January 30, 2008

Blind Man “Sees”

From NPR’s All Things Considered tonight: David Stewart, a man blind from retinitis pigmentosa, has visual hallucinations. In the story about it, the interviewer also explores other ways that the brain “fills in the blanks.” In addition to blindness, there are deaf people who hear sounds, and those who have lost a limb who still feel it. The cause is something called Charles Bonnet syndrome where the brain draws on its past experiences in the absence of current stimuli.

The story included a portion of chapter 108 from Moby Dick where Ahab “feels” the leg he has lost to the whale. Ahab knows his leg is missing but for some reason it feels like it is still there, still part of him. He says to his companion: “Where thou feelest tingling light, there, just there, there, to a hair, do I. Isn’t it a riddle?”

And then the story on the radio ends, with this comment: “Captain Ahab’s brain was behaving just like David Stewart’s brain: compensating for a loss.”

And it makes me wonder if there is something built into our souls, as well as our brains, that causes us to compensate for loss. How would that work? Would people who have not had children compensate for that loss by loving the children of the world, by “seeing” them somehow as their own to care for, respond to, nurture, and support? Would people who have been through a job loss compensate by feeling for the currently unemployed?

I think that some who have suffered loss respond by becoming bitter or grasping or resentful. But what if we compensated for all our losses by seeing how the world would be without any loss at all? Isn’t that what faith is about? Or maybe that is what people mean when they say that love is blind. We have all lost something – some vision, some love, some precious part of our selves. Can we still feel? And do we, deep in our souls, compensate for our losses by feeling the loss in the world and responding?

January 28, 2008


Last semester I went to a meeting of folks who work with religious groups around campus. Part of what we discussed, in small groups, was how our various traditions treat the use of alcohol. This is a big topic among university staff who work with students. We all wish that students would use alcohol responsibly, that they would not drink themselves into oblivion, that we could help them be safe and wise and responsible.
In my small group discussion at this meeting, the Muslim fellow spoke of how some in Islam view the ban on alcohol. She said that a Muslim is to refrain from using alcohol so he or she can be fully aware of the presence of God all the time. I was so struck by this observation -- not necessarily the part about not drinking but more about the focus on being aware of God. My faith tradition does not prohibit alcohol -- in fact, we use if for Communion. But I don't think we talk much about constant awareness of the presence of God, either. It is a daunting challenge to consider. What if we did work on practicing the presence of God? I suspect it would make more of a difference in our lives than whether or not we had a glass of wine with dinner.
So, to my Muslim colleague in campus ministry: Thank you. Tonight, I am being aware of the presence of God in my life - not because of the absence of alcohol but because of you.

January 27, 2008

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Matthew 4:12-23

When I was a little girl, sometimes on a summer afternoon, we would just drop everything and go fishing. We went to a little fishing hole over in the field with our cane poles and a can of worms that we had dug. Sometimes, we caught some fish but that wasn’t really very important and isn’t what stands out for me. What I remember is the joy of taking off, being together, laughing and having fun in the shade of a big oak tree on a hot summer day.

My childhood fishing trips bear no resemblance to the kind of fishing Peter and Andrew and James and John were doing when Jesus approached them. It was not an escape from the work of a hot summer afternoon – it was the work, hot and smelly and backbreaking. And it mattered a great deal if they caught fish. It was their livelihood. They had to make their catch or their families would not eat. But there were no guarantees of that. Then as now, fishing for a living is unpredictable. Some days the fish are biting and some days they aren’t. All you can do is keep at it, keep fishing, and hope for the best.

There isn’t anything in this story about what made these men drop everything to go with Jesus. We can speculate. Maybe they were bored with their old way of life. The catch was unpredictable but the routine was not. Every day it was the same thing, over and over again. Launch the boat, throw the nets out, haul them in. Throw the nets out, haul them in. Throw the nets out, haul them in. And then at the end of the day, secure the boat, mend the nets, take care of the fish that were caught that day. Every day pretty much like the one before.

