For a long time my favorite Psalm was 42: “As the deer longs for the water-brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God. / When shall I come before the presence of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while all day long they say to me, / “Where now is your God?” / When shall I come before the presence of the living God?”
This was the Psalm I prayed, the Psalm I prayed on or in, the Psalm where I rested. It affirms a love and hope in God’s comfort, but the poem never reaches that comfort. It remembers times of strength, it hopes for God’s presence, but it stays in longing and distress. That’s where I was, in much of my life and in much of my relationship with God.
But things changed. I was healed, through the love and patient care of friends and family, and new friends in the Church. I was healed by God’s love mediated to me through my priest, Steve White, and my Bible Study friends Laura Johnson, Alana King, Rebecca Legett, Jill Young; I was healed by good pastoral teachers like Elaine Pagels and Ellen Charry; I was healed by the Book of Common Prayer and the quiet high liturgy of a Gothic chapel.
Through these things God healed me, and my life changed, and my relationship with God changed. Somehow, in the last few years, I happened upon Psalm 116, of which we read excerpts today. “I love the Lord because he has heard the voice of my supplication; / I came to grief and sorrow, / I was brought very low, and he helped me. / Turn again to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has treated you well. / How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me? / I will lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the Name of the Lord. / I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.”
Being confident in God’s love means that my relationship with God has changed. The more confident I am in his love, the stronger I am, the more I know him—then the more responsibility I have in mediating God’s love. Having been healed, standing strong in my relationship with God, I must ask, “How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me?”
How shall I repay him? How shall I fulfill my vows in the presence of his people.
The story of Emmaus shows me one way.
Before we even get to Emmaus we hear hints of it: in our Collect we pray that God will “open the eyes of our faith”; the multitude hears Peter speaking and is “cut to the heart”; Paul says that we have been born again, made pure by obedience to the truth, and now that we have “genuine mutual love,” we are to love one another deeply, from the heart. But these are just hints! And in the story of Emmaus, we see our task more clearly.
Jesus was always listening to people who you were supposed to ignore or dismiss. In the Emmaus story, he gets to play the other side. He’s gone back to being some back-country rube, who doesn’t know any of the big city news.
These two followers respond to this stranger’s innocent question with incredulity—“Who IS this guy?” or “Are you kidding me, man?” They take pity on this poor guy out of the loop, they fill him in. And then this stranger (who apparently knew less than they did), says straight out, “Oh, how foolish you are.” Perhaps translated to our time and context, it might sound more like, “I can’t believe you guys,” or “You know you’re totally missing the point, right?”
This stranger keeps talking, and the two followers keep listening, and their hearts burn as he speaks, and they want him to stay with them and keep talking together. They are rewarded with God’s own wisdom about God’s self, from a person they may have at first dismissed. They were with God and didn’t even know it.
How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me? When we “love one another deeply from the heart,” when we are strong enough and steady enough, we can listen to other Christians say, “Oh how foolish you are!” We can listen to other Christians implicitly or explicitly call our beliefs wrong or harmful or offensive; we can listen to Christians share their own beliefs that we might find wrong or harmful or offensive.
And then! It’s not enough just to listen—we need to ask God to open the eyes of our faith; we need to love this other person deeply, from the heart, with a genuine mutual love. And we need to be open to being “cut to the heart,” to feeling our hearts burn—because we might be hearing God without knowing it.
That’s the task that Emmaus sets before us. That’s what we’re getting ourselves into when we’re born anew in God’s love—when we go from the longing of Psalm 42 to the confidence and praise of Psalm 116.
In my own life, this has looked like many different things. Mostly, it’s looked like trying and failing, and trying, and failing and so on. The few times it’s looked better, it’s been first because of God’s grace—that inexplicable gift that occasionally helps us to do something we couldn’t do alone. It’s also because of friends and family situated along the spectrum of Christianity who are respectful and loving, with this genuine mutual love Paul exhorts us to. So here are two quick examples.
