“Blessed are you poor…you that hunger…you that weep now…you when people hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you…”
Whenever I go to the beauty salon to get my hair cut or colored, it gives me an opportunity to read magazines that I would otherwise never read, to which I would never subscribe, for which I would never pay one slim dime. You know the kind that are usually in beauty salons about celebrities and stars, their personal lives, their weddings, marriages, divorces, affairs, babies, plastic surgery, hair, makeup, workout, their clothes, their dresses, their successes, their failures, their fortunes. I read about fashion do’s and fashion don’ts, make-up tricks, and diet discoveries. If it were not for these moments spent with these movie star magazines, I guess I would be totally out of style and hopelessly uninformed about what’s hot and what’s not. How would I keep myself up-to-date on the latest news from Britney Spears and Tom Cruise if I did not from time to time get absorbed in magazines like this? But I cannot help but wonder, are these people happy? Blessed as they are with fame and fortune and good looks and anything they want anytime they want it, do they feel blessed? Or do I detect, just beneath the glossy thin veneer a deep well of sadness and discontent? It’s true, every time I pick up one of the magazines, I can’t help but think why didn’t I bring a book with me? And yet, at the same time, I find I am fascinated with this world in which the stars and celebrities live—the culture of narcissism with its seductive set of values so exclusively defined by fame and fortune, success and status. How different it is from the kind of world to which Christ has called, the Kingdom of God, with its values 180 degrees opposite, defined by service, compassion, sacrifice and love. I am reminded in no uncertain terms that there are two ways of being alive in this world.
When I was away on a brief sabbatical at Lake Junaluska, the Spiritual Director at the Intentional Growth Center introduced me to the writings of Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopalian priest, a long-time student of the well known contemplative Trappist monk Thomas Keating, and the author of several books, all of which I read—rather, devoured—while on retreat. In one of her books she tells a parable which I think so perfectly illustrates these 2 ways of being alive in the world, a parable entitled “Acornology”:
Once upon a time there was kingdom of acorns nestled at the foot of a grand old oak tree. They were the typical American variety, predominantly midlife, goal oriented baby boomer acorns very concerned about health, wealth, appearance, and image. They took lots of self-help courses. They kept their acorn shells perfectly polished, their caps perfectly positioned. They took courses entitled, “Getting All You Can Out of Your Shell.” There were workshops and recovery groups for acorns which had been bruised and broken from the original fall from the tree. There were SPA’s for oiling and polished their shells and various acornopathic therapies to enhance longevity and well-being. But one day, in the midst of this kingdom, their appeared a strange acorn, apparently dropped out of the blue by a passing a bird. He was capless and rather beat up, his shell scarred in several places. Needless to say, he did not fit in and made a negative impression on his fellow acorns. But crouched beneath the mighty oak that spread its massive branches over them, he stammered out this wild tale: pointing up to the tree, he said, “We…are…that!” All the other acorns shook their heads, accusing him of delusional thinking, crying, “What? Are you some kind of nut?” They protested: “So tell us then, if this is true, then how would we become that tree?” The capless broken acorn pointed downward and said, “It has something to do with going into the ground and cracking open the shell.” The other acorns were appalled, “Nonsense! Insane! No way! Totally morbid! Why, then we wouldn’t be acorns anymore!!!!”
The point of the parable is obvious. Though it is true that acorns are quite important, that you cannot have oak trees without acorns, the acorn is but the beginning, not the end, of a long process of becoming. The acorn’s true nature and destiny is to become an oak. Coiled inside the shell is a vastly more majestic life waiting to become. Anyone can see this. But it is not nearly so obvious that something is similarly true about our lives as well. That there is within each of us a larger life, a greater self, a truer way of being in this world that awaits to rise up and be. What our contemporary culture calls the Ego, the Me, Myself, and I, that struggles and strives, that polishes its image, that worries about appearances, and straightens its cap, and colors its hair, and frets about the future, is just the acorn. But so many of us live our entire lives as if that’s all there is: acornhood and nothing more. Image, not Essence. No roots to reach down to deep running springs of water. No branches to reach up to heaven above. Just acorns on the surface, spending our lives straightening our caps and polishing our shells. And yet, it was for this reason that Jesus came, to point to something more, and to tell all of us acorns that “we…are… that.” We are most deeply, truly, majestically, emphatically something more. We can live our whole lives clinging to our acornhood. OR we can be that. This is without a doubt the most important choice we ever make in our lives.