It is easy to imagine them being bored. But I don’t think boredom or anything else, like financial uncertainty or the desire for fun and adventure, would have been enough to make them just walk away from it all. I think it must have been something in the way Jesus spoke, or something they had heard about him, or the way he looked at them. I think his presence spoke to them in a way that was so compelling they could do nothing except follow him. And I think there was something in their own souls that rose up to answer. But what?

They left one way of life with an uncertain future to embark on another, with an even more uncertain outcome. “Follow me,” he said, “and I will make you fish for people.” His invitation – or was it a command? – suggested that life with him would a long series of trial and error, like throwing the nets out and hauling them back, sometimes finding fish and sometimes not. It would mean hard work, with no guarantees. It would be an unpredictable life, and maybe it would even be boring at times.

When you look at the life of faith this way, it seems hard to envision why any of us would be willing choose it, especially when there are so many other and easier alternatives. Is that “something” in the souls of the disciples, that something that responded to Jesus with everything they had and everything they were, is that something also in us? And if it is, then how does it look in our lives? How does it work for us? If we believe that Christ still calls women and men to be faithful disciples, to follow him, then what is it like for us to hear that call, to obey that command? And how can we possibly just drop everything and go fishing, as it were?

Let me tell you a story that might help answer some of these questions, a true story but, in this context, really more like a parable. Easter Island is two thousand or more miles away from anything. It is a tiny speck of land, only 64 square miles, in the great Pacific Ocean. The island is known, of course, for its large and ancient stone faces, rising from the earth in some kind of silent worship. Scholars and ordinary people, too, have long been intrigued by how the stones got there. There is also the mystery of how this remote place came to be settled. Most agree that the inhabitants of Easter Island came from Polynesia, from Hawaii. But that is 2500 miles away and the settlers arrived sometime around 400 or 500 AD. How did they do it? How were they able to cross that expanse of ocean in an outrigger canoe and find the only little piece of land in a great watery wilderness? Modern day adventurers have attempted to replicate those voyages, and it can be done. But think of the difference between then and now. Now, we know where we are going; we have detailed knowledge of tides and weather; we understand modern principles of navigation. But think about getting in an open boat and setting out when all you know is what you can see. It is hard to imagine, isn’t it?

And this still begs the question – how did they do it? Well, it seems they steered by the stars at night and by the flow, the color, the feel, of the water by day. But here is the interesting thing. They kept in their minds a picture of land, an image of where they were going. And in this way, they never lost sight of the destination even when there was nothing to see except open water stretched out for a thousand miles.

Would you be able to do what the ancient Polynesians did? Would you be able to do what Peter and Andrew, and James and John did? These are radical acts that seem to cost more than most of us can give. But before you confess that you would not leave everything behind this way, consider this. Everyday when you step outside your entryway, your apartment, your house, that is exactly what you are doing. You are leaving behind what you know best. You are launching yourself into a vast ocean of the unknown.

Following Jesus these days for people like us may not mean walking away from it all. That is so difficult and radical that it is easy to dismiss it out of hand as impractical, impossible. But we don’t get off the hook that easily. Instead, I think, Jesus calls us, as Saint Francis said, always to preach the gospel, using words only when necessary. That means we preach the gospel with our lives, with who we are, even more than where we are and what we say and do.

There are some communities where sharing one’s personal testimony, or witnessing, as we would call it where I grew up, is a way to go about what Jesus calls fishing for people. But for the most part, I don’t think Yale is one of those places. The kind of evangelism some of us were accustomed to in other settings is often not well-accepted here. But that doesn’t mean there is no way to share the good news. Instead of speaking it, we have to live it. We have to show people what it looks like to be Christian. We have to behave in such a way that others want to know what makes us different. And a discipleship like this, a discipleship “in place,” takes as much courage and effort as any other kind.

When Jesus invites us to go fishing with him, he means to assure us that, like a little boat far out in the ocean, our fragile faith will keep us afloat. He means for us to know that we will be able to find our way because we have something to follow – signs of his presence in the world. He also reminds us that some days the fish are biting and some days they aren’t, and even when we feel that we have failed, we have to keep at it, keep fishing, and hope for the best. And maybe he also means that we have to keep always in our minds a picture of God, an image of Love, so that we will not get lost, so that Presence within will guide us as we go.

