It is early in Holy Week and though I am no longer going to church, I am very much involved in the Way Jesus is walking this week. Without tarting up the experience with liturgical window-dressing and other people’s words from other people’s pulpits, I find myself, in the deep silence of this farm in New Mexico, able to think more deeply with my own mind and my own body, what it means for Jesus to have embodied God and come to be with us and to suffer at the hands of a church manipulated by Roman money and power.
Kai-the-dog is my minister as Kai has always been my minister, pastor, model and nurse-maid. My routine is always the same – even in Holy Week. I rise to beautiful music at 4:45. I make coffee or tea and sit in the darkness listing to a book – David Sedaris this week. He is perfect for Holy Week. Much better than Merton or Underhill. At 5:45 I stretch, because I am a gentleman of a certain age. At 6:00 I begin to write and do not stop until 8:00 when I break-fast and begin my work day. An hour on the Daily Sip and an hour on book number five (Number four was finished yesterday.)
When I stretch, I am often in pain if I am doing it right. Long slow pills of tight muscles, balled up in my body like balls of rubber bands. The tightness is not age but rather the PTSD of life lived in the church. I am sure that many do not have PTSD from church leadership but that’s because they did not combine church and fundraising as topics for their life’s work. It’s like choosing to be a Rabbi and also a butcher – a pork evangelist – with a specialty and love for ham and other delicious pork products – bacon for example. And ribs. A Rabbi extolling the virtues of pork will, let’s be honest, have a hard life and a challenging relationship with rabinical power systems. Of course, there is the very real consolation of thick-cut bacon baked with brown sugar and chili powder. A man-snack if ever there was one, and the perfect stir-stick for a BLTini in Holy Week, but I digress. (Author’s Note: A BLTini is lettuce and tomato mashed and strained in cheesecloth over-night. The pink, resulting liquid is added to ice cold vodka and the bacon is a garnish – A BLTini. It goes well with a tiny bit of chocolate. But I further digress I guess…) So many (not all) clergy and bishops – especially men -are terrified of and preposterously bad at fundraising. (It is vulnerable work requiring real humility.)
So I heal here in New Mexico in my little farmhouse in an alfalfa field. When I am on the carpet each morning, stretching muscles, legs out at an unlikely “V” – my body moving around like an upset, hemorrhoidal cobra on steroids – weaving and moaning – I am, with my bottom on the carpet, at eye level to Kai-the-dog. Nothing. Nothing I tell you, does Kai-the-dog love more than this. He anticipates it. At just the right time of the sunrise he gets up and sits staring at me the way he does at night when he wants me to lift him (an 80 pound geriatric lab) into bed to await my arrival in an hour or two.
Each morning he sits. He stares. He waits very, very quietly and then, the moment I sit with the “V” legs, he wags that big tail and prances over like a stallion with high, happy steps and begins to attack my face with kisses. He licks and licks and licks and licks – neck, face, forehead, the skull which was once so broken by that bus in Prague. The works. As he does so he winces from time to time as front and back legs buckle under the agony of old joints and though I can feel him buckle, I never ever feel him cease his preposterously hilarious kissing – circling to be sure there is no part of the head or neck not licked at least twice. And I let him. I love it. It heals me.
Jesus comes as God in meat. With ribs. He is with us, on our level and so very glad to be at our level. He kisses and kisses and circles and circles us but we are usually too busy with liturgies and confessions, work and chores, vestry meetings and institutional strategy to notice the licks. We then get up off the floor and we, Jesus and we, get back to the elegant, sensible, Anglican begging, shame and worship. I wonder if Kai-the dog wonders “Why is he at that desk when we have so much fun on the carpet? Why? Does he not realize I’ll not be here for long?” Or perhaps I am projecting…since I’ll not be here long either.
What is a good practice for Holy Week? An awareness that we have a savior not for salvation from hell but for salvation from worship, busy-ness, noise – ironically. Salvation from sucking it up when we suffer. Salvation from our self-bullying moralizing. Salvation from our addiction to ourselves and our standards of living. Salvation from earning our way into God’s good games as if that were ever a thing. Salvation from being impressive whether in a chasuble or in Talbots or Joseph A. Banks or Whipple. Salvation from siting on a chair where a lovely, kind dog cannot lick our face; surreptitiously catching and wiping away every tear along the way – too polite to mention them. Or too busy healing them.
Perhaps we do not climb those steps to the altar this week. Or not as much as in past years. Perhaps we do not walk that isle in a Hogwartian building which bans dogs, giraffes, cats, elephants, and chipmunks as a matter of general policy, given their poo and all – and the damage an elephant will do to a pew Miss. Havisham gave in 1920. Perhaps we find a dog – specifically a lab – something a bit silly and gentle and quiet. An Irish Setter. A sheepdog. Something which loves to lick faces but is ground-bound. A gentle reminder that Jesus comes to walk on soil – not to be worshipped – but rather, to be face to face, in pain – real, human pain, while he kisses the back of our neck and whispers “Shh. I am here. I’ll never leave you. Let them do to you what they need to do to you. It is the way of things. But I am here. We can ache together. Stay here on the carpet or on the grass, or on the moss or on the beach. Stay here where we can be together.”
What if Jesus is every bit as much present on the carpet or the grass, or the sand, or the moss as on the altar? Or the cross? Or on the throne? Perhaps more so? I for one, do not need a priest absolving me. I need Kai-the-dog licking my tears as he winces in the agony of grinding gravel hips With me, eye-to-eye. Meat to meat. Love to undying love. PTSD – perhaps for both of us, notwithstanding.