"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Language of the Spirit

Pentecost can be a disappointing Feast Day in our mainline churches, especially if it falls on a stultifying and hot Memorial Day weekend. We can get out our dove kites and crank up the organ and read the Scriptures in different languages …. But where is the dancing fire, and the soaring wind, the huge crowds, and the wild speaking in tongues? When I read the Gospel in French, you didn’t all understand it. Being assaulted by all of those foreign words during such an important part of our liturgy might even have had the opposite effect of making you feel left out and grouchy. Even the Good News in English seems to escape our understanding these days, as we scratch our heads over the meaning of ancient terms and Bible stories that seem to come to us from a universe so far away. Sometimes preaching reminds me of the little boy who came up to me, after what I considered a very successful storytelling lesson in kindergarten French class, and said in a longing, trembling voice, yet with such a hopeful, upturned face , “Miss Madame Vouga, can you tell us that story again using real words?”
Has the Holy Spirit deserted us, then? Are we no longer a Spirit-filled community? Who is this Spirit whom we ask to visit us in wind and fire and words?
I had always been taught to think about the Holy Spirit as the Person of the Trinity with a unifying role. It is the Spirit who swoops down and unites God with the world. It is the Spirit who flows out of Holy Scripture to pour its Truth into our hearts. Wherever there is a gap between human beings and God, the Spirit is there to bridge the gap. And if the Church is on the right track, then the Church will be bubbling with that unifying Spirit, a Spirit of Love and excitement that will overflow the church walls and spill out into the world.
I was interested to read, however, a different understanding of the Spirit’s role this week, an understanding that seems to fit more closely with today’s readings. My all-time favorite theologian Rowan Williams points out that the Spirit is indeed a bridge and a divine gift of life and renewal, but it is not meant to be a bridge between God and the world. The Spirit is instead a bridge that spans the gap between human suffering and hope. The work of the Spirit is to create human beings who are capable of “confronting suffering without illusion or despair.”[1]
In our Gospel from John, Jesus explains to his disciples that they will not be left to suffer alone when he returns to his Father. The Spirit--the Advocate, the Comforter--will come to them in order to keep them free from the illusions and despair that will arise when they look around them and, despite Christ’s resurrection victory, see sin continue, righteousness falter, and divine judgment delay. In our reading from Acts, we know that the Spirit comes to strengthen the early Church in the face of terrifying persecutions and in light of the trials of the end-times described in the book of Joel—times when “the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood.” And in Paul’s letter to the Romans, the Apostle describes our life in the world, as he writes about the whole Creation moaning like a woman in labor, waiting in suffering and pain and yet holding patiently onto hope—hope for new life and a salvation that cannot yet be seen, except through the eyes of faith.
The Spirit acts within this gap that Paul describes, this gap in which we are all milling about right now, shifting around in our pews, worrying about loved ones who are suffering at home, bearing our own pain, bored, hungry, lonely, lost, misunderstood… and yet waiting for that glimmer of hope—the one lingering somewhere out there behind that stained-glass dove over the Altar. The Spirit is the divine power that settles into this unsettled space within us and pries open a corner so that the light of hope can shine in. The Holy Spirit is what sustains us as we live between “the given and the future, between reality as it is and the truth which encompasses it.”[2] Sometimes that hope pours into us like a gale-force wind, nearly knocking us over with its power. Sometimes it dances dangerously all around us like flames. Sometimes it fills our bleeding hearts with the kind of joyful song that allows us to sing alleluia at the grave. Sometimes it carries our whole assembly forward, and sometimes it sustains us in the quiet of our own lives. But its expression is not limited to great outward manifestations. Sometimes, we can barely feel it at all.
