learning to see is a way of learning compassion, as well.

So I would love to hear—What’s saving your life right now?

Clearing a Path to the Spring

When Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” he could be talking about church leaders. In entirely different contexts over the past few days, I’ve happened upon articles and presentations about clergy burnout, and I know the same thing happens to lay leaders of the church. There’s something wrong with this picture, and the solution goes beyond recruiting more workers.

Photo by Laura C. Brown

The church is a busy place. There’s a lot of work to do, people to serve, and programs to fulfill. We do our best to educate the young, comfort the sick, and reach out to those in need. Hopefully we also find meaning and create community as we carry out the work.

But do we find God?

We need the sustenance provided by a spiritual life. It strengthens us for all this work we’re doing, but more importantly our spiritual life helps us gain perspective on what we most need to be doing. Prayer and discernment help us to see clearly, to respond effectively, and to spend our strength wisely. Individuals need the strength and stability of a deeply rooted spiritual life, and the church community needs it as well. Yet even though it’s the basis of health, we don’t spend much time on nurturing individual spiritual practice at church.

We act as if participation in a church constitutes a spiritual life. We assume that church members have their relationship with God covered. But is that true? When people show up at church looking for God, how can we help? We can put them to work and make them feel part of the community, but is that enough?

Participation in a loving community may be what many people are looking for. But how can we show those with a spiritual thirst the way to the spring they seek? And how can we refresh those who have grown weary?

The Christian tradition offers centuries of wisdom and experience from those earnestly seeking God. Yet many seekers never find their way to this richness of the Christian faith. Many feel they must carry on their search elsewhere.

As a church and as individuals within it, we need to know our way to the spring that waters our community, our ministries, and our lives. It’s the same spring that Jesus visited when he went out early in the morning to pray, and where he spent the hours before he was arrested.

The pathways to that spring become overgrown when we focus solely on ministry, cut off from the spirit that sustains it. We need help finding our way to the source and keeping it clear of debris. Something within us thirsts for the living water there that brings wholeness. It’s a spring we need to visit again and again, and the world will benefit if the church can show the way.

Is there something the church could do to help clear that path for you?

A Prayer at the Shore

God of power and mystery,

Long we have stood in awe on your shores—

the endless expanse of sea and sky—

humbled by vastness in which we are held

and grateful to belong.

Photo by Laura C. Brown

Ceaseless waves speak of eternity

with crashing surf, the pull of tides.

We walk through foam when the surge is spent,

restored in the refuge of the immense.

But now we are stricken

by our own reckless sovereignty.

The fathomless sea measures the reach of irreverence.

Oil-soaked wings and gasping mouths

indict our choices, our hubris, our sin.

Lost lives and wasted marshlands,

ruined livelihoods and filthy shores—

work of the small and sullied gods

that we have made,

who trade paradise for a golden calf,

untempered by humility,

risking life for the chance of gain.

We are caught in the spreading slick

of blindness and indifference.

We depend –

for food and shelter, travel and trade—

on a society in want of discernment.

We rely on patterns not of our making

and confess that we perpetuate

a culture in need of change.

Forgive us our thoughtlessness,

and foster in us the desire for wisdom

in those decisions that are ours to make.

Lord, we are not self-sufficient.

We need your help to be the stewards

you created us to be.

As we lament the carelessness

may we learn to care;

In our dismay at destruction

may we learn to protect.

Lord, hear our cry. We have sinned, we were wrong.

We have fouled our home and harmed your creation.

We confess, we repent. Please help us to change,

To heal, to cleanse, to learn, to pray.

Love Letter to Leonard Cohen

Dear Leonard,

If I may call you Leonard—I don’t want to presume. It’s hard to know how to address you, of whom I am in awe. But “Mr. Cohen” seems terribly distant for someone who has touched me deeply, though we’ve never met.

The part of me that navigates everyday life feels silly about this endeavor, as if what I wrote about you in Responding to Beauty should have been enough. But the self that finds this letter necessary is driving. I’ve lived well into my forties without writing a fan letter to anyone, but apparently it’s time.

Yesterday I sat behind the wheel on Chinoe Drive waiting for the light to turn. I was listening to your Live in London recording, as I’ve been doing for many days now. But in that moment, as you spoke the words to “If It Be Your Will” I felt a piece of the great puzzle slip into place, easily and exactly. When the tears came, I had to find some way to respond, though it’s hard to know what to say. A connection, with another person, with the divine, is a gift that goes beyond words.

