Ecce gratia

This is a reflection I wrote last week for the Good Friday Project that St. James Episcopal Church presented on April 19, 2019. It’s an annual program they present, a variety of artists from their community, and from other churches in the area, offer pieces of music, poetry, dance, and more, in a contemplative setting.

Part I: Ecce homo “Behold the man”
“It is finished.”
They long for the final 
exhalation, these lips that still
pucker at the tang of sour wine;
Arid gust swirls a faint muskysweet  po
scent upward from the Mary who
kneels at the foot of my cross.
Ah, I recall the rough silk of her
hair on my feet. Nard for burial
while I breathed and lived. Her gesture 
was for me; she graced my death,
where Peter and the others could not.
There, my mother and my beloved disciple;
no man can sunder such love.
I focus on their loved faces and my pain
subsides. 
Ecce homo, Pilate commanded.
Demanded the city look and see.
He did not ask of me, ecce populus;
no matter, all is Rome’s
Ah, but I love them nonetheless.
They know not how scorn
echoes down the ages.
Father, I will bear the agony
that in the garden began. 

Part II: Ecce tibi “Behold oneself”
Boston in spring 2007. Our heroine, a grad student presenting at a national conference. Pop Culture—easy to get into, true–exciting, nonetheless. Her paper all about quest literature. The lesson: there’s no one in Avalon to save us; we must save ourselves. Medieval studies sessions catch her attention. The grail’s in Boston, she learns—alive and well in the public library. So, on that Friday in glorious spring, she’s skipping out to quest and finds Edwin Abbott’s eerie paintings in the library’s reading room. Perceval’s gaze still haunts her dreams, and the Holy Grail, that sacred cup, is unveiled in sacred, public space. Behold! What a joyous day with still time to quest. Out into the square she steps. Across the way, a well-aged church beckons her; come. No hesitation, off she goes, such pride in all she’s accomplished. “You can’t take pictures, she’s told at the door, “but please come in and be seated in silence.” The usher hands her a bulletin. It’s not until she’s seated and seen the quote straight back on the wall of the nave–He who does not love does not know God, for God is lovedoes she see the words on the top of the pageGood Friday—come in and pray. Our heroine weeps with sudden understanding: salvation and God have been present all along. She’s just finally been opened to God’s call. 

Part III: Ecce ipsi “Behold ourselves
Have you heard the prophet C. S. Lewis’ words? 
“No man can be an exile if he remembers that all the world is one city.”  

Part IV: Ecce familia 
Today, we stand outside of time and watch and pray.
Behold thy family, graciously, O Lord.
Love again begins. 

 

 

Credits: The C. S. Lewis quote is from Till We Have Faces. The featured image is What Our Lord Saw From the Cross, by James Tissot, painted between 1886 and 1894.

Making Space for God’s Daily Visits

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. Collect of the Day for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary

One of my paid jobs is working as a bookseller at the largest independent bookstore in Texas. We’re open for a few hours on Christmas Day, and I volunteered to be one of those who work that day.

Yesterday, a regular customer (who might have dementia) approached me to ask if we were open on Christmas Day. “Yes, we are; noon to six pm.” “That’s a sin,” she says, no hint of humor in her voice, no skip of a beat.

Today, when asked what I’m doing for the holidays: “I’m working at the store.” Friend says, “They’re open on Christmas? I don’t know how I feel about that.”

I do know how I feel about that. I don’t feel it’s a sin.

Yes, the store isn’t doing this for purely altruistic reasons, and to be honest, neither am I (double-time pay and lunch courtesy of the store).

But. . .

We will have people come in to the store who have nowhere else to go, especially when the libraries are closed for the holiday–homeless people, in other words.
We will have people who’ve come in to sit at the cafe to have space with friends and open gifts.
We will have lonely people who are just glad that we’re open and welcoming. They can come in and feel connected.
Yes, we’ll have the people who are happy we’re open because they want to return a gift or may need to still buy one and don’t need anything further than that.
We will have people who aren’t celebrating the birth of Christ, for whatever reason, and those who are, like myself.

On Tuesday, I’ll strive to be present to the people who come in to the bookstore for the reasons listed above and more, smiling and answering questions, getting frustrated with some of them, I’m sure. I’ll have a good day with my co-workers, whose reasons for being there are similar and different than my own. I’ll be out in the world, doing something I love, in a place I love, for agape’s sake.

