Caverns of Mercy

Luke 18:1-8

They have given up.

Today’s story features
a exhausted, worn-out judge
who has given up on God and humanity.
Disheartened,
they have closed up shop,
extinguished the lights
and refuse now to open the door.

Knock, knock.

“Do not disturb me!”
They bellow.

And yet,
despite their loud protest,
the disturbance continues:

Knock, knock.

Knock, knock.

I, too, hear a thumping
on the door of my being.
I try to ignore it,
but the noise remains

I, too, close the blinds
and try to make it look like
no one is home.
Still, the pounding continues.

Knock, knock.

I, too, find myself disturbed this week
as I read Jesus’ parable
about the judge and the widow.

Parables disorient me
with their layers of meaning and possibility.
They do not deliver straightforward stories
with unmistakable morals.

Rather,
the parable invites us,
in the words of Nadia Bolz Weber,
to close one eye,
tilt our head and look sideways
until we can see a vaster truth.

They whisper to us:
Peer closer.
Ponder deeper.
Open yourself
to the Mystery who is God.

Oof.

Opening ourselves to Holy Mystery
makes it sound like we are adventuring
into a maze of cryptic caverns
and we need to remember to bring
a coat, a lamp, a map and a compass.

There’s something risky
about entering into a space,
where you cannot yet see the full expanse.
There’s something thrilling about it too.
It’s gripping that the Mystery of God
contains more twists, turns and tunnels
than we can possibly contain, tame or control.

Jesus preaches in parables because
Jesus does not want us to hear sacred words
like a rote routine:
been there, done that.
I’ve heard this judge and widow story
a million time and I already
know what it’s about!

Rather,
Jesus wants us to enter the expanse,
grab a headlamp,
and maybe some snacks for the way,
and ask curiously,
“What else is there?
What else have I not yet seen?
What wonders have I not yet witnessed?”

As stalactites cling tightly to the ceiling,
gleaming with water,
as stalagmites grow from the ground,
glistening in their ethereal shapes,
we immediately know:
we are walking on holy ground,
here in the unknown cavern
of God’s own heart.

Knock, knock.

I am brought to full attention
when I read the parable
of the persistent widow
pounding on the portal.

Knock, knock.

I twist and turn the story in my mind,
and wonder what new tunnel
God is leading me and you
down this week:
What subterranean subtleties will we see?
What new marvels will we discover?

This week,
as I begin to explore the text,
I find myself surprised and unsettled
when I read a commentary
that suggests we are the judge
in today’s story.

Specifically,
commentator Debie Thomas writes,
“The truth is, the judge lives in me.”

I didn’t expect to read this from Thomas,
a Biblical commentator and children’s minister.
I thought she would wax poetically about persistence,
or highlight the importance of weaving
faith, justice and prayer together.

Instead,
she says simply:
we are the judge.
We are the judgy ones.

Oof.

Thomas continues,
“Jesus describes the judge
as a man who neither fears God
nor has respect for people.
Can I honestly say that I never fit this description?
Can I honestly profess that I’m never indifferent,
irritable, closed off, or unsympathetic?
Is it really the case that my heart
is always open
to the pain and brokenness of others?
Don’t I self-protect?
Don’t I police my borders quite compulsively?
Don’t I say, ‘It’s not my problem.
Someone else will take care of it?’”

She writes that, for her,
prayer is the fist that breaks down the doors
of her own stubborn resistance.

She posits,
“The truth is, the judge lives in me,
and if the parable this week ‘
has anything to offer,
it is that prayer alone will wear down my inner judge.
It is through persistent prayer that my heart will soften.
It is through persistent prayer
that every obstacle I place before God
— my fear, my shame,
my woundedness, my inattentiveness —
will be dismantled.”

Her words agitate me,
because they force me to face
the same forces of resistance
that live within me:
apathy, despair,
self-righteousness
and judgmentalism.

In the places of my life
where I persist in these ways of being,
Debie, along with God,
and many others,
persist in thumping at my door
yelling, “Grace!”
“Mercy!” “Forgiveness!”

Ooof.

Doesn’t she know how good
I am at being right?

Fortunately,
or unfortunately,
the people that I most admire in my life
refuse to admit that they are always right,
or that they always know
what they are talking about.
They leave room, always, for mystery,
for the possibility
of a coat, a candle and a compass,
and a new terrain to discover,
new terrain within me, within them,
within others and within the world.

They remind me how, in the Bible,
Saint James writes that the wisdom from above is,
“first of all pure, then peaceful, gentle,
open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits…”

These words are a Biblical mandate to think,
to consider,
“Am I open to reason?
Or do I think I know everything?
Am I considering the truth that
there are other tunnels
I have not yet traveled?”

Grab a coat, a candle and a compass
because the pathway of faith
is one of surprise, wonder and unknowing.

The question comes to us:
Will we stay open to it?

Knock, knock.

Likewise,
Christian author Anne Lamott
also finds herself perplexed by this question:
How do we stay open to the Mystery of God?

In her book “Almost Everything: Notes on Hope”,
Lamott writes how she has
been struggling with hate lately.

Lamott relates
that she finds it comforting to loathe others,
particularly individuals
with whom she strongly disagrees.
She adds that it is not a white-hot hatred,
but there is a lot of heat in there,
along with sickness and fire.
The fever makes her soul into a war zone
of blasts, rubble and mission creep,
until she becomes so fused with those she hates,
that she is no longer herself.
She becomes like them.

