When I was midway into my tenure as the Rector of Christ Church in Tyler, Texas, I had a moment that was revelatory to me. By revelatory, I mean a moment in time that was pregnant with meaning, filled full. Such moments allow the Divine Presence to shine through the ordinary to give you a glimpse of something deeper, something transcendent. By revelation, like the title of a short story by Flannery O’Conner, it’s when Truth comes so close that you can not deny it, or at least, not easily Revelation confronts you.
For me, that has happened mostly in nature, me being a Druid in temperament. Being at the beach watching a sunrise or sunset: being deep in the Spring woods of Georgia with red buds and dogwoods blooming; driving through Big Sky country. These moments in nature break into my mundane consciousness with a re-minder of my connection to this thing we call life and the deep meaning within.
Other times, it happens for me in moments of silence, at a regular visit to a Trappist monastery; during a retreat at a hermitage in the wilderness of South Texas; or in my prayer space in my home, where I can be quiet, center myself in solitude. It has happened for me in a moment of focused reading, in which the words on the page plunge me deep into a linkage with the All. Poetry, in particular, does this for me, but it can be a good character developed, or a twist of plot where I feel connected with the flow of existence.
Journaling, which I have been doing since college, sometimes feels as mundane as writing down a shopping list. But other times, my own words and thoughts prompt a deep dive into the Reality that we all share.
Sometimes it is in a moment, specifically as I sat in front of the tabernacle in the church of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. A radiance overwhelmed me coming from the gold tabernacle where the Holy Sacrament is kept in residence between services. This particular night, it was around two in the morning, in a darkened church as I sat the the side of the altar. Those times are rare for me, but when they come, the Holy is present to me in a way that surpasses my descriptive powers.
How do you experience that presence, the deep sense of connection to all that is? How do you slip the surly bonds of duality, thoughts that divide us into good and bad, and encounter the unity of being? I know that worship is intended for such an experience, being in a place set aside, and performing traditional acts that are supposed to connect us to God. Maybe it’s just me, but that time often feels more structured, more predictable than I have found the Holy to be. But, maybe it’s because I have served as an architect or engineer of such experience in public worship for a long time.
A curious place I have found such revelatory moment has been in relationships among humans. Sometimes, it has been in moments of deep friendship through time, as the old times are remembered, and it is as if they are present in the now, anamnesis, they call it. Other times, for me, it has been in the one-on-one in a moment of intimacy, where both feel a deeper presence and bond that connects. That clearly can happen in the intimacy of sexuality, but can also happen with friends tied together by bonds of covenant that transcend the mere social convention.
But before I go getting all gooey with sentiment, let me tell you how it, that is, revelation happened for me in a most unlikely place. A bar.
Not just any bar, but the sacred place known as the Men’s Grill. This hallowed space of which I am speaking is located at Willowbrook Country Club in Tyler, Texas. No women, other than the wait staff, were allowed in the Holy of Holies, where male golfers would retire after an exhausting round of golf, to sip libations, and set the world right. It was understood that no woman, wives in particular, were allowed, reminding me of my childhood treehouse where girls, who had cooties, don’t you know, were verbotten. Same concept, much nicer digs, and much more expensive, but same gig. Dig?
In Texas, we would famously play golf in groups of five, known as a fivesome. In the normal world, golfers play in groups of four, a foursome, as it is called in Scotland, America, and all parts of the civilized world…even Alabama. But in Texas, a Republic unto itself, we played in fivesomes. Shall I bring up the proverbial adage: because everything is bigger in Texas. And I will not allow myself to make a too easy response to the brag, because I don’t shoot duck on the water, a Georgia quip.
There had been a summer thunderstorm which sent all the golfers off the course to the Men’s Grill to wait out the shower, enjoying the chance for a drink and munchies. I was with my regular group of guys: Dan, Ted, Jimmy, and Keith, four of the best human beings that I have known. My deep friendship with these four make my other relationships pale in comparison. Seriously, I wept on the day after playing my last round with these guys, as I headed my wagon, a Suburban (the national car/truck of Texas) back to Georgia. Two are them are now dead, leaving just we three musketeers that still maintain our friendship across a thousand miles and political terrain.
On this particular day, the grill was hopping, the wait staff trying to keep up the demand for beers and other liquid refreshment. It had gone on for some time, a spell, in Southern lingo, which is where Tyler is.
There was a din of noise, with people telling stories, as golfers do, unrepressed laughter, and jokes abound. That’s when he walked in.
Let’s call him Huey, because that was his name. He is big in physical size and personality. As he enters a room, he likes to dominate the room. He is LOUD. You know the type. He came in bellowing, like that bull in the lower forty, whose work is never done.
He was letting everyone know that his church, of the South of God persuasion, was looking for he new pastor. His volume level, the rock band 11, and his wildly waving arms, turned the attention of the room onto him, which is as he planned. It must be how he gets his kicks. In any case, he was ranting on about how ministers, these days, are watering down the Gospel, tickling the ears of their flock so that they would be loved and adored. He went on….and on…and on. You get my drift?
Huey said, “I want a pastor who will preach the Whole Gospel, not pussyfoot around with poetry, and such. Just preach the Word of God, plain and simple, not holding back, not watering down the strong words of Jesus. I want a minister who is a Man of God, who will tell us, straight up, how to live our lives with righteousness. Just let us see Jesus, tell us what Jesus commands us to do, and let the chips fall where they may!”