Christmas is a celebration of a birth that took place in a lowly, to become holy, place to a couple who couldn’t find anywhere else to be. Care for our neighbors happens anywhere and everywhere, no matter what day it is, and should happen in the most unlikely places, especially at times when it seems that capitalism and consumerism are holding the most sway over our lives.

I don’t feel conflicted about sharing the gospel in any space I can. Where do you find yourself making space?

 

Art: Visitation, 20th century?, Church of Saint Elizabeth, El Sitio, El Salvador, http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56718.

 

Gotta love that brood of vipers

John’s passion, will it ever find satisfaction?

Met a parishioner today who wanted to volunteer
to help our homeless neighbors.
“I can do something that doesn’t require physical contact?”
Touch them, seriously, do I have to?
But her cash is indeed welcome
to provide creature comforts–
bus passes, restaurant gift cards, socks.
That counts as touching, right?

John’s passion, will it ever find satisfaction?

And what about you, aghast that anyone
would ask that question
with such revulsion.
Your own repulsion, as if a snake had reared its hood.
Well, that’s a bad metaphor, because you love snakes;
maybe not love, but they’re God’s creatures, too,
oft maligned, oft destroyed (that saint made his reputation by
clearing them out of Ireland).

Your soul recoils
Isn’t she a viper because her desire
to give prophylactic help,
to remain untainted,
doesn’t that make her sterile?
Doesn’t that make her blind, and render,
yet again, 
the homeless invisible
“There are homeless in this hygenic place?” 
Yes, here. And here. And here.

John’s passion, you brood of vipers, when will it gain satisfaction?

Are you worth more just because,
regardless of your unfitness, 
you would yet be in the trenches?
Would not hesitate (unlike that dear rock
on which the church is founded)
to untie the thongs of his sandals,
enduring dung-tinged dirt that would sting
any viper’s scent-seeking tongue,
you would welcome and wash.
Be a foundation of hospitality.

When will your passion find its satisfaction?
Or are you looking for self sanctification?

Open your heart to all,
forego judgment,
yield to compassion.
God can raise stones in your place, too.

Should My Next Tattoo Be a Blue Night Light?

In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

         —from Canticle 16, The Song of Zechariah, Luke 1:78-79

A few years ago now, a friend referred to me as “a blue night light.” A group of us were walking back to our seminary housing after a gathering. I was wearing a blue shirt (blue is my favorite color) at the time; my friend simply used the words to let me know that I was a comforting presence. It was a seemingly fluffy compliment that held no lasting meaning for him. However, I hold on to the image as a part of my identity, especially as I consider what my next tattoo should be.

One tattoo already wraps around my left wrist—seven stars and one crescent moon, all blue—as a reminder of my love of the night sky and how connected I feel to God when out under it. Given his words, and similar ones from others, a blue night light seems fitting, convenient. But why another person’s compliment? my friend asked when told.

Why indeed?

I began attending church ten years ago, after largely resisting formal religion for most of my life, because all I could see was the darkness I associated with dogma–exclusion, bitterness, ignorance. When I read the phrase being Jesus’s hands and feet in the world” as part of the mission statement in the bulletin of the church I went to, a great light bloomed in my heart. Finding a community that looked to serve those in
need–a deeper understanding of what it meant to follow Christ began to dawn on me. Belonging took on new meaning as did serving others.

On this second Sunday of Advent, with the words of John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah–harbinger of a harbinger of the Messiah’s arrival–to give us hope, I can think of no greater compliment than to be called a light in someone else’s darkness.

 

 

Photo from Inhabitots, Eco-night light Moon Jar

O, Advent has begun

So, I’ve been absent from my blog for over a year, for reasons I’ll not mention here. But Advent seems like a good time to re-commit to writing about spiritual, theological, and literary matters. I hope you’ll join me as I journey along my path after a down time.

I initially wrote this meditation as a submission for an Advent publication based on the O antiphons. This wasn’t used after all, (though another of my submissions was), so I present it to you as we await the coming of Christ.

“Faith and Faithful”

Come, o come,” says the child, as the earworm grows and uncurls among your neurons, leaving in its wake shards of lyrics and epic tones.

