Shape and Substance

meditations on faith and church

Month: January, 2016

Bones in the Basement

When I was nine I happened on a boneyard.
I ventured hesitant through the ill-used door
in the narthex of our little church’s sanctuary
and tiptoed down the creaking shadowed stairs
to the basement hall beneath the center aisle
whence weekly gathered worthies claimed their pews.
It was August, and I was searching
for a cool escape from the Nashville heat.
This hallway had not known footfalls in years.
The rooms that once had rung with children’s voices
were now a mausoleum of chairs and desks,
tumbled in wooden waterfalls. The smell of dry rot
stifled in the air. Dust-caked and silent,
mute witnesses of memorized verse and psalm,
they were but faithful ghosts, and held their tongues,
waiting for their time to come again.

At thirty-six I found another boneyard.
Following an orthodox black-robed abbot
I fled the desert heat, toured the basement
beneath St Catherine’s monastery at the foot
of Jebel Musa—Moses’ mountain—in the Sinai.
It was August. We’d just walked down the mountain,
Moseses making for the modern world without
commandments, though clutching golden calves.
The public did not often see this hallway,
but Chivas in its blue bag opens doors.
Along the hall were barred cells, and within them
heaps of skulls and femurs, feet and hands,
centuries compacted into catacombs,
mute mounds of bones, silent brothers,
faithful ghosts who taught the way of patience,
now wait the final dawn of Sinai’s sun.

Lately I’ve been thinking more of boneyards
not as relics but as reassurance
that I am neither first nor last to tread
the floor beneath the faith, the basement path,
ancient hall that runs beneath believing.
In the heat of things, when dark threats lurk
in shadows, it soothes to walk these halls
where other feet have followed in the way,
empty eyes expectant watch from side rooms,
vacant desks and chairs still hold their places,
and mute jaws may yet have aught to say.
What minor wisdom has been mine to hold
I’ve nurtured in my way, and will soon enough
relinquish to the stale and dusty air.
Then I, now gathered to these faithful ghosts,
will wait my time in basements full of bones.

We Pass Through Waters on the Way

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you. (Isa.43:2)

We pass through waters on the way
from mother’s womb to Father’s font,
and learn to swim the channels of our birth
as children part human, part divine,
who not at home in either region, wander,
rise through realms of wonder and delight,
knowing nothing more than pain and pleasure,
and wordless revel in the grace of play.

We pass through waters on the way,
in blue green pools in summer’s withering heat
and learn to plunge the fearsome deeper end,
lie supine and weightless at the bottom,
a little death, and breathless, cool and deep,
rest ‘til burning urgency compels
a resurrection, rise through parting water,
reclaim the shimmering surface of the day.

We pass through waters on the way
past shaded woodland creek or breaking wave
and learn to marvel and perhaps to envy
life’s greening, shining other world
with charms that lie beyond our puny reach;
when we by sleight of hand dare raise them,
they sing to us a song we cannot hear,
speak to us with words we cannot say.

We pass through waters on the way
through storm and swollen rivers’ murky flood
and learn to mourn and then to start again,
to stagger under loss’s grievous burden
bewildered, benighted, and alone
and still to rise and even cherish
what the howling wind and waters give us
no less than what they pitiless wrench away.

We pass through waters on the way
to time’s eternal river at the end,
and learn to gauge the ceaseless tugging current
drawing us insistently downstream
toward a place we do not, cannot know,
down from rising land whence rivers run,
to the cold embrace of river gods,
who nameless lift us, carry us away.

But at the final moment, for a heartbeat,
shall we not stand on Jordan’s nearer shore
and learn this last, this most enduring lesson?
The water is not barrier but bearer
through this life of wonder, an angels’ dream.
Pain and pleasure, love’s loss, heaven’s heartache,
what are they but rising tide to buoy us,
‘til we, at last rejoicing, drift away?

Passing Through Waters

Isa 43:1-7; Luke 3:21-22                                                           Baptism of the Lord, Year C


I don’t think I saw it so much as heard it. Standing at the head of long sweeping bend in the Conejos River, I heard a splash off to my left and fifteen yards downstream below a big rock.

When a big trout rises to take a fly from the water’s surface, it rockets up from its holding place in the deep water like a missile aimed at a target. As the trout reaches the surface, it opens its mouth and gulps in water and air and fly in a single swallow. At the same instant, the trout arches its spine and with a massive thrust reverses course and heads for the safety of the deeps again, expelling as it goes water and air—but not, if you are lucky, the fly. All this happens in an instant, a millisecond, quicker than a heartbeat, and even if you’re looking straight at it, you’re not precisely sure what you’ve seen. A flash of golden sunlight, a splash on the surface of the fast-moving current, and then it’s gone.

