The other night I was watching a Television show called “Forbidden Places”. It is a show in which the host travels around the globe and goes to places that people don’t go to any more.
In this particular episode the documentary crew visited the Gowanus Canal in the New York borough of Brooklyn.
The Gowanus canal is a place where the New York Bay back washes into a canal that has become a Superfund cleanup site due to the human and industrial waste that fills the stagnant river way.
The crew also took us inside of tombs in one of the oldest grave yards in Manhattan that was birthed due to disease and cholera death in the first century of the island’s life. And, he made his way down into one of the last Underground Railroad sites; where slaves once huddled hiding from New York head hunters and death squads.
Forbidden places are places where we don’t want to go; where we don’t allow ourselves to go; where we hide our waste, our death, and our shame. Forbidden places are places we would rather forget.
You are courageous to come today…to come to this forbidden place.
The Armenian Orthodox theologians, like many early church theologians, believe that God sang creation into being. That the great Genesis Story is actually God’s great hymn, with the refrain: it is beautiful, it is beautiful. God sang creation into being. He sang as we in our adolescence walked away from him out of the garden. He sang to us in prophets voices, in the voices of ancient worshipers in shrines and Temples. God sang to us calling us over and over again to hear his love for us. God sang and we kept walking away.[i]
We were created to walk with God and to sing with God. We hid ourselves, we were ashamed. We felt naked before God who knew us and so we walked away.
God sang to us in Jesus. In his words, in his teachings, in his healings, in his beckoning, in his feeding, God sang.
We have come to this forbidden place today; it is the place where God’s singing stopped.
You see we are biologically made to connect. We are created to be together, to live together, and to love one another. We are created to sing with God and with one another.[ii]
But like the garden story it is our shame, our own personal forbidden places that keep us lonely and separate from one another. Adam is everyman, and Eve everywoman.
We are disconnected because we feel not worthy enough, not good enough, powerful enough, talented enough, or beautiful enough. We feel, deep in our own hidden heart, that we are a mistake.
The more we can keep walking the better. The more we don’t have to go to the forbidden place the more superior we feel.
On this day, just like any other, it is far easier and safer to go on walking away, going about our business… singing to yourselves…making up our own words. It is far easier to forget the forbidden place and continue our addictions, our consumption of the world and one another. It is far easier to deflect our feelings on others, point out their shortcomings, wrongs, and ugliness.
It is easier to protect ourselves from this forbidden place; to have a happy, pretend, hobby Christianity, which skips from Sunday to Sunday and never pauses in the forbidden places.
It is much nicer to have a god who is always in control; like we want to be. A god who is not really suffering and walks three feet off the ground, who has our same political agenda, who does not sweat blood, a god who we can deny at the garden’s edge – that is the god we like. A god on his mighty steed, who dies a hero’s death, is the god whose logo we must purchase and wear. It is much easier to have the perfect God who keeps everything running on time, perfectly picked up, and provides for our every need, and never gets his nails broken. Such a sanitized, clean and tidy God as this is needed if we are to keep walking our way, singing our song.
This is not the God of the forbidden place. It is not the God whom you meet here today. The God of this place is a God who is completely vulnerable. For it is in his vulnerability that creation is reborn.
In the forbidden place God in Jesus becomes powerless, completely gives himself over to shame, and weakness. In this moment, when God is quiet, when he sings no more, we see again for the first time our vulnerable selves.
Yes, in this quiet forbidden place, we see God, that than which no greater can be thought, powerless. We see the God of all creation become lesser than the angels, humbling himself to be a creature – to be the incarnate one. In this forbidden place we dare to retell the story of a God so week someone else must carry his cross, so weighty was the burden of shame he carried. In this quiet place where God stops singing, we see God, like a grain falling into the ground and buried.
What is required if you wish to gain your life, Jesus says, is to lose it. If you wish to follow Jesus and be restored you must pick up your cross. In this moment today you chose to walk into the forbidden place of vulnerability.
You see, it is in our vulnerability that we are reborn.
The way back to one another and to God, the way of re-discovery, recreation, to have the capacity to belong, is through this forbidden place.
Following Jesus through the shame of trial, the physical pain of disfigurement, the humiliation of unjust criminal execution, the complete death, and burial and earthly silence, this Way of the Cross, is the only way in which we see that rebirth comes from shame.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, we all fall down, down, down into the grave where we see (in the darkness of this place) that God loves, God loves, God loves. Out of the shame God loves. Out of the weakness God loves. Out of the humiliation God loves.
We discover in this place, this quiet place, that our imperfections, our “not enough”s, our brokenness, our story, our hidden selves, are loved and in fact are what make us uniquely us, uniquely loveable.
Instead of numbing and walking away from this forbidden place, we can come here and bring our feelings here, and find the burial place of our fear, anxiety, and shame – our garbage, our waste. And we can through God’s ultimate weakness find our own underground railroad which will enable us to freely walk out of the tomb with God, singing with God, singing our joy, our gratitude, and our happiness. We discover actually in our vulnerability, freed by God’s own powerlessness that we may risk. Through the forbidden place of the grave we can risk again.
We can risk relationships.
We can risk empathy with others.
We can risk caring.
We can risk creativity.
We can risk initiating life.
We can risk belonging.
We can risk letting ourselves be seen, deeply seen.
We can risk loving; with no expectation of loves return.Only in Jesus’ death is the world reborn. Only in the quiet of the forbidden place are we reborn. Only by turning and walking with Jesus into the grave do we find love’s embrace. Only in being vulnerable do we find the courage to love and to be loved. Only after the silence can we hear God singing; only after the silence can we sing with God again.
I leave you with words by Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, who wrote this poem entitled Keeping Quiet.
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let's not speak in any language;
let's stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about...
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with
Now I'll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.[iii]
[i] This idea is taken from an Armenian Orthodox priest Vigen Guroian. His book Fragrance of God, and his interview with Krista Tippett (On Being) were very influential in thinking about God’s song.
[ii] Brene Brown is a member of Christ Church Cathedral. I found her TED talks (http://www.ted.com/speakers/brene_brown.html) to be deeply in parallel conversation with my theological reflections on the cross. Her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, is a must read.
[iii] Extravagaria : A Bilingual Edition, Pablo Neruda, trans. Alastair Reid (Noonday Press; January 2001) 26.