Arise, shine, for your light has come all ye faithful, joyful and arise, shine for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.

“I know your mistrust of gifts, but this is between friends. I will be faithful.” You’re actively playing with the earworm now, trying to guide its course but now is not the time for laying straight the path.

Arise, shine, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, come ye o come ye to Bethlehem.

“I understand your brokenness.” The child’s voice is soft and sure. “I bring you my peace. And I will be faithful.”

Arise, shine, for your light has come, arise, shine for your light has come, has come ye faithful, to Bethlehem.

“My authority is not a yoke to crush you, but is a gift to empower you, to bring you life everlasting. I bring you my peace and I will be forever faithful.” Is that sorrow or hope in the child’s voice?

The earworm wends its way to your heart, its segmented melodies dissolving the stone while mending the cracks left by years of infidelity.

Arise, shine, arise, shine, for your life has come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, for your life has come, o come . . .

and then–

“Rejoice, rejoice!” Strange echoes of other voices reverberate as the song bursts forth from your lips.

“Come, o come, give me my name,” the child smiles. “I am with you always.”

Image: Christ-Emmanuel, 1668, Board, 42*32, Russian Museum, from Wikimedia Commons

Go love without the help of any Thing on Earth

By the Rev. Hunter Ruffin

Early in the week last week, I set out toward Austin, TX, to join some of my classmates, friends, and colleagues at the annual Blandy Lectures hosted at Seminary of the Southwest. Whenever I set out on a road trip, whether by car or by plane, I carry with me a backlog of podcasts safely stored on my iPhone. These digital companions are rarely listened to during my weekly grind, but they are always good traveling friends. One of my favorite programs to listen to while traveling is Krista Tippets On Being. Over the years, I have grown to enjoy the thoughtful conversations that she has with others about faith, spirituality, the world, and humanity. Almost without fail, I am struck by at least a few comments that are offered in the course of a conversation, and it is equally almost without fail that those comments help inspire me in some future writing for a blog post or a sermon or simply a post on Facebook.

As I made my way down from Fort Worth to Austin, I happened to listen to an episode of On Being with Arnold Eisen (“The Opposite of Good is Indifference“), a Jewish American scholar now serving as the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. As the conversation unfolded and as miles passed, a single quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel  caught my attention–Few are guilty, but all are responsible.Perhaps the quote got my attention because I can understand it in light of the Christ hymn in Philippians 2, or perhaps it got my attention because I believe that we live in a world that is so fractured that attempting to reduce any problem in the world to a single source of causation is, at best, naive.

The truth that Rabbi Heschel speaks is the same truth that I find in the Christ hymn. It is a truth that tells me that I may not be the person responsible for evils in the world, but I am certainly responsible for working against that same evil. I have a duty as a follower of Jesus to speak out against those things which I believe are wrong. I have a responsibility to my fellow human beings to become a servant unto our shared well-being in order that our world might eventually be one that is defined by justice and by love. I have a responsibility because I am human.

The Christ hymn sings the truths that Christians claim about Christ as the Son of God, the Messiah, as God with us. Though short, it pushes us to go beyond the status quo and to move steadily toward a world that is defined by the same kind of love that Christ has for God. The hymn does not simply speak about what Christ has done for us but also what we are called to do for each others as sisters and brothers within Gods household. Paul exhorts us through his letter to the church in Philippi to let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.(Phil 2:5 NRSV).


In other words, we are to have a mind for the good of each other. We are called to tend to the importance of the common good at the expense of the immediate gratification of our own desires. We are called to give of ourselves in such a way that we honor another person
s perspective, that we hear the cries of injustice as a rallying call, and that we listen so intently to the stories of our fellow human beings that we cannot help but be touched by the grace of their lives.

The Christ hymn is a glorification and adoration of Christ Jesus precisely because it is a clarion call to disciples of Jesus to love as deeply and as faithfully as Christ. It is an ancient call that has resounded throughout the ages in the words of others, and it is a call to take up the mantle of Christs ministry that, perhaps, is best summed up in the words of William Blake:

The Angel that presided o’er my birth
Said, Little creature, formd of Joy and Mirth,
Go love without the help of any Thing on Earth.