By now, Huey’s high blood pressure had kicked in, reddening his face with a crimson hue that preacher’s faces take on when they are pressing to the final point in a sermon, or finally getting to the “ask” of a love offering, or contribution to the “building fund”. He was hooping and a hollering so much that the room came to a silenced halt.
Then, he seemed be scanning the room, like a spiritual radar, straining to find his target. He narrowed his beady eyes on me. And, just like that, he focused on the “licensed” preacher in the room, putting my young ass on the spot. “Isn’t that right, Preacher?” I hate it when people call me “Preacher”. I mean, I got my doctorate so people wouldn’t call me “Preacher” or “Brother”. So now you know how to get under my skin. My bad.
“Isn’t that right, Preacher? I want a man who preach the Word of God, straight up, no holding back. The whole truth of God unvarnished, pure T-total Truth!”
As he concluded, the room was silent. He seemed to be asking me for a response, and I felt the eyes around me turn to me. I took a sip of my whiskey, a long one, and then looked straight into Huey’s eyes and said:
“You mean the part about selling all you have and giving it to the poor?”
It was as if the room was in freeze-frame for that moment in space and time, with my question piercing the balloon of his soliloquy. And then, in an involuntary moment of truth, Huey could not help himself and he told his God’s honest truth:
“Well, not THAT part.”
The term “pregnant pause” gets tossed about a good bit, but that moment WAS the quintessential pregnant pause.
And then, simultaneously, everyone in the Men’s Grill broke into laughter, for the Preacher had called his hand, and Huey had not a card left in his deck. Busted.
The moment of revelation for me was listening to Huey spout the directives of Jesus with such vigor and his admonition to those around him to “get right” with Jesus and his particular “take” on his message. And when I mentioned one particular teaching of Jesus that ran counter to his culture’s (Tyler, or Texas, or American, or Western, or First World) values, he wasn’t quite on board.
And while I joined in the laughter at Huey, the truth is at the same time true for all of us. We pick and choose among the buffet line offerings of Jesus’ teachings. Often we cling and shout those that affirm and confirm our prejudices and biases, while turning away from those that are challenging to our position, particularly those that might ask us to change.
That is clearly true of me. I remember the first time I read, really read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, found in the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7. I learned in seminary that this is a kind of “best of Jesus”, a collection of his greatest hits in terms of his teachings. If someone told you that you could attend a sermon by Jesus, my hunch is you would get in line. And in many ways, that’s what the famed Sermon on the Mount is. It is overwhelming to really listen to these teachings of what Jesus says about the nature of good and godly living. My hunch is that you probably wouldn’t call that rabbi to be the pastor of your church.
Further, the radical nature of Jesus’ message was made real for me in the Broadway musical, Godspell. The words are uttered by the actor playing Jesus, many coming from the portion of Matthew’s Gospel I am pointing to. The power of the play is that these platitudes are transposed into the actual way we are called to treat one another, forgiving one another, loving one another, reconciling with one another, and, God help me, praying for my enemies. As the member of the cast that plays Jesus delivers the words attributed as Jesus’ teaching, you find yourself responding, “Oh, Jesus. You have to be kidding!” He was not. This Kingdom of God stuff was a radical notion to treating ALL people with dignity and respect….even those that don’t look like you or think like you.
In the bar, on that stormy Texas afternoon, my revelation was not the hypocrisy of one bellowing holier-than-thou Christian admonitions and platitudes. I’ve seen and heard that all my life. And on occasion, I confess, I’ve been that person.
No, the revelation was how selective we can be in picking and choosing the parts of the teachings we will grab in order to confirm our bias, while dismissing those that run counter to our taste and comfort. I had never seen it so clearly present, as if it were a play, scripted to make that very point. On that day, in a bar in Texas, for me, at least, the lightening flashed…..and the thunder rolled.
We are entering the profoundly dramatic time known as Holy Week, a week when Christians across the world recount the days, the final hours, the minutes, the very seconds of Jesus’ final week leading to his killing by the political and religious leaders. It begins with Palm Sunday, the triumphal entry of Jesus into the holy city of Jerusalem, and it ends with the faith moment of Easter, as Jesus can not be contained by Death, the Resurrection which we celebrate with bell ringing, trumpets blaring, and voices joyfully raised.
But between the celebrative parade and the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, there’s this thing call The Passion. Jesus who gathers his friends in an intimate circle for a final meal. Jesus, who experiences the pain of betrayal by one who was a friend. Jesus, turned over to the authorities for disposal. Jesus, who was scourged for insurrection, nailed upon a cross, sentenced to death by a leader and a mob. Jesus, who hung in the sun, thirsty for justice, drained of life energy flowing from his wounds, feeling abandoned, even by God. Jesus, giving up his Spirit. Dead. Jesus.
Once again, we come to the week we call Holy, between the joyful entry and the celebration party of victory on Easter Sunday.
And truth is, we’d rather skip that week. Looking for a comfortable Cosmic Win by our hero, just fast-forward to the end, to that great getting-up morning of Easter. We just love happy endings, don’t we?
But what about the rest of the story, the Passion. And we say, in a moment of honesty uttered by St. Huey of Tyler, “Not THAT part,” But deep inside, we know we can’t avoid the reality, we can’t ignore the pain of life, for Jesus did not bootleg his way around the suffering of the Cross. He went through it, to demonstrate to us how to do our moment in the sun of life. THAT part, that some of us know better after this year of pandemic, is part of the equation of human existence that Jesus embraced. And truth be told, it makes Easter Sunday a true celebration, not just a hollow bell ringing.
THAT part is not to be avoided, but strangely embraced, and celebrated in a true Easter faith. Blessings.