One day,
Lamott finally got to the point
that she couldn’t take it anymore
and so she decided to lay down her weapons briefly.
As is her habit,
she asked God for help with the mess of herself.
Two people immediately spoke into her life.
The first was Martin Luther King,
quoted on Twitter,
that hate cannot drive out hate,
only love can.

Ooof, she thinks.

The second was an eight-year old boy.
In Sunday School,
she asked one of the kids
if he believed God was always with him,
helping him.
He thought about this for a moment and replied,
“Maybe forty percent.”

“Forty percent!” she thought with wonder.
“ What if I could reduce
my viral load by forty percent?”

Hate, Lamott observes, is a massive mood-alterer,
like a speedball of heroin and cocaine,
or at least like sugar: swift, stimulating, toxic.

Of course, we hate those who have done bad things,
Lamott continues, but where does that leave us?
With a hang-over? With a perpetuation of wrong-doing?

One day at church,
Lamott’s pastor preaches a sermon
that cites the Martin Luther King quote, again,
that hate cannot drive out hate,
only love can do that,
and Lamott thinks with agitation,
“I heard it the first time.”
At the end of the sermon,
the pastor sighs and says simply,
“Just don’t let them get you to hate them.”

Lamott says that she has not been the same since.
Her pastor ruined hate for her.

Since then,
Lamott has learned,
to invite her hate to tea,
when it comes for a visit;
she sits down and listens to it,
then thanks it for coming,
hands it its hat,
and turns her attention to
what she can accomplish
to create the world she desires.

If I was really aware, Lamott adds,
I would see everyone as precious,
struggling souls,
but I am not there yet.

Thankfully, God is better at this than we are.
Thankfully, God does not give up;
God persists at our doorstep
until we learn to open ourselves up
to the disturbance of mercy,
to the deep depths of grace.

Knock, knock.

The noise sounds
at your door.

Knock, knock.

That noise sounds on my own inner door,
or perhaps it’s just
the thump of my heart in my ribcage.

My heart pounds with excitement
as I round the corner or Skyline Caverns,
a system of caves
in Front Royal, Virginia.
My tour group is approaching
the door
leading to the prized
chamber of the caverns.

Our guide halts in front of the portal
to relay the backstory to us:
In the 1930s,
geologist Walter Amos scouted the land
for an alternative source of income,
specifically searching for a cavern
where he could host public tours.
After observing a giant sink hole,
and a cluster of cave crickets,
Amos discovered this very cave system,
and, after cleaning up the space,
he began running public tours.

However, unbeknownst to him,
there was more to this subterranean system
than met the eye.

One day,
Amos walked to the tunnel
where my tour group now stood,
and eyed an entire wall of mud
blocking an entryway.
Curiously,
he decided to dig it out.
With all his might,
he shoveled and shoveled,
clearing feet and feet of mud,
until at last:
Clink.

His shovel hit something
and wouldn’t move.
He pulled with all of his might: nothing.
He got help,
and a whole line of men gathered,
pulling on the shovel.
Then, suddenly,
BOOM,
a loud noise erupted as the shovel escaped,
the men fell backward
and Amos’ hat was sucked into the hole.

It turns out that
they had stumbled upon a vacuum,
a place underground that had been sealed up,
without any air at all, for thousands of years.

After more digging,
they discovered …
a garden.
On the ceiling of the newly-found tunnel,
they observed dozens of white, spiky flowers,
made of rock.
They move back in the tunnel
and discover an entire cavern of
these cave blossoms.

In that moment,
Amos had discovered a brand-new rock.
It was made of a common material
– calcium carbonate –
but it only grows
in an airless vacuum,
and only grows one inch every seven thousand years.

Whoa.

This is what grace feels like to me
– I think I want and need all that mud –
but when I release it,
when I release myself to the Great Mystery,
I am taken somewhere far better
than I could arrive or conceive on my own.

Back in the cave,
our guide now opens the portal,
and my tour group enters the sacred chamber
and stares up in amazement
at the marvels our mind
could have never conceived.

A caver admiring the cave blossom, whose scientific name is “anthodite”.

I stare up at each point white flower,
each a wonder and a grace,
and thank God for the journey
that has lead me
to this place of beauty and surprise.

For one moment, at least,
I forget the challenge of journeying
through obscure, unexplored terrain.
On another day,
I’ll remember how hard it is
to clean out the mud.

Today,
as I stare at each crystal and cave blossom,
all I want is to surrender to the mystery.
I find myself awed by the unknown tunnel
with its unexpected blooms,
awed as I journey to untold
chambers within myself,
that reveal a mercy
and stunning splendor
that I cannot know or
understand or explain.

That’s the gift
of the faith journey.
It’s risky, breathtaking,
stunning, challenging,
surprising, wondrous,
terrifying, truthful and life-giving.

Knock, knock.

Do you see
that God’s knocking on your door, too?

God has been calling your name
since the very beginning.
Pounding on your door,
Shouting, “Mercy!” and “Forgiveness”
Until at last,
we open ourselves with prayer.
Until at last,
we open the door to love.

Knock knock knock knock.

Is someone going to get the door?

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