The Rev. Hunter Ruffin (Seminary of the Southwest, MDiv ’15) is a church planter in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. Learn more about The Episcopal Church in Parker County here: https://www.episcopalchurchparkercounty.org/. He also has a blog, A Journey in Faith.

 

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Setting Our Minds on Divine Things: Death, Grace, and Love

by The Rev. Ashley Freeman

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:25 NRSV

This week my family and I have dealt with an incredible loss. In the past few days, my grandmother, unexpectedly, became very ill and died. Her death has left me and my family grieving and hurting in ways we are not even aware of yet. Nonetheless, this is where I find myself as I begin to reflect upon Jesus’s words in this verse from Matthew’s gospel.

Jesus’ statement here is one of the most challenging in the gospel. How does one save one’s life by losing it? Does following Jesus require that we actually die in his service? Is Jesus speaking metaphorically? If so, how do we lose our life for his sake? These questions and many others have surfaced for me this week as I have thought about Jesus’ statement in light of my grandmother’s death. Chief among these questions has been, what steps must we take to die?

This week as I sat in the waiting room, surrounded by family members and friends, many of whom I have not seen in years, and others who I rarely see, a thought occurred to me. My grandmother was able to do something in her death that rarely occurred in her life. While laying weak in the ICU, unable to speak, and laboring to breath, she gathered us together. Many were physically in the waiting room, others present via mobile phone and social media as they offered their love and support from afar. The grace and love she shared with others in her life now drew them all together in her death.

The ability for the dying to gather the living is not unique to my grandmother. As a priest, a central part of my ministry is spending time with families as they await the death of loved ones. The experience is always different. However, almost always one’s death gathers together those whom they loved.

The last great work of love performed by the dying is the weaving together, like a fabric, of the lives of all those they are leaving behind. This weaving is powerful and profound. So much so that I have witnessed, on multiple occasions, people who have been angry and spiteful toward one another for years tearfully embracing one another as they gathered at the death of a loved one. Perhaps a few days after the death, these individuals returned to their spite and anger. However, the fact remains the love and grace they shared in life and death offered them reconciliation, even if only for a moment.

So how do these insights help us answer my question, “what steps must we take to die?”

In short, I do not know. It seems to me that often Christians, myself included, think of God’s love and grace as an exchange system, in which we hope our doing, asking, praying, or saying something in the proper way, persuades or convinces God to demonstrate love and grace. This is rarely the case, if ever. Rather, God’s grace and love is present in our lives at all times. When a death, like my grandmother’s, gathers people into community and intimately weaves their lives together, fostering the bonds of love, mutuality, or at times reconciliation, it becomes a moment that highlights God’s grace and love for us, even in the face of death.

At this moment, even though I do not know what steps I need to take in order to die, it seems to me that Jesus’s advice to Peter, to set our minds on divine things will be required. My hope is that my experience of God’s grace and love during my grandmother’s death will empower my family and empower others, too, to seek the divine in all aspects of our lives. Perhaps then, we can begin to die and start to find the life to which God is calling each of us.

The. Rev. Ashley Freeman, graduate of the Seminary of the Southwest (MDiv ’15), is the rector of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Zachary, LA, where he resides with his wife, three children, and three dogs.

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Why I’m Soul Sister to a Dog: The Canaanite Woman & Me

But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” Jesus answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Matthew 15:25-27 NRSV

I am a dog.

One of my closest soul sisters is my friend’s dog. We connect because I understand myself to be a dog in so many ways, in various connotations of the word. I want to claim both those negative and positive aspects, so that I can be whole, as the Canaanite woman is wholly herself, owning the name that Jesus throws at her, which she fetches right back and drops it at his feet.

As a freshman, “you dog!” was hurled at me across the school library, by boys who felt entitled to degrade me because I didn’t meet their standard of beauty. To be honest, I didn’t—straight-haired brunette. Thick eyebrows. Yes, facial hair. No make-up. No interest in fashion. Very much a Spock-loving, Elvish-speaking, poetry-writing nerd of a girl and mostly proud of it. To do any less than own it, to be the dog, felt fake, untrue. So I was ugly, not fit to date—I owned myself.