I propose that the Spirit works in us and in our communities in the way that language works in us. It is no coincidence that Pentecost is wrapped in the power of language. In Through the Language Glass, author Guy Deutscher explains how the grammar and syntax of our languages create habits of speech that affect our memory and even our perceptions of the world around us. If I speak a language, like French, in which all nouns are associated with a masculine or feminine gender, then deep-down in my understanding, I will somehow associate “trees,” for example, with maleness and “tables” with female traits. My gendered language will determine my understanding of trees and tables. If I speak a language, as do some Australian aborigines, in which all location and movement are described by the cardinal directions of north, south, east, and west, then I am forced to notice constantly, yet subconsciously, the geographical position in which I find myself. Such an understanding determines how I view the world and what I remember about the world. Language does not alter our logical reasoning patterns, of course; speakers of different languages do not do math differently. Yet, over and over again, the demands of our language force our brains into certain miniscule patterns, certain almost imperceptible habits. And what these habits of language train our brains to do, influences what we remember, how we perceive, and how we negotiate our surroundings. They subtly change the way in which we experience life.[3]
The Holy Spirit works on our souls like language works on our brains. It molds our individual and communal souls imperceptibly, through the frequent use of certain habits and actions, and it thereby changes the way in which we experience life and death, suffering and hope.
 If we want the Spirit to fill us and our community, we have to work to create not just emotional “highs” in worship, but those constant, daily spiritual habits that will form us, forever, into “Christlikeness.” Williams writes that the Church is a “sign of the Spirit, rather than its domicile.”[4] The Church points us to humanity as it could be, humanity shaped by the Holy Spirit into the vulnerable form of Christ.
Think about little Sadie Rose, who will be baptized [shortly] [at our 10 a.m. service.] As she acquires the English language, her brain is slowly formed and molded by the structures of what she hears. She is still an individual, with her own unique personality, but without realizing it, without trying even, she is learning to view the world like an English-speaker. It’s also true that she learns American customs from her family and caregivers: she learns what foods taste “normal” and what expressions are socially acceptable. But the formation that her brain receives through language is deeper and more ingrained even than the culture that she acquires.
Since her parents are bringing her for baptism, she is also being immersed in the Holy Spirit; indeed, she is sealed  by the Holy Spirit in a bond that can never be broken. As her brain is formed by language, her soul, as part of this community, can now be formed and molded by Christian habits. These habits go beyond the dogma that we teach her as acceptable; they go deeper than the creeds that we use to form her taste buds. As a member of this part of the Body of Christ, she joins us as we navigate the lifelong journey between suffering and hope with the help of our Christian take on spiritual practices such as prayer and the Eucharist, forgiveness and hospitality, gratitude and creativity. In order for her to be molded by these habits, however, we have to be practicing them ourselves, and she has to be around us enough for them to become habit for her, as well. Such is the serious nature of our baptismal promises and the goal toward which we all should be striving.
Do you want to see the Holy Spirit this Pentecost? Then look into the life-scarred faces of all the baptized sitting around you. Watch their unique, individual faces as they pray together, as they hold out worn hands for the Eucharist, as they reach out in love at the Peace, as they shed a tear during the Confession, as they listen and weave together meaning during the reading of scripture. You will see the Holy Spirit moving within and between them, blowing cobwebs from their souls, burning new pathways in their hearts, speaking in the age-old tongues of suffering and hope. And, like the crowds gathered in Jerusalem, little Sadie Rose will understand. 

