Faith and the Arts: The Life Library
By Rebecca Messman
Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA
May 8, 2022
Today, we are continuing our series Faith and the Arts, with a focus today on poetry and prose. What books have shaped your faith? What novels, poems, short stories, or children’s books have given you language for God or the soul, that Mary Oliver calls that wild, silky part of ourselves? What literature has made you feel understood?
Maybe a few titles have come to your mind. For me, I think of The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown and The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. The poetry of Mary Oliver and Denise Levertov and Billy Collins. Early in my life, I loved A Separate Peace by John Knowles.
For many centuries, the way people experienced the stories of the Bible was through hearing them told and re-told. That way, the stories worked their way into people’s memories and became stories they could carry with them even as they became part of an ongoing story.
So today, rather than read the story, I will attempt to tell it.
Listen to this:
22 At that time the Festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me, 26 but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.29 My Father, in regard to what he has given me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.”
Let us pray: O Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen
It was winter, the text says, and Jesus was strolling through the oldest part of the Temple, warming himself in the heart of the Jewish world. They probably didn’t have coffee kiosks or vendors of witty mugs, “I went to the Festival of Dedication and all I got was this mug.” But, it was a place full of scrolls, a place full of vellum and papyrus, a place full of history and humanity and hope where people read the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Hebrew Scriptures that we call the Old Testament were really a library. In them, there were the primal stories, Adam and Eve and Noah. There were the family stories, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and on down. There were shelves of law books. And there was the Exodus, which reads like the Epic of Moses. Then all the poetry of the Psalms and the military history of Joshua and the philosophy of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs and the magical realism of Jonah and Job and the steamy romance of the Song of Solomon. Much of this Biblical library, however, was political in nature, stories of governments, led by judges and kings, one after the other, falling in on themselves because they idolized their own power, neglected the vulnerable and were called to account by prophets of God.
And as Jesus was walking through the Temple, other people surrounded him. Rather than offering him a warm cardigan on a cold day, they pressed in: “Skip to the end, Jesus! Are you the Messiah? We can’t handle the suspense any longer! Give us the spoilers! We want to know where this is all going!” And it’s hard to tell whether this chapter in the Gospel of John is meant to be funny or sad, because Jesus reminds them he has already told them he is the Messiah. He has told them this a bunch of times, 11 times already in the book of John alone.
But, instead of reading them the book jacket version of himself, Jesus responds in a rather poetic mystical way, which is typical of the Gospel of John. He says, “My sheep hear my voice. I give them eternal life. Nothing can snatch them from my hand.” And in an answer like that, it is as if Jesus did a poetry reading of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd… I shall not want… I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” In an answer like that, Jesus turned the question back toward them, as if to say, the suspense is not about who I am. The suspense you feel is in you. Do you believe the shepherd is good? Can you hear that voice and let it shape your path? The shepherd’s voice is always going to hold you and guide you well, but do you believe that? Or do you quietly believe this is yet another smoking political book where you wind up abandoned and ashamed?
Now we presume the people around Jesus continued to struggle with their response, but we also know Jesus’ words, Jesus the Word made flesh, forever shaped them, saved them. We know that this flock ambled along through the centuries, and that we are part of this same magnificent redemption story, even though we – like them – sometimes lose the plot or want to skip to the end or forget what we already know about God.
I just finished a book called The Midnight Library. It imagines that in a place in between life and death, there is a library with an infinite number of books. In addition to your real life, there is a volume for every other version of your life where you made different choices, a version of your life where you choose to be a glaciologist or a rock star. Where you said yes to coffee or weren’t late to that interview. It reminds me of the movies It’s a Wonderful Life and Groundhog Day or the book A Wrinkle in Time.
The main character, Nora, finds herself there, when her own life seems to have become a dead end, a cul de sac lined with disappointment and regret, and she sees no path forward. In her own life, she has lost the plot and wants to skip to the end. That is when she ends up in the midnight library. There she has this opportunity to visit countless other versions of her life, and if they aren’t what she wants, she slips right back to the midnight library.
Nora’s guide is a woman named Mrs. Elm, a wise librarian, who processes all these different lives with her. Nora has to decide on a version of her life to inhabit or the whole library will collapse. At times, the library starts to quake and the lights flicker and books start to fall off the shelves. Nora and Mrs. Elm are frightened. Eventually, Nora demands to know if Mrs. Elm is God or if this library is just her brain trying to put stories around what she can’t understand. And like Jesus in today’s text, Mrs. Elm offers no shortcuts or easy answers. But eventually, after trying everything else and trying to be everyone else, Nora returns to love her own life. At one point she says, “There is no rejection, there is only redirection.” I love that. And the surprise is not the outcome, really. That was pretty obvious. The surprise is that she actually believes it. That she comes to believe the centrality of love and life and forgiveness. The surprise is that she is able to hear a true voice amidst all noise and shaking and that voice leads her to peace.
There has been a lot of noise and shaking this week. Words leaked from the Supreme Court have set off an avalanche of words about life and rights and mothers. And it would have been a tender week anyway, with all the feelings and stories wrapped up in the word Mother. This week has felt like a legal library collided with a Hallmark store, and words are now flowing down the streets. It is easy in a week like this to lose the plot and forget what we already know about God and each other and just skip to the end as if we know already know what is going to happen.
But that is when we find ourselves back in the surprising library of God… We pull out those primal stories, Adam and Eve and Noah, and we remember that an olive branch appeared when no one thought it would. We pull out those family stories, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and on down, and we remember how God’s promise carried on when no one thought it would, through times far more fraught than these. We journey the whole Exodus, and time and time again, a way appeared where there seemed to be no way. We sing the poetry of the Psalms, and even though we walk through the valley of the shadow, we fear no evil. We choose the life shaped and saved by the Word made flesh, Jesus, lamb of God, light of the world… which is no surprise since we are church people. But the surprise is what it takes for us to really believe it and let it lead us to peace.
Two years ago on Mother’s Day, I suppose I was in my own midnight library. It had been two months of pandemic parenting, which involved a lot of sourdough bread making and giving my son a home haircut. Let’s just say it was somewhere between Little House on the Prairie and Survivor. And, it had been two months since my mom had passed. I was full of what if’s. What if the doctors had reacted to her cancer sooner? What if I had gone to visit more? What if that prism rainbow on the wall is a sign of her speaking to me right now? That was when a spiritual mother of mine, my version of Mrs. Elm, checked in on me. She asked if I needed a meal or maybe a hug – those were hard to come by. And I said, “Actually, I need words that fit. My own words aren’t fitting this, kind of like my clothes.” We laughed. Then she sent me this poem by David Whyte. It was one that she’d read in an outdoor service for her mom a few years prior.
And as I read the words, I found myself back on the path, with the jingle of a sheep who had heard the good shepherd’s voice again. Here is the poem:
She wrote me a letter after her death,
And I remember a kind of happy light
falling on the envelope
as I sat by the rose tree
on her old bench by the back door
so surprised by its arrival
wondering what she would say,
unable to open it
and laughing in silent expectation.
It is time for me to leave you.
The words you are used to hearing,
are no longer mine to give.
You can hear those words of motherly
affection now only from your own mouth
and only for those who stand
motherless before you.
As for me I must forsake adulthood
and be bound gladly to a new childhood.
You must understand
this apprenticeship demands
of me an elemental innocence
from everything I ever held in my hands.
I know your generous soul
is well able to let me go.
You will in the end be happy to know
my God was true
and that after so many years
of loving you all so long
I find myself in the wide, infinite mercy of being
PS All of your intuitions were true.