Psalm 84, Philippians 2:1-13
Text punctuated for delivery
I learned some time ago that very young children in every culture, when asked to draw a self-portrait will more often than not draw a horizontal line beneath the figure of themselves and a sun above, even in places where the sun rarely shines or the child is seldom outdoors. Developmental psychologists suggest that this line and sun represent that the child intuitively understands that they are not free-floating that they are framed by something outside themselves, that they belong in and with something beyond themselves. Presumably you and I drew our own self-portraits that way when we were still tethered to the memory that we belonged to what we later learned to call ‘God.’
This innate or intuitive knowledge of our belonging to the whole of things, or to what we might call the “divine life” fades over the course of our life if it is not reinforced. But we are reminded in places like this, that this memory reflects our true identity. We are NOT born alone onto a page. We are born connected and held. Born, as the psalmist put it, hemmed in behind and before, created like a bird in a nest, fashioned to be at home in God and on the earth.
If this is true, what happened to this beautiful sense of home? What happened to our connection to the ground-of-being beneath us and the Light beyond our reach?
It’s a long story but you know it well. You could tell it yourself. There are, of course, people who have never lost this sense of connection and belonging: against all odds, indigenous people, for example, have safeguarded this knowledge, even as it was stripped from them. But many people lost sight of it altogether. Because our hubris set us above nature, we lost our sense of kinship with the earth and its creatures. Because our religions mis-taught the relationship between the Spirit and the flesh, we turned against ourselves and against each other. Because we lost touch with the earth and lost trust in ourselves; the beautiful complexity of our ways of knowing and understanding – the braided web of heart, mind, and body, of self, world and others, of matter and spirit, clay and angels – collapsed into linear proof and private conviction.
You know this tragedy by heart: Eventually we were disembodied and separate – free-floating portraits untethered to our source of wholeness and ground of belonging.
It’s a heart-rending and world-breaking loss, this loss of the deep knowledge of our sacred shelter, our connection to all things and to the holy wholeness at the heart of life. The wounds of this loss are everywhere: the opioid pandemic and the climate crisis – people in pain and a planet in danger.
We know the story of separateness is untrue. So thank goodness the wisdom of our divinely crafted oneness and belonging, our dependence and inter-dependence has not been forgotten entirely and is finding ways to write itself between the lines of an old and tired tale of dominion and autonomy.
No alternative story is ever written on a blank page. Jesus’ vision of the kin-dom of God was written in the spaces between the lines of the Roman Empire. This renewed wisdom of divine belonging is being written in same way – written between the lines of small, competitive, and rapacious ways of being human on the earth.
In the empty spaces between the lines, a fresh portrait is being drawn of humanity’s place in the scheme of things, drawn by indigenous communities and poets, physicists and biologists, by visionaries and by those who walk the spiritual path of unknowing and knowing what it is to be human on the earth.
Between the lines of the damaged and dangerous version of who we are, they draw the beautiful truth of a seamless thread of body and soul, of self and other – an endless triquetra (design) of divinity and humanity, creature and Creator, as the real home of our belonging and the story of the universe.
Some call this portrait the great turning, or the great emergence, an earth-rising. Some know it as the ancient wisdom of their tradition.
When we speak of our spiritual journey or our spiritual life, we are speaking of the paths to that deep knowledge of our sacred belonging to the holy meshed nest of home.
Every religious tradition offers a path to this wisdom by whatever name – enlightenment, awakening, illumination, divinization, oneness. In our own tradition, we speak about the Christ within as the source of wisdom. The Christ within forms a wide but unimposing version of being human – the way love is wide and unimposing – the way it waters life without ruling it. It loves by befriending life, falling into its intrinsic holiness, becoming one with it.