Anne Vouga+
St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Louisville

[1] Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2000), 124.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Guy Deutscher, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages  (New York: Picador, 2010), 234-35.
[4]Williams, 124.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

An Ambiguous Ascent

          Ascension Day, which was this past Thursday, has always left me bemused. Why does our story need a Jesus who zooms up into the clouds after the Resurrection? Couldn’t he just say, “I’m off to join my Father now,” and fade unobtrusively away? I had always imagined the ascending Jesus from the point of view of the grounded disciples, watching perplexed as their Lord took off like a rocket ship. I didn’t think of it from Jesus’ point of view until just this week. As I flew over New York City on Friday, watching the brown and gray tangle of buildings grow smaller and more insignificant as we soared into the sky, my heart ached as I thought about my three young adult children moving around in that labyrinth below, now mere invisible specks of fragile humanity, lost in a vast and complex city. How strange it was to feel the distance simultaneously widening their horizons and narrowing my ability to guide and protect them. There is something about being pulled away by powerful jet engines that has always tugged at my heart, something about breaking through the gravity of attachment to a familiar place or to the dear people who remain in that place, that sets me to longing. Perhaps those feelings of forced separation and loss, of worry and loss of ability to walk alongside us, were what plagued Jesus, too, as he returned to his Father. Perhaps the image of Jesus being pulled up and away from his beloved earth is not such a silly one, after all.
          It is certainly an image that fits with today’s Gospel lesson, in any case. In the Gospel of John, to end his long farewell address to the disciples at the Last Supper, Jesus prays for them. It is part of this final prayer that we read today. Just as I pray for my children as they wander the streets of New York, Jesus prays for his disciples, and for us, “those who will believe … through [the word of the disciples.]” Like a worried parent, Jesus asks God to protect his friends on earth and to knit them together into one body. He knows that we, his followers, are remaining behind in a dangerous world, a world where temptation and suffering lurk around every corner, and as he is pulled away, he asks God to keep us safely in relationship with him. I like the idea of Jesus praying for me, holding onto me across the distance, blessing my daily comings and goings in this labyrinthine world.
The loss that Jesus and the disciples are feeling as Jesus ends his time with them on earth is one that psychologists call “ambiguous loss.” It is not the ultimate loss that we deal with in death, because Jesus has already risen from the dead, shattering death’s sharp finality. After the Ascension, Jesus is absent, yet present. He no longer walks with his friends as a human being, with one set of arms and legs and a voice all his own, and they find themselves on their own once again. Yet he sends them the Holy Spirit to guide and to comfort them, and they feel his loving presence at their side. Theirs is ambiguous loss—loss that pulls and tugs in its hurting, loss that can be lived but not resolved or forgotten. We, too, have many such ambiguous losses in our lives: loved ones who move across the country yet with whom we still talk on the telephone; loved ones who slip away from us into dementia yet remain with us in body; loved ones paralyzed in body and yet still present and sharp in mind; divorced spouses who live separate lives but must co-parent their children; adopted children wondering about their birth parents; loved ones who struggle to share their love due to autism or mental illness; a God for whom we long yet who always escapes our grasp. The list goes on and on. Perhaps our relationship with the ascended Christ can epitomize all of these ambiguous losses in our lives, as we continue to reach out for what will make us whole.
According to my newly-minted therapist daughter, the way to deal with ambiguous loss is not to attempt to resolve it, not to chide its sufferers to move on with life—but to help those who have suffered such losses to develop resiliency, to strengthen them so that they can live with their loss. After listening to my daughter’s explanation, I was amused to watch the disciples dealing with their ambiguous loss in today’s lesson from Acts. Their Lord is gone and their special circle is painfully and tragically broken by Judas’ betrayal. So what do they try to do? They try to fix things, to put them back the way they were before, by filling Judas’ spot in the group. Surely, with the circle complete, then life will feel normal again …? So they deliberate and they draw lots and they pick Matthias. But the funny thing is that we never hear anything more about this new disciple Matthias. He was probably a fine disciple and did quite wonderful work for the early church, but he remains completely insignificant in our story. The solution to the losses that the disciples suffered was not simply to try to fix the brokenness and move on. Matthias was not the answer.
Instead, it is Jesus who provides the real healing of loss in his prayer. When each of my children has gone off to college, I have given each of them a framed family picture to take with them, hoping that they will look at it from time to time and remember who they are, where they come from, and most of all, that they will always be mine, as they begin their lives away from home and begin to make their mark on the world. In the same way, Jesus covers us lovingly with the cloak of his own identity in naming us in his prayer to the Father with the names that God has given him: the names “sanctified” and “sent.” As John writes in chapter 10, Jesus is “the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world.” In our lesson, Jesus prays that we, whom he has sent into the world, may be sanctified, as he is. He directs the Father to make us holy as we are sent into the world to change and challenge it. In Christ, we find our strength. Grounded in Christ, knowing that Christ’s work is our work, too, we know the path that we must take through the losses, perils, and pitfalls of the world.
When we look at the clay or paint handprints that our children once made in preschool, we wonder at how they have grown, and the loss of those chubby baby hands can catch in our throats. At the chapel of the Ascension in Jerusalem, however, there is an indentation on a cracked stone that claims to be the right footprint of Jesus, emblazoned on the stone by whatever divine energy propelled him up into heaven. With Jesus’ prayer ringing in our ears, we contemplate that footprint neither as the mark of a missing person, nor as a sign of the passing years, but as an invitation to place our feet there where Jesus once stood. Jesus’ print becomes the starting point on our mission to walk in his way, to put our communal feet courageously into the huge prints that Jesus’ feet have made in the world, to allow ourselves to be set apart for God’s challenging work, knowing ourselves as the feet of the one who was sent into the ambiguity of our lives.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

