Reflections on a Firm Grasp

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I vividly remember driving up to Batesville, Arkansas to visit Lyon College, the school I wanted to attend after high school. It was four hours away, which at the time seemed half way around the planet but oftentimes later felt uncomfortably close to my family! I was anxious and excited and scared and happy…a whole swirl of emotions.

As we drove up to the student commons, there was a huge banner that read “Come and See Weekend.” As I looked around at the crowd, I could easily differentiate the high school seniors from the freshmen: the high schoolers either had utterly confused looks in their eyes, or they had a thin veneer of know-it-all-ness painted on their faces. They fooled no one. The freshmen, strangely, all wore pajamas all day.

An upperclassmen gave us a tour through campus. I love libraries, but we didn’t spend a lot of time in there with our tour guide. We did, however, meander through a row of apartments and see a mattress lying up on the second floor roof—a harbinger of things to come.

We met with professors—these wonderfully eccentric people with specialties like Faulkner and gender studies and Plato and geriatric psychology and fresh water ecosystems. I had my first glimpse of academic life, and I learned that there were black academic gowns with hoods whose color indicated what discipline you specialized in. I was fascinated.

I had read a great deal about the school in their catalogues and flyers, and I thought I had a firm grasp on what the college was like.

I was badly mistaken.

I loved college. I loved studying and doing genetic research and heading the college’s honor council and hosting comedy clubs.

Once I began my studies, the “firm grasp” I was proud of soon crumbled in the light of the experience that came at me from all sides.

“Come and see,” Jesus tells those two curious disciples. They had listened to John the Baptizer as he described to them what was to come—who was to come. “And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” John tried his best to introduce them to what he encountered in that baptismal moment when the Spirit descended like a dove and John’s jaw dropped in awe.

Those curious two saw Jesus and began walking with him, asking him where he was staying. “What are you looking for?” Jesus asks them.

Interesting question for us to ponder, I think.

“What are you looking for?”

They fell into step with Jesus as he continued walking, and they heard the most beautiful invitation a person can hear from the Lord: “Come and see.”

Come and share with me. Come and look and notice. Come and take part in this mystery. Come and experience this life I am inviting you to explore.

Interesting that, when Jesus asks them “What are you looking for?” those early two disciples didn’t have theological questions for him. “If God is all knowing, and all powerful, and all just, then why is there suffering in the world?” No theodicy questions that day.

“If God is all powerful and all knowing, and we have free will, how does our power to choose fit with God’s providence?” No questions on free will either.

No, when Jesus asks what they are looking for, they ask him where he was staying.

Because they weren’t looking for theological answers about Jesus, they were looking for Jesus himself! They were looking for a relationship, a connection, an experience of the life and love of Jesus that they knew would alter the way their own hearts beat within their chests. They wanted wisdom…

I watch the news less and less these days, because I’m tired of hearing the word “intelligence.” We don’t have an actual television at our house, we check the news online, but I’m going on a fast from craziness for a while because I’m tired of hearing the word intelligence thrown around. I’m tired of hearing about intelligence briefings and leaked intelligence and who has intelligence and who doesn’t.

It’s wisdom I’m searching for these days, and it’s wisdom that I think we all need. Wisdom and reality and honesty…

I keep thinking back to those early days in my academic life when I thought I had such a firm grasp on what college life was going to be like. It turns out I didn’t have a clue. But even when I knew deep down that I didn’t have a clue, I pretended like I did.

Once I had lived a while and soaked up the ethos and pathos of the place, the oeuvre of the school and the complex humanity of the people, I learned. When my roommate died from lymphoma my sophomore year, I learned more than I wanted to. When I met this amazing person Lisa, I began learning a lot. The first time I walked a friend home who was drunk and made sure he didn’t hurt himself and felt disappointment and confusion on how we make choices, I learned a lot then. The first time I realized I was not meant to go to medical school after four years of study and research, I learned even more.

I gained wisdom from those experiences in my life, and, when it was my turn to give tours to high school seniors, I never spoke about what was in the catalogue. I told them other things, things I knew they wouldn’t understand until they, too, shared this experience of life.

Following Jesus as a disciple is not easy. We forget that, I think, because maybe we compartmentalize our practice of faith into one section of our life. Maybe we see our discipleship as only a part of ourselves: I’m a policeman, I’m a teacher, I’m a republican, I’m a democrat, I’m a rotarian, I’m a Christian, I’m an Episcopalian. Perhaps we even think that none of these has any direct effect on the others.

But what Jesus teaches us is that following him is the ground of our very lives. It will change all of us, every part of us—or it should. Our political views must be honestly and even painfully evaluated through the lens of the Beatitudes, not just laid alongside the Gospel as another choice. At the end of the day, our whole lives are seen through the lens of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, the life, death, resurrection, and ongoing presence of Jesus Christ. Is it inconvenient? Perhaps. But honest and prayerful theological reflection is no longer a luxury limited to folks in academic gowns or robes or clerical collars. It’s time for all of us to step up as theologians.

Look at what happened when Andrew brought his brother Simon to meet Jesus. “We have found the Messiah,” Andrew tells him. And, when Jesus looked at Simon, he, of all things, renamed him. “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas.” Peter. Nothing was going to be the same, but of course Peter didn’t know what was to come later.  Perhaps he would have run away if he did!

Yes, our practice of faith guides us in all aspects of our lives. Because, this warped, fear-driven, psycho-drama of a political experience we are sharing now is crazy-making from ALL sides. And we can’t forget what grounds us…

Some have spoken about how we live in a post-certainty age. Cynthia and I were talking about this last week when I had a few staff changes that—while healthy and growth-oriented and full of compassion—taught me that truth is encountered much more often when we are nimble than when we are rigidly holding on to our own agendas.  The experience of life asks a flexibility of us, like Tricia McDuff puts on the Family Promise sign-up board: “Blessed are the flexible, for they will not be bent out of shape.”

In a post-certainty world, they say, “you slow down instead of throwing down, you take a breath instead of taking umbridge, you become curious before becoming confrontational, you settle into questions before jumping to conclusions, and you slowly observe your fears instead of instantly believing them.” [1]

That last one’s the clincher for me: observing our fears and anxieties rather than simply making snap decisions that support our loaded agendas.

As we step into this week, I would challenge you to spend time in prayer. I’ve taken up the discipline of studying the Beatitudes for the entire year. Maybe you could do that too, or dedicate yourself to some other practice that is life-giving and reality affirming rather than yielding to fear and anxiety and manipulation.

Center yourself, ground yourself, not in the firm grasp you feel you can hold, but on who holds you in a firm grasp—namely Jesus Christ, who infuses our lives with meaning and grace and invites us, always, to “Come and See.”

Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Epiphany II, Year A
John 1:29-42
January 15, 2017

[1] In a recent post by Dr. Kelly Flanagan, given to me by the women’s clergy group in Gainesville, Georgia.

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