We had a little bit of excitement this last week. Barb was out of town, so it was Pete and I and the dog at home. Sunday morning, we left for church and all was well. Pete got home before me. I was down at Panera having lunch with a few of you when I got a call from my remarkably calm and clear-thinking son. Now this is generally true anyway of Peter. But once I found out what was going on I was even more awestruck by his capacity as a 17-year-old to keep his head.
As I was sitting, relaxing at the table, digesting a lovely meal, Peter was on the other end of the phone, by that point probably dripping wet, but not yet as drenched as he would be in a minute or so after following my instructions.
You see, Pete got home, and I think it was the sound that caught his attention first. Then he came into the kitchen and saw water everywhere, coming from under the kitchen sink. I think he may have investigated a bit first, leading, no doubt, to his initial baptism. Then he called. That’s when I sent him back under the sink to see if he could see his way through the torrent to shut off the water at the source. Let’s just say he immersed himself in the task—he was talking with me pretty much the whole time. Not sure how he did that, but it was impressive and, I gather, cold.
It turns out the knob that I had him looking for that would have turned off the flow of water, was actually the thing that had failed. It was lying somewhere among the cleaners and food waste under the sink and no turning at that point was going to stop the water.
Well, long story short, we eventually got the water turned off and spent a good part of the afternoon cleaning and drying and replacing aging valves to prevent another flood. And I thought we had dodged a bullet.
Today we have a kitchen stripped to the subfloor, a plastic wall separating the family room from the kitchen, 9 massive fans and a few dehumidifiers all over the kitchen, the hallway, my study, the pantry. A dehumidifier is sucking up air from the crawlspace where water rained down through the floor, through the insulation, and onto the plastic covering the ground. There are four more fans running down below.
It turns out water goes where it wants to go, and it is hard to stop it. Just ask the folks in California beneath aging dams. And once it’s in, it takes some time to get it out. And if you don’t remove it, it can cause all sorts of problems.
It turns out things can change pretty quickly. And when they do, it’s remarkable how easy it is to forget what was. That’s true in kitchens. It is, more importantly for today, true in matters of faith and life.
I was thinking about that this week while keeping up on the changing policy towards immigrants and undocumented members of our society. I was thinking about it in terms of the kinds of conversations we are having about what kind of a country we want to be and what values provide the footing.
It feels to me, perhaps you too, that the culture is shifting so quickly that I’m afraid we will lose all perspective—that we will forget where we started from, so we will never be able to get to where we want to be.
But today’s stories remind us we have a foundation on which to build. Even as these texts today deal with the mystery of God that is a part of faith, the experience of the unknowability of God is firmly planted. It is as rooted as these mountains that grace our surroundings in this place. It is as solid as the bedrock on which they stand.
Take what’s happening with the fight we are having about outsiders and insiders as an example. We are wise to be careful not to dismiss any individual or any one system of belief whether Christianity, Islam, or any other as all one thing. We are seeing something of this in the current characterization of Islam as a religion of radicals and terrorists.
There were times, of course, when Christians were likewise branded as dangerous. As we remember from our history, when it was new, Christianity was a treacherous religion of polytheists pursued and persecuted by Rome before the emperor was converted on the Milvian bridge and everything changed overnight.
A few centuries later as Rome burned and society as it was known then began to disintegrate, Christianity along with it. Christians went to the desert to create communities that could recover the heart of a religion that had become so misshapen that everything had to be set aside for the people to once again see the way.
For many of these ancients, the cloud-covered Mount Sinai became a symbol of what the heart longs for most, as well as what the mind is least able to comprehend…Around the year 500, Pseudo-Dionysius, referring to this Exodus story, spoke of Moses who “left behind every divine light, every voice, every word from heaven, to plunge into the darkness where the [Holy] One dwells who is beyond all things.”[i] There is something about encountering the fullness of God, according to this way of understanding, that involved letting go of everything that is not God.
A few generations later, Maximus the Confessor observed that Moses pitched “the tent of thought” outside the camp and only then talked with God on the mountain. “It is precarious to attempt to speak the ineffable in verbal discourse,” he warned. In the mountain’s thin air, one’s thoughts and words—like one’s breath—must be carefully measured.
I have heard over the years many who have said to me in one way or another, “I don’t really know the bible… I don’t know how to read it. I don’t know how to pray.” There is a humility here that shows some wisdom, no doubt. Like the ancient desert fathers and mothers, a breath that is carefully measured when it comes to things of the Holy One. But there’s something else here that concerns me—especially in this day and age when the torrent of ideas has everything shifting.
Sometimes our unknowing can become a reason to not search and explore and ask hard questions. We are tempted to defer to the so-called “experts”—whether religious or political. I’ll just have this commentary or this pastor or this writer tell me what to think. Or, perhaps worse, I’ll just try to do good, and leave the spiritual quest to someone else.
But Christianity, and any faith really, is only lived as it is practiced. No one can live it for you. Likewise, no one can find the way for you. It is your work to do. And it is my work to do. And the good and terrifying truth is that as we make the climb, as we engage the hunger within ourselves and allow it to take us further inward, God meets us, and truth holds us, and we are both injured and healed in the same moment. God’s Spirit within and all around us lures us through increasing levels of cloudy obscurity and vulnerability to a deeper knowledge and love.
It is no accident that this story of mountains and mist and unknowing lead us right into Lent. It is a reminder. Don’t skip the journey that only you can take. Take it from my son Pete and don’t be afraid to get a little wet and a little tired.
“The knowledge of God is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb,” said Gregory of Nyssa. Yet, paradoxically, the place of fearfulness—the place of risk—is also, the place of being known and loved. And it is where we find our footing again and again amidst all sorts of uncertainty for ourselves and for others, and for our future.
[i] Belden Lane. The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (London: Oxford University Press, 1998), 107.