By the time I could process what I’d seen—or heard—the trout had, of course, vanished. Ah, but this was not my first fish. I’ve stood long enough in waters to know that big fish like to hold in the pocket water behind large midstream rocks. The rock creates a hole in the current where the water curls back on itself, and a trout can hold its position in the stream without exerting much effort. I knew that if I could land my fly—an Adam’s parachute, I think—just above the rock, and leave enough slack in the line, the current would carry it downstream and right into the pocket water where the trout was waiting. The fish would see dinner, served up with all the propriety of a white-gloved butler uncovering a chafing dish at the Earl of Grantham’s table.

And for once in my miserable, clumsy fishing life, I did with my fly rod what I saw in my mind’s eye: a single perfect slack line cast, delicate insect-like landing, a drag-free drift past the rock and into the trout’s field of vision. Even so, I was unprepared for the explosion of the trout’s attack. Erupting from beneath the surface, all spray and lightning, the golden flash of a big brown trout burst and vanished, and a half-instant later my fly line tightened like piano wire and started to move in ways I no longer controlled. I recovered, set the hook—not too hard, don’t want to break him off, I thought—and the fight was on.

I say “fight” as though we struggled, but it was really more like a strange inter-species dance. The trout took in the slack and went racing away, and I gave line and let him run; then he doubled back and darted sideways across the current, and I reeled in as fast as I could. Back and forth, in and out, giving line and taking it, we pirouetted and played, his fury against my fly reel, until at last I could feel him tiring, succumbing to my insistent tug. Finally I brought him near and reached beneath him with my landing net—even then he lurched away twice more, not ready yet to abandon the protest. But, at long last I raised the net, dripping, and beheld therein a magnificent fourteen-inch brown trout. His russet-gold sides were speckled with bright red spots that looked for all the world like droplets of blood, and his mouth opened and closed rhythmically, unable to breathe in this strange new world, as if singing a song I had not the ears to hear. I reached into the net to disengage the fly, and was suddenly aware of his power—a handful of sheer muscle tensing and loosing, pulsing with a sinewy electricity. He was regal, beautiful, and strong—an underwater god—and for the moment I had him in my hand, I was overwhelmed with a sense of pure delight. Not at my own mastery with a fly rod, but at the sheer wonder of this alien beauty, as though a hidden doorway had cracked opened, and I could peer into the workshop of God.

No sooner had I removed the hook than he shuddered violently, leapt free, and was gone.

Howell Raines, editorial page editor for The New York Times in the 1990s, and a dedicated fly fisherman, once wrote these words about the experience of catching a trout:

We have reached into a realm over which we have no explainable mastery and by supernatural craft or mere trickery created a moment that is as phenomenal on the hundredth performance as on the first…To get [fish] to bite something connected to a line and pull them into our world is managing a birth that brings these creatures from the realm of mystery into the world of reality. It’s a kind of creation. (Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis, New York: Morrow and Co., 1993, p, 104)

The prophet says:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. (Isa 43:2).

There is a boundary that marks the line between mundane and mystery, between our reality and the universe of delight. For me that boundary is easiest to see on the surface of waters, because looking at water reminds me that what courses beneath is beyond me, does not answer to my needs or service my desires, is of a wholly separate order of being from me. Beneath the waters is the realm of wonder, and to stand before them or to cast a line upon them is to pray for admission to that realm, to approach creation’s holy of holies with supplication and reverence and care. And in those rare moments when the barrier is parted, the boundary crossed, I experience the sheer delight of knowing that I reach over into a reality not mine to maintain, that there flows around and beneath and beyond me a river that has flowed since the birth of creation whose ebb and flood is none of my affair. I treasure that delight, though I know that, in an instant, it will flex its muscles, spring free of my grasp, and be gone.


Luke says:

…when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus had also been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove….(Lk 3:21-22).