And here is another thing about this kind of fishing trip. It may not mean walking away from a particular occupation, but as with the afternoon excursions of my childhood, it does mean dropping everything, everything that distracts us from faithfulness, letting go of worry and preoccupation, giving up our own ideas of success and accomplishment. It means heading out together, sitting in the shade of God’s great overspreading love, and finding joy. It is the spiritual equivalent of hanging a sign on your soul that reads “gone fishing.”

Sometimes the net of our faithfulness will gather another into God’s presence, and sometimes it won’t. Either way, we are called to keep at it, to be faithful in what Christ has called us to do, even – especially – when we see no results and all seems lost.

Jesus says, “Follow me.” Go out into the great ocean of the world. And know that the presence of God is within you, guiding, leading, calling. Dear friends, keep that picture in your mind, in your heart, in your soul. We are Easter people, and there is an Easter place for each one of us. We will not get lost. The one who calls, goes before us and goes with us. Remember that, and follow, and you will find your way, you will find your joy. You will find your faith. You will find your calling.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

January 21, 2008

A new word

From the New York Times yesterday, a word new to me:

Masstige: the phenomenon of “trading up,” buying luxury that you cannot really afford to give yourself the illusion of wealth and the prestige that comes with it

The middle class has been persuaded to want things that we do not need, like $400 handbags and raincoats with designer labels. It is all about image, I suppose. We want the world to take us seriously, and the way we convince ourselves that this will happen is by looking rich. When I hear the celebrity news, “rich” does not seem synonymous with “serious.” And yet, I know this tendency in myself. I can tell myself that one product, with a certain name, is of better quality than another. Sometimes that is true, but sometimes it is just an excuse to buy something that impresses. But whom am I trying to impress? Maybe just myself. Maybe all of those taken in by “masstige” are only fooling themselves. As my grandmother often said, “Pretty is as pretty does.” And quality, true quality, is an interior quality, not something attained by slapping a certain designer label on my back.
But I really do like expensive shoes……


A church that has lasted for 250 years has undoubtedly changed over those years. In our church, the magnitude of change in just the past four years is palpable. The place looks different, sounds different, even smells different. Those of us in leadership positions during these years have had a vision of what the change might produce, but the pastor’s vision alone is not enough. So last week, I asked our student deacons to say what was unique about our church as compared to all the other ministries present in our community.

They said that our church is:

• Accepting of very different beliefs, practices, traditions
• More open to others – on basis of Christianity, but not specific doctrine
• Affirming of other believers in the community
• More about learning from than instructing others
• Comfortable for “straddlers” – a place where the very religious and secular come together
• A place filled with translators – those who explain faith, who can translate from religious language into an everyday vocabulary and vice versa
• Accessible physical space – don’t have to go looking far from campus
• A “church” versus a “group”
• Church and fellowship together
• More than just undergrads
• Welcoming – easy to get involved or not
• One that lacks “requirements” that can be a barrier to participation
• Not a limited group
• One with clear “adult” leadership
• Marked by a variety of worship: consistent enough to be comfortable, different enough to stretch
• Allows for balance in life – does not demand all your time
• A place where aesthetics and Spirit are important: making things beautiful

My heart sang when I heard what they said. To see our church – any church – this way is to see a vision of what can be. We are not perfect. As the Presbyterians say: “The Church of Jesus Christ is the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity.” I put the emphasis on “provisional.” Who we are now is not who we will, or should, always be. But we do have a vision of who we are called to be in this time and place, and that is shaping the way we see ourselves, the world around us, and God.

January 19, 2008


Writing about my current reading list reminded me of one of my most valuable keepsakes: this photograph. It is of me when I was about two years old. What makes it precious is the notation on the back, written by my Grandy in her beautiful printing. It reads: "Books, books, books -- how she likes them." She saw this in me when I was not even able to read, and it was both a blessing and a prediction for my life.