That Your Joy May Be Fulfilled

          As Jesus bids farewell to his disciples at the Last Supper, he gives them their instructions on how to live together in community: “Remain on in my love. And you will remain in my love if you keep my commandments, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in His love. I have said this to you that my joy may be yours and your joy may be fulfilled…. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”[1]
Last week, we reveled in John’s lovely, poetic language about remaining, or abiding, in Jesus, about being a branch flowering upon God’s vine of love. We imagined Jesus pouring his love into our souls and making us God’s beloved, as we pour love back out to others, like water. But as I studied today’s passage, I was struck by the strong language of commandment, of obedience, that suddenly raises its head. Love, in its mystical vagueness, is not really what Jesus seems to be talking about here. Indeed, being Jesus’ “friend” sounds like a source of pain and hard work. I think that it is the idea of finding joy in the work of loving that disturbs me here. If I’m going to have to lay down my life in love, I at least want to be able to wallow in self-pity while I’m doing it! In our Gospel reading, however, the text is constructed in such a way that the passage centers on this verse: “I have said this to you that my joy may be yours.” What does joy have to do with difficult, self-giving love?
My clergy friends know that I do not like Psalm 119. Whenever it occurs in the Daily Office lectionary—which is quite often, since it is 176 verses long and must be read over several days—I groan and grumble. Can you blame me? Besides being the longest psalm in the Bible, it is as repetitive as can be. The psalmist spends all 176 verses finding different ways to say how much he loves God’s commandments. He seems so proud of himself, and so carried away about his own joyous enthusiasm for the Law. “I delight in the way of your decrees as much as in all riches,” he boasts. “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long. Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies ... I have more understanding than all my teachers … I keep your precepts.” And so on.
 As I thought about today’s Gospel, I was reminded of the crowing, joyful language of Psalm 119. Despite the fact that it gets on my nerves, however, I think that this psalm relates rather directly to our Gospel lesson. In the Old Testament, God’s Law is the scaffolding that leads us human beings into God’s presence. It is the specific teaching that enables us to live in Covenant with God, to be in relationship with God. The commandments are not just a list of rules to follow, but they are the very voice of our loving God. Knowing them and following them obediently make me a part of God’s beloved people. As the Psalmist, then, delights in the commandments that bring him closer to his God, the disciples are asked by Jesus to delight in the commandment that will bring them closer to God: the commandment to love one another. Jesus’ words in our Gospel from John are all about relationship: relationship with Jesus, with God, and with each other. For John, as for the Psalmist, joy comes not from simple pride over obedience to some law. It comes from renewed relationship with God, a relationship that, for John, automatically results from “remaining in” Jesus, who is the way to the Father. As Jesus’ friends, we come into God’s presence. But also, as Jesus’ friends, we must do as he did. There are consequences to being in relationship, consequences to being, like Jesus, sandwiched in between powerful, unstoppable waves of divine Love on one side and the open wounds of the world on the other. The consequences are great joy and great pain.
We all know that if we close ourselves off from feeling pain, then we shut the door on feeling joy, as well. In Maryland this week, an Episcopal priest and her administrative assistant were shot and killed in their church office by a homeless man with a gun, after they had been working in their small rural church’s food pantry.  I learned of that tragic news on the same day that a tormented woman had barged unannounced into my office, wild-eyed and fleeing demons in her head. The parallels were unnerving, and grim-faced and joyless, I immediately resolved to be more careful about locking my door. The diocese of Maryland did not react by locking any doors, however. They did not shut down their food pantry or condemn the homeless or blame God for taking away their priest, although I’m sure that, in their pain, Episcopalians in that community felt like doing all of those things. Instead, the diocese of Maryland publically offered to hold a burial service for the troubled man who had killed two beloved members of their community. They resolved to act contrary to their feelings of fear and anger and to obey the commandment that we read about today, to obey Jesus’ commandment to love, above all else. Can you imagine leading, or attending, that funeral?
