2nd Sunday of (extended) Advent, Nov. 14, 2021
Proper 28B: 1 Samuel 1:4-20; 1 Samuel 2:1-10;
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25; Mark 13:1-8
The Rev. Amy Newell-Large
These are amazing passages for us this week! I had so much to reflect on and consider in particular around our conversations of Stephanie Spellers book we’ve been reading, Church Cracked Open. Last week Cameron reminded us that she is adamant that we cannot despair, that we must engage our lament, like Hannah, and together seek new growth, rebirth, and as Jesus responds to the disciples he also signals the birthing process through difficult transformation.
Being cracked open, difficult transformations are not endings, they are part of the creation process, an ongoing flourishing of God in the world- reminding us to pay attention and center on God in our lives and one another. The creation process, though difficult, illuminates God’s light and can even joyfully imagine new possibilities. Indeed, it takes the cracks, the struggles, to help shake us into creativity and different imagination!
The disciples notice and are in awe, what big stones are being laid, what a glorious foundation this will be! And Jesus remarks to beware that which might lead them astray, there will be pain, struggle, but these are birth pains. What many of us might take to be an ending- the crumbling of what we’ve known, the falling of structures that signified our lives, Jesus sounds almost hopeful- this is the beginning!
Obviously, this has deep resonance with our pandemic experience. We saw the fall of ways of life we thought were so foundational and we are continuing to discern the stretching of our creation in this time.
I also reflected on this quite personally and considered the times in my life when I have been cracked open, when I have noticed the falling away of what I considered to be foundational, and the creation that emerges and sparks new life. My decision to leave my job and our discerning to move to California came from being cracked open by the reality of an ongoing pandemic. At first, I tried to use optimism to cover it up, “just have to see how Colorado’s numbers look in a week,” but there was no denying the reality and instead I did need to face the cracks- what would it look like to leave my job? To become a full time student? To move away from our home in Colorado?
I realized my attachment to working through school as a source of pride and mental support; I noticed my fear of leaving Colorado that my diocese would forget about me, the foundation of needing to be known; I also noticed my lack of foundation around particular community because I already trust that we will make new community wherever we go. So that became a central part of our birthing process- new community. We definitely couldn’t know much about what we were getting into, but we knew we would make new friends! Times of transition are ripe for paying attention to the cracks. It’s never easy, or smooth, we stumbled through knowing what to do and putting knowing into actions, but there is substantial strength in the attention to the cracks. Jesus reminds us to beware what might lead us astray, and for myself, when I notice a crack but either have tried to cover it up, or ignore it, I let myself be purposefully led astray because it is the path of least resistance, the easier route- optimism or denial. Through all the cracking open I’ve gone through (seminary is kind of designed to crack you open) you’d think I’d have learned, there are no short-cuts, no ways around the stretching that I need to go through, you can’t plan away a birthing process, you can only go through it. I am aware that I’m opening to the spirit of creation and light of God. It’s good to ask, what are the foundations I don’t want to crack? Do you know what you hold onto most? I started to really notice the music I was choosing to listen to recently (Spotify is good at pointing out your habits)- I found myself going to the music of my adolescence a lot and that gave me pause, so I asked, what is this about? The nostalgia was a way that I was trying to hold onto a time when things were stable, known, familiar. It’s like comfort food for my ears! Why do I need that right now, what is being cracked open that I would seek reminders of stability? Heading into my final year of seminary there’s a lot that is unstable, unfamiliar and unknown. My foundation of having a plan and being organized are being shaken, I can’t rush through this year. So I’ll keep listening to my 90’s mix, but I’ll be aware of the tenderness I need this year, inviting with care these cracks to help reveal the next new step.