Alex is keeping track of all the books she reads this year and challenges others to do the same. I don't know if I will keep track of all of them but here is my early January list: To Darkness and to Death by Julia Spencer-Fleming (starring an Episcopalian priest and former Air Force pilot, now serving in a small upstate New York town, who falls in love with the police chief and solves murders.... pure escapism); Rebecca Wells' Ya-Yas in Bloom, which I did as an audio book with a wonderful reader who did all the Southern voices just as they would have sounded; Fannie Flagg's Standing in the Rainbow, also an audio book (I think I am on a Southern bender here); Anne Perry's A Christmas Secret, and, in progress, Anne Perry's Dark Assassin. None of this is high-brow but then, I don't really need that at the end of my day. I need something that occupies me but does not require too much thought. But I've also gone back to The Public Reading of Scripture, and James Berkley's Leadership Handbook of Management and Administration for my class in pastoral leadership and church administration. If I have to own up to my reading list, I wonder if I will want to read "better" stuff. Who knows? Any of you want to offer suggestions for me to better myself ... or engage in nice, comforting fluff? Let me hear from you!

January 12, 2008

The Frozen Labyrinth

No one shoveled the snow from the labyrinth but it has melted here and there, so that part of it is exposed and part is visible under the thin crust of snow. Most of it is hidden and the path is hard to find. But I walk it anyway. Others have done that, too, and there are footprints frozen in the snow. Leaves have fallen and there are little melted impressions where they lie, as though there is some of the warmth of summer still in them somehow. I cannot see the turnings and so I make up my own way around. I follow the bricks and stones where I see them and then I go on my own over the snow and ice that covers the rest. I cannot see the path but it is there nonetheless. And I remember these words from somewhere: “Traveler, there is no road. The way is made by walking.” And so I walk, making a way, following a path that I cannot see. And I realize that the place where the path is hidden is the place of shadow. The trees have kept the labyrinth out of the sun. And that must be part of what the holy mystics mean when they speak of the dark night of the soul. It must be that the darkness of the shadows hides the path, makes it impossible to know where the way is. But the absence of knowledge, the absence of vision, is not the absence of the path. The way is there all the time. And if I wait until the snow melts, I will miss this walk of peace. The snow will be gone in a matter of months but I am here now. And so I walk, making my way, trusting that the path is unfolding under my feet whether I can see it or not. I am walking in faith.

January 8, 2008


Not Much to Go On?
Matthew 2:1-12

It seems especially fitting to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany in a place like this doesn’t it? Think about it: Many of our usual number include travelers who have gone afar bearing gifts. As I was hoofing it through several airports over the last couple of weeks, I was remembering the days when going someplace on an airplane seemed a glamorous thing to do, exciting, almost luxurious. There was a time, some of you may remember, when the folks -- even those sitting in the back – got a hot cooked meal served on a little china plate. Nowadays, if you don’t bring your own peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you’re probably not going to eat. And, of course, you have to be prepared to stand in long lines, take off a lot of your clothes, and unpack your bags for inspection. Travel these days is anything but glamorous.

But despite all the headaches and hassle when we set out on our holiday trips, we generally know where we will end up. Yes, it might take some delays and detours but eventually we will get where we intended to be. For the most part, for us, travel is inconvenient, a kind of necessary evil. We don’t usually consider it a life threatening or life changing adventure. We don’t do our traveling like the wise men.

It’s hard to know who they were exactly. They came from the East, perhaps from the country we know as Iraq. We picture them as kings, but it is more likely that they were scholars, those who studied the stars, the movement of planets and moons, the path of comets, the timing of meteor showers. They consulted both their ancient texts on earth and the celestial texts written in the heavens above them for whatever messages might be revealed. Would this be a year of drought or flood? Look to the heavens. Would there be times when the sun would be darkened and, if so, what would that mean? Could they predict the tides on their small stretch of coastline by looking to the moon? Was it possible to understand earthly events by the lights of the heavens?