The crowd in London enjoyed your turn of phrase in “The Tower of Song” about being born with this golden voice. I take pleasure in the laughter and the line, and in how they turn back on themselves. Because your voice is truly golden: black gold, like coal. It lies beneath mountains to the east of here worn smooth by the passing of eons; it’s brought forth at great risk to the miners who work those underground seams. A chunk of coal is beautiful—dark and shining—with edges that cut the skin, and dust that marks a blue tattoo when the wound is healed. It yields heat beyond most anything else that burns. Not unlike art, sometimes. Like yours.

Your voice rumbles up from deep within, where the soul lies longing to rise. Your songs walk the earth with an ear attuned to the whispers of angels. They draw me in, break me open, and give me a heart of flesh.

I can’t help but wish I’d known you years ago, but won’t complain because I’ve found you now. What better time exists, for anything at all?

I don’t expect these words to reach you, but nonetheless I will say I’m grateful for the gifts you share. And if some sense of my heartfelt thanks were caught by the breeze to carry a blessing for you, an echo of the blessing you have been for me, I would be glad.

Thank you for your beautiful work. May you be well.

Yours sincerely,

Susan Christerson Brown

Naming the Ineffable

Names for God: Part 2 of a Series

Woven into the fabric of Hebrew tradition is the wise teaching that the name of God is never to be uttered. The powerful and mysterious name, given in the story of Moses’ encounter with God in the form of a burning bush, is usually translated “I Am What I Am.” It’s the designation of something more than we can grasp, not to be treated lightly. A reader of the Hebrew substitutes adonai, or “the Lord,” when reading scripture aloud.

Any other name denotes an individual we can know, someone with particular characteristics and habits, whose existence necessarily means limitations, a being among other beings. But this name is different, one that we cannot wield with understanding, a name beyond names.

I’m drawn to that mystery, but if God is beyond what can be named, it’s hard to know where to begin. How can I even think about, much less have a relationship with, the unfathomable source of life?

A sense of divine presence is somewhere to start, or the longing to experience it. The Psalms speak to that kind of knowing: As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. We can’t claim the stream, or apprehend its course; but we know our need for it and the experience of being refreshed by its waters.

And we have not only our own individual experience to draw on, but that of countless generations who have gone before. Many left their mark on the world’s faith traditions. When we find a line of liturgy or scripture or interpretation that resonates, we have a guide who helps us prepare for our own experience of the divine. We have gifts of poetry, art, and music that can open our hearts and point the way. The earth itself speaks eloquently of divine beauty, renewal, and creativity.

The unutterable name of God is spelled out everywhere, if only we can learn to read.

I’d love to hear about your experience. What stirs in you a sense of divine presence, or longing? Is it something you seek out in the rituals and routines of your life, or something that takes you by surprise?

You might also be interested in:

Part 1: Post Cards from the Divine

Part 3: The Kaleidoscope of Divine Names

Post Cards from the Divine

Names for God: Part 1 of a Series

I had seen reproductions of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings long before visiting the d’Orsay in Paris, so I expected that viewing his work would be an encounter with something familiar. It never occurred to me that the originals might hold so much more than those reproductions could show.

It left me completely unprepared for the experience I stumbled into. I was stunned by the vibrancy, riveted by the color. The skies he painted came at me like a physical force.

Maybe it was having recently enjoyed the saturated blues of Mediterranean evenings; maybe it was the mindset of a traveler taking in everything new. I don’t know what opened me to the power of Van Gogh’s canvasses, I only know that I have never experienced color the way I did standing before his paintings. I have never had a sky brought to life and emblazoned on my mind in the same way. For twenty or thirty minutes I couldn’t take in anything else. I was left with an image, or more specifically a color, that overtook everything. That blue.

I bought post cards before leaving the museum—replicas of some of the paintings I had seen. They were pale imitations; the colors were wrong, the depth flattened out, the life drained. The reproductions were just reminders of what I had seen, nothing like standing in front of the real thing. But nonetheless I’m glad for the mementos. Years later, the post cards help me remember the experience of taking in the works of art and being moved by them.

I framed one of the Van Gogh cards and placed it on my desk. I love the image, the color, the conveyance of light, the sense of shelter. It gives me pleasure. I enjoy the framed post card, but it only hints at the power of the original. It doesn’t begin to reveal the divine inspiration Van Gogh conveyed on canvas. And I suspect that even his amazing painting would have fallen short of fully capturing the inspiration he felt, as works of art tend to do.

The words we use to talk about God are a lot like that framed post card. Our names for God are accessible, we can make them part of our lives, they hold meaning and beauty. We fit them into frames on our desks—in readings and hymns, conversation, worship and prayers. But we miss out when we confuse those names with the real thing. We cut ourselves off from the experience of the divine when we think that the little image in the frame is the object of our longing or the expression of our desire.

