Let the World Be Weird
Elizabeth Jennings, January 31
FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY 2021
Deuteronomy 18:17-20, 1 Corinthians 8:1-7a, Tao Te Ching 73, Mark 1:23-28
When Pastor John first asked me to preach this Sunday, I replied, “It looks like the readings are about prophets, idols, and demons, respectively. Deliciously un-modern.” Tonight I am not going to do line-by-line exegesis on any one of these Scripture passages. Instead I’m going to address the elephant in the room: just how weird all these passages are.
I myself do believe in what they describe: that human beings can receive true glimpses of the future from divine guidance; that spiritual beings can locate their essence in material objects, but that we who serve the omnipresent God need pay no mind to this; that “unclean spirits”—many of which are clearly still with us embodied—can make innocent people miserable, but have no power when faced with the Light through whom all the worlds were made.
If you are dubious, or would just rather not think about these things, I ask that you try for a moment what the poet Coleridge called “willing suspension of disbelief,” or “poetic faith,” such as when you read a novel trusting that something about it is true.
In my own life, the spiritually uncanny has loomed large. Until I was eleven my family attended a boisterous charismatic church where my mother was a prophetess. My childhood and teens witnessed miraculous healings, exorcisms, “holy rolling”—and descent into clinical insanity.
By the time I was twenty-one I called myself an atheist, not because I didn’t have some evidence of an unseen realm, but because I wanted nothing to do with it. Above all I wanted a normal life. A sane, tame, ordinary life. I didn’t want weirdness.
So of course I came to the Bay Area. Where for good or ill there is unfettered spiritual dabbling, a lust for “re-enchantment.” Recognizing the inner life as real is all well and good, but LSD, astral projection, idol worship, temple prostitution—where to draw the line? What are the criteria, exactly, for healthy and virtuous spiritual pursuits? Why is it silly and backward to be spiritually cautious?
I saw that many are coming at the paranormal from the opposite end as me: They haven’t experienced too much spiritualist madness growing up, but too much materialist dullness.
One thing became clear: I don’t want an enchanted world without a Savior. I should rather live in a drab flatland than a universe in which I’m left to contend with the Powers on my own. When I take a hard look at a world full of ghosts and devils, temptations and fairies, magic and miracles, oaths and covenants, rituals and revelations, blessings and curses, synchronicities and archetypes, the first thing I think is, “I don’t know how I’m going to make it out of here alive.”
One night during Lent at age twenty-five I walked into a tiny Episcopal sanctuary in the Mission district, and an elderly man handed me a lit candle. Immediately I began to weep. I looked at the stained glass cross and imagined a strong and gentle hand in mine, with a scar at the wrist, and a voice that said, “Since I made it out alive, so can you.”
But plumbing the spiritual depths, even with Jesus, still takes bravery and discernment. As Mr. Beaver says in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion." "Ooh" said Susan. . . "Is he-quite safe?” . . . "Safe?" said Mr. Beaver ..."'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”
Our Deuteronomy reading calling for prophets sounds much like the famous advertisement attributed to Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”
Men signed up in droves.
The enchanted world is very disturbing. The holy is by definition the “other,” the unknown, the strange. The word “sacred” means something dedicated or set apart from the ordinary.
But it turns out to be terribly boring to be “free” from “superstition” and “tradition”—“safe” from adventure. Deep down we all want something eternal at stake—and something eternal at large. We hunger for a God who is vast and terrible and beautiful, in whose image we see a spark of what we can be.
The apologist G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Danger is the root of all drama and romance. . . . To a Christian, existence is a story, which may end up in any way. In a thrilling novel . . . the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he might be eaten by cannibals. The hero must be an eatable hero. . . . In Christianity, in short, it is wicked to call a man ‘damned’: but it is strictly philosophic to call him damnable.”
The Christian universe is one in which our deepest hunger can be satisfied. It is also one in which we are “eatable.” There can be no meaningfully happy ending without the possibility of tragedy. If you lose the risk of hell, you lose the possibility of heaven. Every true heaven lies on the other side of some battle, that is particular to you, and that you could lose. The real world is risky because in the real world we actually matter.
