This morning in the predawn the only lamp in the oratory was the one on the sideboard under an icon of Jesus. It is the simplest icon I own and one of the most gorgeous for its simplicity. “Just Jesus.” as my friend likes to say when looking at it. When Costos wrote the icon he applied a very light lacquer making a buff, soft mat sheen to the icon.
As I waited for the sun to rise, and I watched as nature asked God to exist for one more day – and watched as God agreed – I began to notice that the lamp’s open latticework above the bulb, and the position of the lamp under this icon, created a light halo around and above Jesus on the wall. Light, not gold leaf.
Recently at dinner with friends, I was reminded how hard it is to focus on Jesus. It is tempting to focus on the pomp and circumstance of the liturgy. It is tempting to focus on the hymns or the poetry of the Book of Common Prayer we use. It is tempting to focus on the sermon – especially if we agree… along with the rush of righteousness it brings or if we disagree …along with the invigorating righteous indignation if brings. It is tempting to focus on what the church “has done for me lately.” Or it is tempting to make things happen with philanthropic leverage or bluster, or manipulation, or countless other ways we get what we want while cloaking it in what appears to be generosity. Or it is tempting to focus on how great I look walking down the isle in nice clothes, taking my “normal pew” so that I am counted as “attending” – like an empress taking her place in the royal box at the ballet.
Yesterday Kai and I sat with six homeless men on the lawn of the cathedral. It was dirty because the lawn had been poked with thousands of small holes for pre-Winter irregation. Three of the homeless men kept petting Kai and Kai was in a bit of heaven. He loved the human smells of them and the heavy hands and the sparkling eyes of three men who remember (and found words to say out loud) the dogs they used to have. The dogs, with names, they had when they had houses and families. The ones who sat by the fires they set to warm their living rooms in fall’s cooling nights. As they told me how much they miss having a dog – how hard it is to have one on the streets of Denver without a home – how impossible it is to take them into shelters, I began to uncontrollably weep. The weeping tossed and turned on the waves of my emotions like a ship in a gale.
While three men stood, motionless, compassionate, with their hands on my dog, still as statues in a garden, one man touched me. He put his hand on my shoulder and he looked into my eyes and said ’It will be OK.” He had red shoes. Then I looked down and realized I was not in clericals. I had worn a rust shirt and plaid vest so as to look fabulous that day. And I did. They had no idea I was a priest, I thought to myself. They did not know that they were reversing the roles. That I was supposed to be saying that to them. “It’s ok homeless man, it will be ok.”
So I said “I know it will. I am a priest here.”
He said “We know.”
Later , after a long cry I was reminded that Jesus was homeless. I was reminded that Jesus walked in sandals and had a tunic. I was reminded that the pomp and circumstance of the church might confuse him. But that the conversation between seven men and a dog on a lawn would not.
The hard part is not what happens on the lawn of the cathedral. There, it is easy to connect to the unvarnished Jesus – to the simple light of one lamp in the morning darkness. The hard part is sometimes trying to remind the people inside the cathedral that their pledges are not needed only to keep the lights on. They are not needed only to pay the priests. They are not needed only to buy jeweled chalices and silk vestments. The pledges are needed to ease suffering – which our church is beginning to do. At least in equal measure to the care and comfort of the people of our congregation.
Jesus. When looking at us. What would he think? Really. Honestly? What would he think of how we live? Of how we spend money? Of how we worship? Of what we give away? What would he think?
It is good to be reminded that the perfect pomp and circumstance of the church might confuse Jesus. But that the conversation between seven men and a dog on a lawn would not.