These were scholars who had devoted their lives to such questions. And when they saw something new in their heavens and something ancient in their writings, and the two things came together in an unusual convergence that suggested the rise of a new ruler, they decided to go and see if their research was right. So they set out on a trip that would have likely been six or seven hundred miles over rough terrain, leading them into a land whose language they did not speak and whose customs they did not follow. Travel for them was not just a hassle. It was a daring and dangerous enterprise.

When you set out on a trip like that, you have to entertain the possibility that you may never return home, or that it will cost you everything you have, or that it will turn out to be a fool’s errand and instead of a pot of gold at the end, there might be nothing. They took a big risk without much to go on.

Would you do it? Would you set out on a trip like that? It is hard to imagine, at least for me. I want things planned out in advance. I want reservations made along the way. I want comfort and security and certainty. I want to know where I am going, how I will get there, and what will happen when I do. I am usually full of plans for how to get things done. Part of that is the nature of my work, and part of it is just my nature.

But the kind of journey the wise men took was not the kind that can be planned. They had no itinerary, no reservations. All they had to go on was their reading of their sacred texts, the ones written on parchment and the one written in the heavens. Interesting, isn’t it, that we call these men “wise.” What they did doesn't seem wise at all, does it? They left all they knew to go in the direction of something that might not even exist. They had no idea what they were really looking for. And there was a good possibility that they were wrong in their interpretations. In reality, at least our kind of reality, theirs was a journey of foolishness.

But that kind of foolishness is the foolishness that faith produces. To live a life of faith, a wise life, means living without much to go on. It is to watch the signs, to see what is revealed in the sacred – both on earth and in heaven – and then to act on that, to seek, to risk. It is to find yourself finding God, not in the places of power and might, but in a stable, in a crib, on a cross. To live a wise life is to go without reservations, to be willing to leave everything behind and set out for the unknown. And, oh, that is so hard for me – and maybe for you, too. I want to know, I want to be sure, I want to have a plan.

But here is the wisdom revealed in the light of the morning star – it isn’t about what we want at all. It is about what God wants. And our journey of faith means traveling in the direction in God’s direction – even when we have no idea what that is, where it leads, and what we might find along the way. This is a risky way to live. It threatens everything. The old way of life gets left behind and, in the process, all of life is changed.

And we don’t have much to go on to know the way, do we? Just an ancient set of writings, and a sign from heaven. That’s all. But that sign from heaven is the Light of the world. And that is enough to go on.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

January 1, 2008


I use the same word to mean two different places and two different experiences. That word is “home.” Home means land and farm and growing up. It is the place where I am grounded, physically and spiritually. It is being someone’s child, someone’s sister. It is being known for who I am and who I have always been. When I am home, I breathe easier somehow. The air is clean and sweet, the water comes from a deep well, and the sky is bright with stars. We remember funny stories about our relatives and discuss genealogy. Things that happened in 1925 are just as interesting – maybe more so – than what happened last week. When I am home, my prayers take the form of sitting around the kitchen table, reading the paper and talking, a long relaxed breakfast time with a cup of tea and people I love. I sleep late, eat too much, and visit.
And then there is home. It is a place I have made, not a place where I was born into what others have constructed over the years. It is a small place, cozy and peaceful. Here I am a grownup. I pay the bills and make the decisions and buy the groceries. I take care of myself; I am responsible. I think that is how people here see me. Certainly they don’t see the little girl, with the big eyes and the skinny legs and the Mamie Eisenhower haircut, that I once was – and still am somewhere deep inside. It is hard to see the stars here because there is too much artificial light. I don’t visit folks very often and then almost never without calling ahead first. But I do visit and I do see the stars sometimes, and the air is crisp and cold and clear in the winter. And this place reflects who I am in the way it looks, in the food I cook, in the garden I have made and the way I spend my time here. No one would consider me a “homemaker” but that is indeed what I have done here; I have made a home.
They are very different, these two places that are both home to me. I have been so glad to spend time at one of them, and am equally glad to be back at the other.
And may this new year find you always at home, in that place where you are most yourself, where you are known and loved, where you are surrounded by that which reflects who you are and supports you in the full expression of all your gifts. Happy New Year!