We call it the “mind of Christ.” The Apostle Paul was perhaps the first to pick up a pen and write this spacious and unimposing version of what it is to be human across the small-minded competitiveness of the early church, but he was only the first. For centuries, mystics, sages and poets have continued to write it: so profoundly at-one with life, they experience everything in God and God in all things or (Mechthild of Magdeburg). Their Christ-minded humility allows them to be amazed into love. They meet God’s grandeur (GM Hopkins) in the every corner of creation, not as an object to enjoy, but as a path into kinship within the great web of the shared life we call God. The poet Mary Oliver (Summer, Blackwater Woods, Wild Geese) discovered that her reverence for the grasshopper, the pond, and wild birds were pathways to this kinship wisdom. Her poetry is filled with the mind of Christ, the humility to be at-one-with-all-things. She follows the path of amazement until it becomes union. Another word for that amazement-into-union, is love. When the divine heart becomes our own heart: “Thou in me dwelling and I one with Thee,” the Irish saint wrote. (5th century, Saint Dallán). Ojibway author, Richard Wagamese wrote that “awe and wonder are the foundations of humility.” (Embers) It is true that awe and wonder keep us in our proper proportion, unimposing, capable of becoming one, of becoming at home in love on the earth.
I’m sure this is what Paul would point to as evidence of “God at work in us” to use his words. That vision is something saints and mystics hold onto for a lifetime but it’s possible to glimpse it in moments. Maybe not in a grain of sand (William Blake) but maybe across a vast mountain valley or in the expanse of a field of stars. I imagine you too may have fallen in love with the earth in all its material holiness. Fallen in love with the ripe tomato or the sound of rain. I imagine you may have felt the pulse of eternity in the sound of the waves. Perhaps you have felt the fallacy of your skin dissolve like breath against the oneness of all things. Felt like a river joining the ocean?
I don’t know how to keep hold of that vision, how to write it with my own life between the damage of these days, how to read it in the lives of others or in the stars and the sea. But I know what our tradition teaches those who ask for a path to this inmost temple of the heart, where there is no self, no other, nothing, but only you, (Psalm 84) as the psalmist wrote. I know what the church teaches those who seek a doorway to this mind of Christ, who trust its holy antidote to the wounds caused by an untethered version of human life.
The 6th century pilgrimage site of Lindisfarne on the northeast coast of England is located on a tidal island three miles off shore. There are poles set at intervals in the mud flats, extending well above the height of the tidal waters so that even those caught in fog or rising tide on their journey can find their way to the community at Holy Island.
I think of Christian spiritual practices as those tidal poles – nothing spectacular in themselves – but crucial for staying on the path. Religious traditions like ours teach path-finding practices; we set down poles like praying the scriptures, silent contemplation, walking a labyrinth or pilgrimage, and belonging to community.
Perhaps the Apostle was attempting to do the same when he sent the church in Philippi that beautiful song we heard this morning. The passage we read from Paul’s letter is known as the kenotic hymn. The song of emptiness. Such a beautiful name.
The song of emptiness is an echo of the creation story itself. That story begins with the void, the empty space needed so that light and life had somewhere to grow. The Christ within us is the same. It begins in the empty space where light and life grow. Cultivating that Christ-expectant emptiness is what silence, prayer, pilgrimage, wonder, awe, amazement and other practices of attentiveness help us to do. They are space-creating activities that write a hymn of emptiness within us. They carve in us a concave longing, a hunger for the true story of our belonging to God’s tangled tethered nest of the home.
I heard this story being rehearsed last week at coffee hour. Not in so many words, of course. Carla didn’t ask us to “put on the mind of Christ.” But that didn’t stop people. I noticed how one person could not speak of herself without the humility of placing herself in the long story of human history, and the ebb and flow of its waves of awakening. Someone else confirmed this vision with evidence of the unprejudiced and complex thinking typical of the generation of her students. And then another spoke, her blue eyes sparkling as her hands animated the unfolding layers of humanity’s journey to wholeness. No one said, “now, there’s the mind of Christ,” but I thought it. These women could see themselves framed by the entirety and eternity of things, becoming part of what Paul poetically called, “God’s good pleasure.” I believe this is what Paul meant by the mind of Christ – a self that is emptied of petty private preoccupations, a self that refuses to live bracketed by the dangerous version of reality we tell ourselves, a self that chooses instead the truth of the infinite line beneath our feet and the radiance illuminating this world like the strong yellow lines of a child’s proud sun.
I understand why another name for the mind of Christ is awakening. It is as if a slumbering part of us has opened its eyes at last, found the very eyes of Christ, through which there is no self, no other, nothing but only you (Psalm 84).
May it be so. Amen.