We need names for God, yet any name for God is a placeholder, a reminder of what will not fit in the frame, what cannot be named.

Is “God” a name that suggests the ineffable for you? What name are you drawn to using?

You might also be interested in:

Part 2: Naming the Ineffable

Part 3: The Kaleidoscope of Divine Names

Opening to the Sacred

In The Case for God, Karen Armstrong talks about “this hinterland between rationality and the transcendent.” It’s the place where our thought, ideas, and intellectual life have taken us as far as they can, and we need a different kind of knowing in order to experience God.

The intellect is part of our spiritual path. It carries us past the limited notions of God that constrict our assumption of what religious life entails. It brings the fresh breeze of new ideas, which prepare us to see what we have missed. It shows the limitations we have put on God, and the experience of God, of which we were unaware.

But we can’t live into a new faith, or any faith, by intellect alone. An expanded idea of God doesn’t have much impact on who we are or how we live unless we develop a connection to God—asking, seeking, waiting, inviting, listening. In Armstrong’s words, “Religious insight requires not only a dedicated intellectual endeavor to get beyond the ‘idols of thought’ but also a compassionate lifestyle that enables us to break out of the prism of selfhood. . . . It require[s] kenosis, ‘negative capability,’ ‘wise passiveness,’ and a heart that ‘watches and receives.’”

Armstrong’s book mirrors this process. It summarizes and analyzes a long and complex history of how people have understood God. She places our current theological thinking in the context of history, the better to see how we arrived in this place and how best to move forward. Yet her work points to an understanding of God beyond definition or certainty, experienced in mystery, expressed in poetry and in love. It’s a book about what cannot be expressed in books.

Ideas are important; I thrive on them. Yet at a certain point ideas no longer satisfy. It’s like driving to the mountains to go hiking. At some point, you have to get out of the car.

I experience another kind of truth in the light turning gold as the sun rises, the purr of a cat under my hand, the voice of a loved one. These are openings to the sacred, to the sense of being deeply and truly alive.

I’m asking myself whether I’ve spent too much time reading theology and not enough reading poetry. Where is the balance between intellect and experience? Do you see one as more credible, or trustworthy, than the other?

A Church of Unknowing

I’ve just finished reading Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God (Knopf, 2009). It’s a big book to wade through, but the clarity and grace of her writing make it a pleasure. Even more, her ideas stimulate my own thinking. I won’t try to do a review or a summation, but here is one aspect that resonates with me.

One of the gifts of The Case for God is that Armstrong articulates clearly how the modern Western mind came to equate truth with certainty, knowledge with logic and definitions, and credibility with science. Even more, she shows how this way of thinking resulted in a notion of God disconnected from the heart of religious longing.

Rather than allowing language and logic to carry us to their limit, then point us toward the mystery that cannot be named or known, we settled for a list of God-traits. Our idea of God defined a being, with specific attributes, sitting at the next-higher level of creation. In Armstrong’s words:

The process that should have led to a stunned appreciation of an “otherness” beyond the competence of language ended prematurely. The result is that many of us have been left stranded with an incoherent concept of God. We learned about God at about the same time as we were told about Santa Clause. But while our understanding of the Santa Claus phenomenon evolved and matured, our theology remained somewhat infantile.

We need an understanding of God that holds up to our experience, and allows us to build a life around our faith. Armstrong points to the work of Gianni Vattimo and John D. Caputo as thinkers who embrace a way of seeing God that can speak to our time. She mentions in her notes a collection containing works by both of them, After the Death of God, edited by Jeffrey W. Robbins. I haven’t read it, but I’d like to.

This is how Armstrong describes Caputo’s view of our experience of God, and the unknowing that is “truth without knowledge”:

So how does Caputo see God? Following Derrida, he would describe God as the desire beyond desire. Of its very nature, desire is located in the space between what exists and what does not; it addresses all that we are and are not, everything we know and what we do not know. The question is not “Does God exist?” any more than “Does desire exist?” The question is rather “What do we desire?” Augustine understood this when he asked, “What do I love when I love my God?” and failed to find an answer.

An encounter with such mystery leaves us open, without certainty, thrillingly alive and humbled with awe. It points us to a reality that transcends our ordinary experience, calls us to be awake, and encourages us to seek ways of living out the ineffable truth that we are given.

Is it possible to live out this kind of truth in community? Can a church be built on faith that professes uncertainty and not knowing?