When I went from “grief and sorrow” to “praise and thanksgiving,” for me it meant leaving the Evangelical Free Church of my parents for the Episcopal Church. I had been hurt by the church, as many have been, and for a long time I did need some distance. But slowly that changed, and eventually I found myself sitting at breakfast with my Dad, talking about homosexuality (as one does). We ate beignets and drank chicory and Dad said that he thought it was a sin, and I said I didn’t, and we asked each other how we’d come to believe these things, and we kept eating breakfast, and then we moved on to talking about men’s ministries, and bicycles and things (as one does). Big disagreement, hard conversation, no big deal.
What made this possible was my father’s and my love for each other. I had learned to keep my eyes open to all the ways that Dad was living a beautiful Christian life—his patience in all kinds of situations, his kindness to everyone, his forgiveness and his asking for forgiveness. I didn’t trample on his beliefs or his devotion to God. And Dad didn’t try to convince me to change my mind; he had his eyes open to the work God was doing in my life, and could appreciate that even as he disagreed with me.
My other example is a crowd I call my “Conservative Young Men’s Discussion Group,” (a.k.a. Handsome Men in Bow Ties—though to be fair they don’t all wear bow ties). This is a group of three young men, all Christians, who believe things that I do not believe. Their own beliefs differ, including as they do a liberalish Mormon, a somewhat radical Anglo-Catholic, and a traditionalist Episcopalian. I love talking with each of them. They can express respectfully ideas which I might find harmful, and we can have clear debates about complex theological issues which are, with other people, too hot to handle. We can do this because we each believe that the others are in close relationships with God. If one of them were to say to me that he isn’t sure women should be leaders in church, I could hear this without reaching across the table to slap him, because I have seen how he loves God! And seen how he has formed so much of his life around loving others and caring for them. And I think they, too, can hear what I say because they trust that I try to listen to God and be close to Him.
So those are two ways I have tried to listen to strangers on the way to Emmaus. I think God has spoken to me through these people with whom I disagree. There was a big dose of God’s grace involved, the kind of grace that opens your heart bigger than you think is possible. And, like I said, I’ve been lucky to have such amazing friends and family, because this isn’t the sort of thing you can do on your own. “Genuine mutual love” means you need at least two people to be loving each other!
But you know, IDEALLY, it’s not just two people—it’s a whole community! A community like—say—a chaplaincy!
One of the things I love about how ECH has grown in the last four years is that increasingly we are able to behold God in each other and in the world around us.
When I first came it was a quiet and thoughtful community, one that I needed. I found special welcome in the persons of Cameron Partridge, Emma Brown, Lorel Clafton, and Jerome Fung. But something needed to change; there was a kind of narrowness to our conversation, to what we found acceptable or sensible or right. And things did change! Our new chaplain, Luther—our student leaders Graham Simpson, Emma Brown, and Alice Kenney—our first Micah Fellow, Tiffany Curtis, and our current Fellow, Abi Strait—our unofficial professorial advocate, Adrian Vermeule—and other leaders, official or no, slowly helped change the culture.
And it wasn’t just the official leaders who effected this change; it was all of you! When you came, you decided to be a part of this. You decided to love each other.
We still have some growing to do, but we’ve come a long way! Now, we include people from a variety of different backgrounds, different ways of praying, different tastes in worship and prayer styles and sounds—we don’t just “include” these people, we are these people. We have different ideas and different ways of relating to God, and many of us feel them very strongly. We get along and are a family together not because we have wishy washy ideas that don’t really matter—we get along because we have decided to love each other, deeply, from the heart. We have decided to love each other.
I can’t really believe that I’m leaving ECH, but I guess it’s happening, and I guess it’s happening soon, and so I want to share one of my hopes for our community—for those of us leaving and for all of you who will stay and continue to grow together. I hope that this will be a place where you can meet God in those with whom you disagree. I hope that this will be a place where we love each other regardless of who we vote for or how we sing or how we dress or which creed we prefer.
I hope that this is a place where we are born anew and know a genuine mutual love. Where we can say, “Turn again to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has treated you well. / How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me?”