I ask you this week to reflect upon the times in which you have obeyed Jesus’ command to love, and, as his friend, found divine joy where you expected to find only pain. Almost four years ago now, I was a brand new priest and was very concerned about looking as if I knew what I was doing, being busy and helpful at St. Mark’s, and hoping to exude an aura of priestly authority and purpose. When the rector from Resurrection Church came around looking for help with their new ministry to the Karen Refugees from Burma, I was very excited. I saw myself leading the parish in a great outreach project, directing things busily from behind the scenes like priests are supposed to do. What really happened, however, was that one hot, humid, busy August evening, the only “group” from St. Mark’s that I could find to lead over to help at Resurrection consisted of myself and my daughter, who was home for a few weeks that summer. After working all day at church, with sermons yet to write and laundry to do and TV to watch, I found myself resentfully driving to the South end, right at dinner time, to make home visits to refugee families at the Americana Apartments. Believe me, I was not expecting to find joy there.
At first, it seemed as if I was right. We had to sit and sit in the hot car in a parking lot, waiting on the people from Crescent Hill Baptist who were going to show us which families to visit. Then we got lost looking for the right apartments. Then, after climbing up a couple of dark, depressing stairwells, we discovered that none of the Anglican Karen families seemed to be at home that evening, after all.
“What a fiasco,” I thought to myself, with God, love, and joy all far from my heart. “This is NOT what I signed up for.”
 Finally, after a new round of cell phone calls, we found one family who was still at home. As they warily let us into their small, hot apartment, I felt more guilt than joy. Not knowing more than a few words of English, the poor teenager who found himself forced into being our host looked at us awkwardly, as we squirmed, and I felt sadly lacking in priestly authority or skill. As our time together went on, however, I noticed with amazement that my years of trying to communicate in French with American fourth graders helped me to communicate with this non-English-speaking family. A beautiful toddler appeared and began to speak the universal language of peek-a-boo, and the family began to relax and smile at us. The teenager started to bring out reams of important school forms that he did not have the slightest idea how to fill out, and the grandmother began to show us prescriptions and doctors’ notes that she did not understand. And then we got to work. The family’s relief at finding a couple of friendly people who looked half-way willing to help them, was palpable in the room. Love was palpable in the room. Finally, as we shook hands and found our way back down the dark, dingy stairs of the Americana apartments, I realized that, while I was still tired and hot and hungry and now broken-hearted about the family’s suffering … and the immigrant family was still confused and poor and facing a daunting future in this country  … my heart was full of the Joy that I had found in that room: the joy that comes only from obeying Jesus’ hard commandment to love one another, the joy that eclipses all of the other feelings as it brings us into direct relationship with our strange and loving God.
I could have easily stayed home that night. I could have found an excuse to sit at church with my collar on. I almost did. But the nagging voice telling me that I am supposed to go and bear fruit just happened to win out that night, and Joy was my reward. Jesus makes it clear: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” All we have to do is to listen and obey.