As a non-desired young woman, I came to identify, later in high school, with Helena, from my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This intensified during my marriage to an emotionally-abusive man who constantly cheated on me. Isn’t that the true place of a “saved” woman?  Fawning over her knight, whom she loved, content to be owned, to have the crumbs from the other women who he’s rescued. In Act 2, Scene 1, while she’s chasing him, Helena tells Demetrius, the man who could heal her: “What worser place can I beg in your love— / And yet a place of high respect with me— / Than to be usèd as you use your dog?”

I can own that I let myself play well into this role over the last twenty-some years. “I am your spaniel. And, Demetrius, / The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.” Yelps–“like me, like me, like me”–chorus in my background. “Bitch” is the pejorative metaphor I never wanted to hear from anyone’s lips.

Did the Canaanite woman expect to hear that insult from Jesus? To be called a “dog” or a “bitch”? Some commentators describe Jesus as smiling in his reply to the woman who dares to implore him for help (Women’s Bible Commentary, 474). He uses the word as a kindness, sort of like when one of my male co-workers greets me with a friendly “what’s up, dawg?” Meant in a friendly way, I know—one cool person to another. Not quite feeling that vibe in the exchange between our savior and the woman, though. Perhaps a little more tension between them—Jesus is focused on his mission. And that reading of a smiling Jesus makes him sound so patronizing. “Nice doggy, go lie down”—pat, pat, pat.

Yet, all along, there’s been another canine shadow pacing quietly alongside these cynical images. For as long as I can recall, when considering my wandering and wondering nature, especially in matters of faith and theology, I’ve described this journey as God letting me out on a very long lead. While exploring other ways of faith-ing, my fidelity has always been given to Christ, despite hackles bristling at rigid dogma or rabid fundamentalism.

Recently, a new friend gave more shape to this numinous form. He noticed that I didn’t just call myself a dog, but very specifically named myself “hound” without any forethought. A new consideration of myself—after all, I didn’t say any breed considered a toy or a lapdog. Hounds, Jeff observed, are independent and given to tracking by scent or sight their quarry. Leave out of your minds right now the masculine sexual connotations
–I definitely ain’t nothin’ like that hound dog!

Do I imagine myself the noble bloodhound, the elegant saluki, the swift greyhound? Maybe. I can claim certain of their aspects. In all honesty, though, I’m most like my Grandpa John’s basset hound, kindred spirit of my childhood—built low to the ground, chasing rabbits (going down rabbit holes), checking out fascinating scents, and generally going my own way around town. Lovingly indulged.

I’ve done with being the fawning spaniel (with all due respect to my soul sister), waiting to be spurned or beaten, or worse yet, beating myself. The Canaanite woman said “yes, that’s me” to Jesus (great improv!). Her “yes” woke him, reminding him that faith and salvation come in unexpected forms. Her “yes” rouses me, too.

Yes, I am a dog; a hound as faithful and true as the Canaanite woman. And very grateful that God has never once taken God’s hand from the lead.

In Our Addiction to Convenience, Have We Forgotten the Word’s Ancient Meaning?

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. Genesis 3:7

Part of my daily ritual most mornings involves stopping at my local 7-Eleven convenience store. Freedom and spontaneity abound in my breakfast or lunch choices—planning a week’s worth of meals can be so inconvenient. Sometimes I stop at one on the way to my other job when I feel the guilt of a McDonald’s craving—exchanging one convenient corporation for another. Convenience stores have an abundance of those conveniently healthy food choices—individual packets of nuts, yogurt, power bars, and more. Convenience stores are also convenient oases for homeless persons, have you noticed?

I have a hate/love relationship with the words convenient and convenience. They have become such self-focused words—as consumers in a largely corporate economy, we measure the world in terms of our own “coffee spoon” comfort: how quickly and easily can we gratify our desires? No frustration must enter our lives, heaven forbid that we must wait in line at a grocery store, let alone interact with others who (might) thwart our ease of access. Convenience means little or no human interaction.

In seminary a few years ago, I became enamored of the now obsolete usage of the word, the original Latin conveniens, which means “fitting.” This usage forms the basis for many of Thomas Aquinas’s arguments in the Summa Theologiae. When I first read it, my eyes opened, not to a brave new world, per se, but to knowledge that there were others like me in the world–scholars, theologians, poets–using reason to understand God; faith was seeking understanding, to borrow St. Anselm’s phrase.

