Puzzles

Scripture: Mark 10:35-45

I have been pondering the poem
“The Place Where We Are Right”
this week by Yehuda Amichai.

This is the poem:
“From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world,
like a mole, a plow,
and a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined house once stood.”

“From the place where we are right,
flowers will never grow.”

I can’t help but think about that phrase
as I read the story of James and John
who resolutely demand:
“Teacher, we want you to do for us
whatever we ask.”
Then they continue on to assert,
“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand
and one at your left, in your glory.”

Jesus replies,
“You do not know what you are asking.”

You do not know.

What profound words.

They are words that make me want to sit awhile,
and wonder,
what is that we too do not know?
What is that we too are so certain about
but do not actually understand?

I love the words though,
because something about them
creates space for possibility.
Something about them
plows the ground for new growth.
They create an ability for honesty to be spoken
and for profound truths to be revealed.

Each week,
as I began my sermon writing process,
and sit down with the holy text,
I try to say,
“I do not know
what this text is saying this week
to me or the community
but, Lord, show me”
The words prepare a place
in heart, body and soul to receive.
They change my posture –
instead of being
dismissive, rigid and presumptive –
it softens me,
as I bow my head in prayer,
ask questions,
become curious,
listen and
stretch out my hands,
that I might receive.

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes:
“Be patient,” he writes,
“toward all that is unsolved in your heart.
Try to love the questions themselves,
like locked rooms and
like books that are written
in a very foreign tongue.
Do not now seek the answers,
which cannot be given you
because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will then gradually,
without noticing it, live along
some distant day
into the answer.”

Be patient.

Live the questions.

These simple words
provide such challenge.
Does Rainer Maria Rilke understand
how hard it is to be a human being?

What an endeavor it is to live a question,
to sit in the in-between space of uncertainty,
to dwell in the unknowing.

And patience?

In a world of instantaneous
messaging, news and connection,
how can we possibly learn to be patient?

I do not know.

I do not know: Perhaps these words
can prepare us to hear something holy.

These words prepare James and John to hear something holy.

In their place of right-ness,
James and John were certain they knew what they wanted:
the place of power,
a seat by Jesus during Jesus’ greatest moment.

Yet, do they really understand what
power & greatness truly look like?
Do we?

Prior to this conversation,
Jesus has said to them,
we are going to the center of power, the city of Jerusalem,
where the I will be handed over, condemned to death,
mocked and spit at and killed and three day later will rise.
These words are startling
because Jesus is telling a story of how
he will confront the mighty
who convey power
through the clink of armor, the click of boots
and the oppression of others
Jesus foretells that the mighty would kill him
— yet even in that act of violence –
that would not have the ultimate power.
What persisted would be: Forgiveness, dignity and life.
What would be true is that real power comes from:
generosity, service, wisdom and caring for others.

Still, when Jesus had said this,
the disciples did not understand.
Do we understand?

What is greatness?

In our world, it seems like we measure greatness by
by wealth or the number of twitter followers
or how quickly one puts down someone who insulted them.
Like John and James,
we measure greatness by puffing up our chests and
telling the world how right we are
without ever having to cultivate a place
where something new to grow.
Maybe we don’t understand Jesus’ words either.

Jesus is inviting the disciples to consider
there are things they do not know:
that those who wield power arrogantly
are weak and small
because they think of no one but themselves,
that it takes no grandeur to elevate oneself
and think of no one else.
True greatness is listening to others
and creating spots at the table
for those who have none.
Jesus reminds us that greatness is acknowledging
that there are things we do not know.

Do we dare to leave space for
uncertainty in our lives?

In her book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope,
Anne Lamott writes
all of life is a paradox.
A paradox being self-contradicting statement.
Even light is a paradox.
Anne learned as a child,
that light is particles,
like grains of sand.
Okay, got it, we can all accept it now:
light is like a grain of sand.
Yet, as Annie got older,
she also learned that scientists
can prove that light is waves;
it moves with ebbs and flows like waves.

Light is like waves in the ocean.
Light is like sand on a beach.

Both are true. It is a paradox.

While this reality can be incredibly frustrating at times,
like why can’t they just tell us the one
simple thing light is so we can get our with our lives,
there is also something hopeful about paradoxes
because they means more than one thing can be true at once.

Take, for instance,
our own lives,
if we arrive at a place that is miserable,
it will change
and something else about it will also be true.

The gift of paradoxes is an invitation to go deeper into life,
to see a bigger screen than just
the quadrant of work, home and country.
There is a wider reality out there,
that Jesus is inviting us to experience
if only we were a bit less resolute.

The truth is too wild to be contained in any one answer,
which is why Jesus is always speaking in
paradoxes and puzzles.
Its Jesus’ way of replying:
I see what you are saying,
but there is something else true too.

Do you see it?

Take for instance,
the paradox of Anne Lamott.
Anne tells the story
of a time that she was certain of her right-ness,
which is why,
in her own words,
she called her uncle a scumbutt.

What had happened,
was, well, that a modest amount of money
had been involved in a flare up
and the uncle had been managing
a small, collective, family fund
in a very thumbs on the scale kind of way.

She thought she was being ripped off.

So Annie called her uncle,
doing her best to be diplomatic,
and within a minutes,
she had called him a name
and then said that he was a
“morally bankrupt human being”.
Click.

The words put a strain on their relationship for decades.

Annie had been an alcoholic at the time she made the call
and she had hoped by getting sober,
she could repair the relationship.
But things didn’t improve immediately.

One day she went to the uncle,
hat in hand, and asked for forgiveness.
She thought he would say,
“Wow, that took a lot of courage
of course I forgive you.”

Instead he simply said,
“thank you” and that
“everything was fine”.

So she thanked him,
and they both pretended things were fine.
She understood that he loved her,
in his own withholding way,
and that was progress.
She relinquished her own expectations,
like her hope that her uncle would be
one of those people you miss so much
when they die.

What would happen?

It was one of life puzzles,
in which Annie dwelt.

She simply did not know what would happen.
It was true she had acted rashly,
but could something else be true as well?

Annie and the uncle went to family events together,
and both were unfailingly polite.
As he aged,
she brought him books and plants
at his assisted living facility
when she had the time.

During this time,
Annie tells of how,
on the show “The Joy of Painting”,
Bob Ross reminds us that,
when we make big mistakes on canvas,
we can turn them into birds –
Yeah, their birds now!

It taught her more than one thing can be true at once:
it’s a mistake and it’s a bird.

Annie now sees her uncle often –
hey, it’s a bird now!
Recently, she saw him,
he was in the hospital, and not doing well,
and he looked up at Annie with great love,
and invited her to come to exercise class with him.
They spend lots of time together now and she says,
I never expected this.
I spent all those years, wishing he would be
the sort of uncle that I would miss,
and now he is.

She writes,
“You can’t logically get from where
we were to where we are now.
I think that is what they mean by grace.”

She continues:
the truth about how little we know is the worst,
and yet it is where new life rises from.

It digs up the ground
It prepares the way.

Go forth, remembering the words of Jesus,
“You don’t know.”

Live the questions.
Be patient.
Notice what grows.

Amen.

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