[1] Translation from Raymond Brown’s Commentary on John.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Are We Growing Bullies?

[This sermon is written for Derby weekend in Louisville. While the subject matter of the sermon didn't exactly turn out to be "light," I took on a friend's challenge to weave 10 Derby words into my sermon this week, just for fun. So if you read a weird turn of phrase about ponies or bourbon or Kentucky, that is just part of the "preaching the races" today! The ten special words were printed in our church bulletin.]

 I saw the documentary film, “Bully,” this week. One of the children portrayed in the film is a young adolescent boy named Alex who is called, “Fish Face,” by his tormentors. Alex, who was born at only 26 weeks gestation, had to fight to survive as a baby and is left with some scars from his ordeal: a slightly flat face and misshapen mouth, and a gangly awkwardness that is accentuated by adolescence. He is also blessed with a sweet and loving nature. The film shows extended footage of Alex riding the school bus, the place of most of his torment. As he sits on the bus, smiling bravely or trying to interact with his seatmates, he is periodically hit, shoved, pushed, insulted, rejected, and even strangled by most of the children around him. Day after day. For no other reason but for being different. Alex seems to have accepted that he can’t win; he never fights back and never responds to the bullies. Alex merely endures, with a longing on his face and a palpable wish to shrink away and vanish before the hatred that surrounds him.

His mother fusses at him one day for putting up with the torment, pointing out that the children who treat him in that way are not his friends. “If they aren’t my friends,” responds Alex with a trembling, aching voice, “then who are my friends? I don’t have any other friends.” And his mother doesn’t know what to say. Do we? The documentary is a painful testimony to the human longing for love, for abiding love, for love that does not perish—and to the lack of that love in our world, even in our Christian communities, even in places like this small-town Iowa community, where most of those bullying children must have attended Sunday School and where most have their parents must have heard today’s readings. Even if we have never been bullied, I believe that we can all identify with Alex’s pain—with the pain of unmet longing for love and for acceptance of who we are.

I couldn’t help but think of Alex in his seat on the bus as I imagined the Ethiopian Eunuch sitting in his chariot, reading about the Suffering Servant in the Book of Isaiah. Alex and the Eunuch must have been saddled with similar longings as they traveled about. They both would have identified with that sheep being led to the slaughter, humiliated, treated unjustly, robbed of joy and life. The Eunuch has a powerful, important job, and Alex has a loving family to go home to, yet they are both wounded in their bodies and in their souls, too. They both sit alone, excluded from normal relationships with their peers, pondering their sort and seeking solace as they travel on their way. Yet, while boys and girls on the bus race to their seats, ignoring or slugging Alex as they pass by, Philip, led by the Holy Spirit, knows how to respond to the Eunuch. Philip goes out of his way to join the Eunuch’s chariot, running beside it as it lumbers on its way. But once he is in the chariot, Philip doesn’t give the Eunuch a hug and invite him to Coffee Hour or for a glass of bourbon at the pub. Philip sits beside the strange man, guiding him as they read Holy Scripture together. Philip makes sure that the Eunuch understands what he is reading. He makes sure that the mysterious words of the Hebrew prophet take on new life and speak the Good News of God’s Love in Jesus Christ to the Eunuch’s longing and despair. It is the love pouring off of the pages of Scripture as Philip interprets it that leads the Eunuch to ask for baptism and to be born anew into the Body of Christ, no longer alone, but healed and made whole. Luke makes clear that it is the love pouring off of the pages of Scripture as Philip interprets it that lead to joy and transformation.