I had found my kindred spirits. Seemingly, the practical world has little use for mystics, though, let alone poets. And yet, I would say that even these head-in-the-cloud saints still had their hands and feet in the world.

***

Adam and Eve

God’s economy
begins in this convenient
car wash; by spurting spigot,
the man fills plastic water jugs
crafted by a nameless
corporation.
the woman produces eclectic plastic
ware–squares, saucers–from ubiquitous
black garbage bag carryall.
Synthetic black clothes her corpus, too,
leadenly animate in the chill.
Giving each dish a quick rinse under
the gushes, she then lays
them out on the grass.
No shame in either frame
as each performs their corporate chores.
Store’s red-shirted clerk ignores
their theft.

Gas pump clicks, banishing me
from this Eden, not them.
Conveniens? I whisper, a Thomist
ghost flitting ‘round
my reasoning heart.
Fitting, I murmur–
this is the wisdom of the world.

***

In my off-kilter, poet-theologian mind, I hate that we speak of, say, helping the homeless, in terms of inconvenience, as I’ve heard some priests preach, trying to wrestle with that word. Get out of your comfort zone (such a convenient cliche)! And I don’t disagree with the thought, but . . . if we are all children of God, all imago dei (made in God’s image), then should we not re-frame the wisdom of the world in terms of the fittingness of opening our eyes and truly seeing each other in that light? Inconveniencing ourselves may be the most convenient action we can take.


Image:  Välko Tuul – Art Museum of Estonia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61409440

Advent Wilderness

“To put it another way: if you, as the owner of the house, know that the thief is coming but not the hour that the thief is to arrive, do you sit between now and that time, anxious, hyper vigilant, rigid in an armchair perhaps, smack dab in front of the door, hands tight on a shotgun, afraid to leave the chair? Are you then awake? How else might you prepare?” –from Advent Anxiety

The second Sunday of Advent and still Matthew’s gospel serves as a provocateur, pulling me up, wresting the shotgun out of my numb fingers, saying “armchairs are notoriously difficult to turn around in; how then can you repent?” Pulling me through zig-zagging narrow corridors in a rush, past vitriolic tweets and social media frenzies, past scores of emails per day from retailers reveling in their revealing of ever lower discounts and ever more perfect gifts. Until finally, I’m pushed–

out, crying aloud in wonder at the stark light of the sun and the radiant heat of the desert. At first, I mistake the absence of noise as total silence, but while marveling at the needed quietude, random buzzes (not the large drone of a hive), creep into my awareness. Stones, too, in some pattern I cannot discern, laid down long ago by flood and cataclysm, make themselves known to me. For a surreal second, I ponder whether stones can buzz, but then, camouflaged against the hard-packed sand, locusts move. Not enough for a plague, but plenty if you’re hungry. Watch out, I murmur softly, the prophet, the baptizer, might be about.

Of course, that’s exactly when the gospel nudges me forward. There’s a man, a ways from me; it’s hard to estimate distance in the desert. Is that what camel hair looks like? Hesitation on my part, only because I don’t want to disturb the stones. There’s no path, though the way is certainly straight. There’s no choice for me, really, and so I step forward.

When I reach him, he’s sitting, cross-legged at the edge of a shallow arroyo, a stream gurgling through it. “Child of Abraham,” he greets me, patting the ground next to him. We sit in silence for a bit; me, studying him surreptitiously and expectant of a prophetic rant about vipers; he, turning a stone over in his hands. The locusts sing. Finally, I ask, “Am I the wheat or the chaff, John?”

“Why is it always an ‘either/or’ question?” He looks at me, and I can’t help but notice the little smudge of honey in his beard. “When you ask it that way, you begin to ‘other,’ even yourself.” He shows me the stone in his hand–it’s vaguely heart-shaped. He tosses it into the flowing water. “It’s really difficult to baptize stone hearts–open yours and let the chaff therein float away.”

John reaches down and slips off my flip flops. Rising, unsure, I step into the stream, the cool water rushing over my dusty feet. I pivot back toward him. “Will you help me to open my heart?” I whisper.

The baptizer smiles. “Ah, that’s a better question.” I feel a tap on my shoulder.

“Turn around,” John says, “the one who comes with the Holy Spirit and fire is here for just that reason.”