So where are we left? The human soul longs for meaning, risk, and adventure. We also long for rest, comfort, and safety. Is the Christian enchanted universe safe or terrifying? Is God love or a consuming fire? Yes. it is the very same love that comforts the loyal heart, that burns the traitor.
I once met a man who told me religion was invented just to scare people. I agreed that a world teeming with unseen risks and influences is a scary place, but that with practice, with familiarity, “the fear of the Lord” can be tempered to an intimate awe.
I told him, what is the first thing an angel says when delivering a message in Scripture? “Fear not!” What does this mean? Obviously it means that angels are terrifying. And why? Because they are holy, something our finite earthly consciousness does not expect to perceive, and cannot fit into a mental category. Because encountering one may change your life forever—may make you something holy. The first instinct is understandably to flee from an angel. But if you run from the “otherness” so you need not tremble, you may be running from your calling, or even from glad tidings of great joy.
“Oh my god,” the man said. “That’s why I never got married! Because whenever I met a woman I was actually attracted to, I ran.”
A few years back someone told me, “You’re brave to be sticking with Christianity.” I’m not sure if he meant I’m brave because of the Bay Area wariness of Christians, or I’m brave because he thinks following Jesus is like following Darth Vader. But the truth is I’m brave because of Christ, and you can be too. I haven’t found anything worth living for like a God who died for me. And I could not ask for any greater adventure than the redemption of all things.
So let the world be weird, and try not to run. Try to be still in what C.S. Lewis called “the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live.” It’s okay, even healthy, to be scared. Being a follower of Jesus means acknowledging what scares or besets us. We can peer into the enchantment over Jesus’s shoulder for now.
I would like to share a poem I wrote a few years ago and am still growing into:
Alone with a flickering tealight
On the cold floor beside me
I can see the dome high above
Angels and saints in gold and lacquer.
I stare up at the cross, dark and ragged,
Where his metal body hangs
In triumph and despair suspended,
Too large and heavy to be mortal flesh.
Someone has come in.
Something has silently crept past the wooden doors.
I know this.
I know it because my heart pounds, my skin pricks cold.
It is stalking up the long aisle,
Coming up behind me.
It has come for me.
It has found me alone with God.
To scream will do no good,
Echoing off painted holiness.
I remember then, I am not in a cathedral,
Cornered by nameless horror
I open my eyes.
But even as relief stills my heart, I know,
I do live in that cathedral, always.
I live in the shadow of death.
There is no escape.
That night when I close my eyes
Again I sit instead before his effigy,
No censers, sermons,
No grand songs of strings and pipes.
Only one fragile candle
Again it enters.
I do not turn to face it.
Let it come. It must come.
I have run from it in circles around the Earth
And am too tired to keep running.
It wears a black cloak
It glides more than walks
I only stare up at the face of the groaning God,
My hands on my cross-legged knees
Until it hovers right behind me.
It pulls out a sword from its cloak
And stabs me through the back.
With one shudder and gasp,
I topple to my right side, heart severed.
The hood pulls back
Soft glow inspects its work.
A being of light?
Ah, I know.
The angel of death neither rejoices nor laments,
His mouth a grim line.
He has only done his duty.
He glides past my body, exit right, and disappears.
The tealight still flickers,
Making red the runlets of my blood.
From whence the angel of death went,
He wears a white robe and lightly glows,
As if he carries the first rays of the first morning
In his body,
And yet is so ordinary
Were it not for that,
You might walk right by him.
He carefully pulls out the sword,
Bracing against my shoulder,
And picks me up under the arms and knees
Like a sleeping child,
Carries me into the night,
Into a tomb with no candle.
He seals it with a stone,
Giving me proper burial,
And within hours I begin to rot.
Flies lay their eggs in my skin.
In the sheet of darkness
I cannot see my face be lost forever
But I know it is, and in this world,
Begin to weep.
Grimace, revulsion—that is I. I.
When I am tatters and stench,
Jesus comes to me,
Rolling back the stone,
Letting light shine on my ugliness.
With great love, he places his hands on me,
And wherever he touches comes back to life.
When I am fully resurrected,
He pulls me up to stand.
Across from him, my hands in his,
He looks me in the eye.
He need not speak, I know the words:
“Now I am your life.”
The vision fades, and I can hear my breath again.
“I trust you,” I whisper.
Nothing can ever be the same.