          Again, in our Gospel reading, all about abiding love, the bearing of fruit seems to be connected to God’s Word in Jesus Christ. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you,” promises Jesus. This is a tricky verse. We all learned as children that praying was not about getting that pony or that new ten-speed bike or having God zap our enemies. However, if the life-giving, love-proclaiming words that Jesus speaks and lives in Holy Scripture dwell in us, if they are continually poured into us, then won’t our desires, our wishes, be re-centered on God? Theologian Wendy Farley writes that, if we want to change what we do, we must change what we desire, what we long for.[1] If we desire safety and security above all else and read Scripture in the light of the safety and security of rules and right answers, then the fruits that we produce will be judgment and exclusion, and our schools and churches will be communities of judgment and exclusion. If we desire deep and abiding love and read Scripture in the light of Christ’s love, then the fruits that we produce will be acceptance and communion with the rest of Christ’s beloved Creation. I can’t help but wonder if the bullying that is so rife in our schools, while certainly part and parcel of our fallen human behavior, is not also fed in our Christian communities by both a lack of reading Scripture with one another, on the one hand, and misguided interpretations of Scripture, on the other hand. The Good News in Jesus Christ is that the love that we all long for already dwells in us, yearns for us, pulls us toward right relationship with God and one another, like a vine is filled with life and pulled toward the sun. It is our job as Christians to testify to that Good News, to be sure that our interpretations of scripture rest in that Good News, to take care that that Good News is what we are teaching and showing to our children, who are part of the fruit that we bear.

          In the row of townhouses where I live in Kentucky, we each have little brick walls in front of our homes, and most of them have ivy planted around them. My neighbor--the same neighbor who doesn’t have any weeds in his little plot of grass—takes care of the ivy on his wall, too. He keeps it trimmed. His ivy curls gracefully up the wall, climbing up like delicate roses. When I look in his yard, I can see the new growth happening, as small, light green shoots peek out from behind the established leaves and seek the sun on their journey up the wall. We would all like for our souls, our world, and our ivy to look like his—neat and clean. We would like the supporting walls of Scripture to show through the growth so that we can be sure that the plant is growing on the right foundation. But my neighbor sure spends a lot of time cutting on his ivy—snipping, snipping away vibrant shoots and throwing them in the garbage, cutting away the ones with funny mouths and flat faces, pulling out the strands that veer off in a different direction from the rest, as if love, the vitality of the plant, can be fixed and kept pinned down and on a certain track.

The ivy on the wall in front of my townhouse, on the other hand, hadn’t been cut for many years when I moved in. It had grown thick and unwieldy, completely overloading the brick wall. When I tried to trim it last spring, cutting away some of the growth, I was just left with a mass of dead branches heaped one on top of the other, resembling the thick and ugly brambles that cruelly imprison Sleeping Beauty in her castle. This year, as a result of the unsuccessful trimming, the new growth slowly crept up on top of the dead, hard branches, covering them up and once again burying my wall. New growth and death are all mixed up together now; nothing is clear; and the wall seems ready to topple at any moment, like Jericho at the sound of the bugle. If we want to join John’s Jesus in talking about vines and us and God together, perhaps my version of vines is the right one. God’s abiding love is about movement and mutual yearning, outpouring and indwelling, tangled growth and abundant, messy yields that are barely contained by the words of Scripture, words laden by the history of interpretation, words that are constantly threatened with being lost, words that need to speak through our voices and our lives, words that need to dwell in us.

The Alex’s on that bus, and the Alex’s inside each one of us, are crying out for someone to climb in beside them and help them find the Love that awaits us in God’s Word, so that our yearning may bear fruit, rather than pain. The documentary ends with a plea for us to "Stand with the Silent," to remember those who have been bullied to the point of taking their own lives. Jesus asks us to do more: we are to sit with the silent and to give them Jesus' own Words, so that they--and we--need be silent no more.

[1] Wendy Farley, The Wounding and Healing of Desire, 2.