I am struck with Luke’s language about Jesus’ baptism. The verbs are all in passive voice, and we see Jesus not immersed, but having already risen, dripping, and praying at the water’s edge. It is as though Luke elects to stand at a respectful distance from the action, as though he knows that Jesus’ baptism breaches the sacred barrier between divine and human, that extraordinary things are afoot here, things not under our control. But perhaps, too, Luke restrains his theological imagination from getting too close because he knows that Jesus’ baptism is only the beginning of this boundary-breaking. And he is right, of course; the best is yet to come:
…a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

Inured as we are to this story, it might be well to reflect for a moment on its strangeness. Even in Luke’s world voices do not ring out from heaven. Even in Luke’s world the Holy Spirit makes rare appearances, whether in avian form or any other. And maybe strangest of all, even in Luke’s world—to say nothing of our own—the proclamation of divine favor seems rarely to ring in anyone’s ears, drowned as it regularly is by the reactionary rhetoric of fear. Luke’s story of Jesus baptism is a tale from beyond our experience. To read it is to reach into a realm over which we have no explainable mastery, and to witness an experience as phenomenal on one the hundredth reading as on the first. Did the air tremble with the words of God? Did the ground shift beneath the feet of those gathered at the river? Did the waters part, so that he might cross to the other side? Who knows? Luke seems determined to press us past these questions, until we arrive at the boundary between the ordinary and earthshattering: until we hear the benediction from beneath the vaults of time. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the real message is the blessing pronounced upon Jesus, and through him, on the likes of us—“with you I am well pleased.” What a rare and holy moment; what a gorgeous glimpse of the shape of God’s delight!


The prophet says:

Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring for the east, and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away, and my daughters from the end of the earth,
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made (Isa 43:5-7).

There’s an insistent tugging in these words, as though somehow the prophet’s God has got his hook in us and is drawing us toward the realm of God’s delight—however much we may race away downstream and make for the hidey holes deep in our psyches. It is an awesome thing, this ephemeral tether, a thing over which we have no mastery, a thing that draws us insistently toward regions of wonder and awe—and of no small terror at the unknown power that is reeling us in. We would rather watch from a safe and respectful distance, would if we could duck back down to safety of our familiar fears. But the prophet is unrelenting. We are gathered from north and south, east and west, and called by God’s own name. We are drawn toward the boundary of the new creation, beyond which lies a future we cannot even imagine.

And this is where, for me at least, the story of Jesus’ baptism matters most. I suspect that on our own, we could not—even would not—approach this border between the shelters of our safe assumptions and the glistening realm of grace. There is, between here and there, a surfeit of struggle and change, and once there, we may find ourselves in a world in which we do not know how to breathe. No wonder we dart away. But, if I am right about Luke’s intent, we have the assurance that we are not the first to be drawn into the realm of God’s delight. Jesus passes through the waters ahead of us and marks the way. He crosses to the other side and pauses at the water’s edge as if to say, “Do not fear, for I am with you. Breathe in the Spirit, and follow.”


In the sanctuary at University Presbyterian Church here in Austin, as in many other places, the great baptismal font sits on the floor at the intersection of the aisles of nave and transept. I sing in the choir, and most Sundays, as we process toward the chancel and make our way around the font, I reach in, dip my fingers into the water, and make the sign of the cross on my forehead. I’m not alone in this practice. In the parlance of liturgy, we remember our baptism, remember that we are among those created for God’s glory, and are called by God’s name. But I think it is true that to dip beneath the surface of the baptismal water is to break some sort of barrier, a border between the canyons of heartache and the mountain of God’s delight. It is to be born into a strange new creation whose contours are as yet unclear. Still, each week I dip, and try to breathe.

But here is the marvel: it is not we who break the barrier, or cross the boundary of our own accord. Rather we are tethered to a blessing that summons us as insistently as a taut fly line summons a trout to the net. We could not pass through the waters were it not that Another has already passed through before us, and having reached the other side, assures us that we need not be afraid, simply because we are called by his name.

We pass through waters into realms of wonder and delight.

1 January 2016

It is early yet.
Orion has not dropped his bow,
though wearied of the eternal hunt,
though by dawn the great bear will elude him
yet again.

It is early yet,
daylight a distant gamble,
dream that was and might yet be,
pendulum slung between the antipodes
of darkness.

It is early yet.
I neither sleep nor rouse
from sleep’s cloying, comfortable embrace.
I swim the channel through the night, uncertain
of a landing.

It is early yet.
Cold-sharp breath excises
necrotic yesterday, tomorrow bleeds
its way to birth, stillborn or still unborn—
who knows?

It is early yet
to divine the way,
to limn the shape of pleasure, pain,
to chart the course of fear or faith, and still
I hope.