Three of our scripture lessons for today are about this critical choice. In all three passages, the writers state in no uncertain terms that one way is blessed and the other way is cursed. Psalm 1 sharply contrasts the way of the world and the way of wisdom—God’s eternal word. Those who choose the way of wisdom, are like a tree planted by the water, their roots sunk deep in the soil. The way of the world is shallow, superficial, rootless, chaff that wind can easily blow away. Jeremiah uses a similar image, “Cursed is the one who places trust in the world, who turns from God. This one is like a shrub in the desert, who dwells in the parched places, rootless, shallow, But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, who is like a tree planted by the water, that sends out its roots by the stream, that does not fear when the heat comes, when the drought comes, it will not cease to bear fruit.” Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17 are both part of the ancient wisdom of Israel, wisdom in which Jesus had been well-versed all his life. It shows up in this Sermon on the Plain and in this version of his Beatitudes, so different from Matthew’s. According to Luke, it was not just blessings, but also warnings that Jesus gave: 4 of each, blessed are you, and woe to you. Clearly he spells out the choice between two ways of being alive, one blessed and one cursed. And the difference between the two ways is acornology.
Both the Psalmist and Jeremiah are saying, “Be like that tree with your roots sunk deep in the living water of the Eternal One.” But Jesus takes this ancient wisdom a giant step further by telling all those acorns how. How does an acorn become an oak? It has something to do with going into the ground and cracking open the shell. It has something to do with being broken. That’s the part that we acorns don’t like to hear! If it had anything to do with polishing our shells or straightening our caps or securing our acornhood, maybe it would make sense. But it has to do instead with cracking the shell and breaking it open, surrendering up our acornhood.
That’s why Jesus says, “But woe to you who are rich, and laughing, and full and famous.” You are the ones who are most likely so satisfied with your acornhood that you have no inkling as to just how temporary all this is–chaff in the wind, like a shrub in the desert, like the gloss on the page of a celebrity magazine, here today, gone tomorrow, not eternal.
That’s why he said, “Blessed are you poor, blessed are you that hunger, blessed are you that weep, blessed are you who are reviled by others…rejoice, and be glad!” he says, for you are the ones who have experienced loss and sorrow and suffering, for you are the ones who know more than anyone else that there is something more to life than just straightening our caps and polishing our shells.
Surely the people of this poor, broken, bruised, reviled city know this more than anyone. For in the midst of this unparalleled loss and immeasurable sorrow, have we not also discovered what it is that matters most in life, what it is that matters eternally? Have we not also grown, deepened ? Have we not also known more love, more peace, more joy, more gratitude, more friendship, more of God than ever before? I am not saying that Katrina is my friend or that God made this happen to teach us a lesson–by no means. I am saying that in midst of loss and death and destruction there is a power that is stronger still. It is the same power that can take a broken acorn and bring forth a mighty oak. It is the power of a life stronger than death. It is the power of the resurrection at work in you and me, in us and all around us.
How I loved Monica Robert’s wonderful articles she wrote for the newsletter while I was gone. The one I loved the most was the one in which she quoted the verse by Leonard Cohen: Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything /That’s how the light gets in.” And that’s how the oak begins to grow. That’s how Jesus said it would be, “Those who lose their lives will find them.” That’s why he said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies it cannot bear fruit.” That’s why Paul could say, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the splendid power of it belongs to God and not to us.” That’s why he could say, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” So do not be afraid if you have lost your cap, or your shell has lost its shine, or even has a crack in it. That’s how the light gets in. That’s how we begin to enter the kingdom of God. That’s how we become fully alive, truly alive, deeply alive, alive as God is alive. Rejoice and be glad, for yours is the kingdom of God.
I read a story in a book by the surgeon Richard Selzer, Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery. It’s about a young woman who had just had facial surgery in which Dr. Selzer removed a malignant tumor in her cheek. In order to do that, he had to sever a little twig of facial nerve, just enough to affect her in such a way that it would always be somewhat palsied, crooked, twisted. There was no way to remove the tumor except by severing this nerve and afflicting her appearance for the rest of her life. Her husband was in the room with them. He stood on the opposite side of the bed, oblivious to the doctor, holding his wife’s hand, almost as if they were the only 2 people in the universe. Selzer wrote: “Who are they, I ask myself, this young man and his wife with her crooked mouth that I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously?” The young woman asked the doctor, “Will my mouth always be like this ?” Dr. Selzer answered, “Yes. It will. Because I had to cut the nerve.” She nodded and was silent absorbing that difficult piece information. But the young man smiled. He said, “I like it. It’s kind of cute.” And then this is what Selzer wrote: “All at once I know who he is. I understand. I lower my gaze. Unmindful to me, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and is so close, I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to her, to show her that their kiss still works.”
This is a young man and woman who may never appear on the glossy pages of the magazine through which I thumb in the beauty salon. This is a young man and woman whose shells have been cracked, broken. According to a world of acorns, they may seem to be most unfortunate. But I say, blessed are they. More than happy, deeper than happy, blessed are these broken ones who found a love that can endure. For through the cracks in the shell they already had a glimpse of the light of another world, another kingdom, another way of being alive where a crooked kiss still works.