This is what Spellers really drives home for us, we can only go through this process, there is no formula to move through being cracked open smoothly, and also no set final end point to reach! When we are being cracked open - and we are aware of it- we can be purposeful, tender, caring and gentle with ourselves. We can seek help and resources to create a new next step, knowing that this is also itself built from what has come before and looks forward to what is yet to emerge. Spellers in fact turns to a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, and an Episcopal teacher to consider this recognizing our barriers of openness- the ways we are let astray. -She’s after my own spirit here. From Pema Chodron she invites us to consider the word, “shenpa.” Shenpa in Buddhism points to a particular kind of attachment. We may say we’re attached to the foundations that we perceive as necessary to our identity. But what shenpa invites is a particular examination of that attachment. Pema describes it as a major hook, an overwhelming urge, “The momentum behind the urge is so strong that we never pull out of the habitual pattern of turning to poison for comfort...Something triggers an old pattern we’d rather not feel, and we tighten up and hook into criticizing or complaining. It gives us a puffed-up satisfaction and a feeling of control that provides short-term relief from uneasiness.” Pema helps us describe the experiences when we know something is happening, a stretching is occurring, but we are so uncomfortable with it, and we yearn for stable, familiar, known, so we criticize instead of create, we complain instead of stretching deeper. Noticing this is HUGE. It is so reactionary to fear the crumbling of the sacred foundations of our identity and in the face of fear to activate shenpa and keep the momentum focused on preservation rather than creation. Pema continues, “The Tibetan word for renunciation is shenlok, which means turning shenpa upside-down, shaking it up. When we feel the tightening, somehow we have to know how to open up the space without getting hooked into our habitual pattern. If we can see shenpa just as we’re starting to close down, when we feel the tightening, there’s the possibility of catching the urge to do the habitual thing, and not doing it.”
There’s a beautiful embodied practice of this- yin yoga, it’s a practice of slow, deep stretching, noticing where your tightness is, and breathing, lengthening, and gently opening that place of tightness. For me having a way to notice the tightness in my body helps me reflect on the tightness in my mind and heart. When we feel the tightening the urge is to pull away, stop the stretching. But creation and growth requires a stretching, renouncing the attachment to things as they are in order to imagine what could be, deeper, more open.
As I mentioned, Spellers also brings us into conversation with Cynthia Borgeault, who says, “it’s simply a matter of letting go. It doesn’t even mean renouncing, like pushing away...it’s going through life, situationally, with a non possessive attitude.” I like Pema’s view of renouncing as the shaking up of being hooked, but I also like Cynthia’s emphasis on simplicity. Shaking up our attachment to the foundation does not actually have to be the drama we often fear it to be.
I do need a constant reminder to not be afraid, to let go and let grow with joy and curiosity. Again, Spellers invitation to, through prayer and community, center on God is precisely the engagement Hebrews shows us to as well. Let us together, consider how to “provoke one another to love and good deeds not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another”
I know my own time in meditation, prayer, and yoga, these are essential to the noticing that Pema and Cynthia, and Jesus call us to- notice when your attachment is being activated, when you’re focused on preservation rather than creation, and shift into a non possessive stretching, allowing the cracks to birth God’s love and light. Because when we tenderly pay attention to the cracks we can consciously choose the love Jesus offers.
Again, Spellers quotes Cynthia, “We can be magnanimous, we can be friendly, we can be very spiritual, until the moment when our ass is on the line and then bang! It’s backtrack fast.” She continues, “you don’t deter from love because of your fear for your own life… because love becomes the stronger principle.” Love is stronger, love is the true foundation. Love as the foundation is countercultural because we displace our identities that define us as individuals in the world and we center on a radical love that makes us bearers of Love for one another and in community. Our life in community is the muscle we need to develop the strength of love- we have to do this work together. My prayer on my own is part of this, but I need you. Love is relational, love requires more than just me.
Shaking our foundation, renouncing our attachment to false foundation, noticing, and tenderly stretching invites deepening into our life with God and the further revealing of love as the strongest foundation in the world. How in our life together can we witness God’s bedrock, and trust it enough to let our community be tenderly cracked open?
Last year in the women’s group Elaine Mannon invited us to ask a question she was wrestling with, “what is waiting to be born?” Let’s ask this question paired with “what is being cracked open?” With these together we offer ourselves a space to recognize what has maybe been leading us astray, and question our shenpa, but then with tenderness and joy consider what might come from this beautiful cracking open and offer new life together.