The Stretch of Our Souls by Ruthie Tippin

Today is my birthday, and it’s really fun to start the day with all of you!  I noticed in the Spokane Friends newsletter that three pastors connected to SFC are celebrating birthdays this week: Paul Blankenship, Leeann Williams, and me!  This is a party place for sure!

One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve grown older is how my body has changed – it’s something I can’t avoid noticing! My hair started turning gray when I was in my 30’s, but a lot of other things have changed since then!!!   I’m less able to do some things I once used to do!  Since back surgery two years ago, I’ve started taking water exercise classes, and they’ve been great.  To work against the resistance of the water has been healthy for me, while I use the buoyancy of the water to help me along.  But our instructor has told us how necessary it is to do weight bearing exercise as well to build muscle.  To carry our own weight, to do the work needed to be healthy.  

I’m a body, soul, mind and spirit kind of follower of Jesus.  I take God’s instruction to love God with everything I have – physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.  The other day I found a bag of rubber bands.  Not one of them was useful anymore.  They had become so old that they’d hardened, and when I stretched them out, they snapped.  It made me think about my faith – our faith.  How elastic, how flexible is my faith and yours?  How pliable is the capacity of our souls?  Do we follow God with all that we are and have?  Do we lean into all that God has given us – the potential we have in being who we are created to be?  Or do we ‘sit in a drawer’ and harden in our understanding of ourselves and of God, and become useless?

God has given us the gift of wonder.  The way of knowing God – and each other – with heart, soul, mind, and spirit.  Not just recently, but historically, humankind has been offered wonder only to turn away from it into hard places of determined rigidity.  We lose our capacity for inquiry and curiosity.  Certainty has become the rule rather than surprise.

Genesis 1:26-27: 26 Then God said, “Let us make humankindin our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

27 So God created humankind in God’s image,
    in the image of God he created them;[f]
    male and female he created them.

Desmond Tutu interpreted this passage for children in his ‘Children of God Storybook Bible’: “I will make people and I will make them like me so they can enjoy the earth and take care of it.” 

Imagine with me the mystery of the sixth day of Creation. Of waking up into that day – into the welcoming Presence of One who created us, who wanted companionship with us. Waking up into wonder… Can we imagine the relationship God expected tohave with us – and still does? 

God didn’t need humanity to “like God”.  God created us to be like God – to be as God was.  To companion with God.  To be creative, caring, loving, discerning, able to take responsibility, to care for the earth.  God intended us to be Present with Godself.   

Richard Rohr’s recent post held this teaching: ‘The presence of God is infinite, everywhere, always, and forever. You cannot not be in the presence of God. There’s no other place to be. The only change is always on our side—God is present, but we’re not present to Presence. We’ll make any excuse to be somewhere other than right here. Right here, right now never seem enough.’

Here’s what Mark Twain had to say: “God created man in his own image, and man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.” 

Too often, we make God into our image.  Do we only see God as we see ourselves?  Does our grasp of God become limited to what we know of ourselves?  Where did the wonder of that Sixth Day go?  Where is our curiosity?  Where is the mystery of faith that dares to believe things we are not certain of? 

Are we willing to stretch our souls?  Do we dare use the buoyancy of love to help us move against the fear of new exercises of faith in God?  About God?  About others?  Does it matter enough to us to do the work of carrying our own weight in order to strengthen our faith – to be present to the Presence of God?  To be present to others?

Elizabeth Barrett Browning knew something of love.  Her tyrannical father – a wealthy English sugar plantation owner in Jamaica forbade any of his 12 children to marry.  Her father held slaves, and sent her siblings back to Jamaica, leaving Elizabeth in England alone.  She eventually eloped with Robert Browning.  Her father never spoke to her again. Elizabeth’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, dedicated to her husband and written in secret before her marriage, was published in 1850. Critics generally consider the Sonnets—one of the most widely known collections of love lyrics in English—to be her best work.  I think you’ll recognize this one – Sonnet 43 – my favorite!

Sonnet 43:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need
, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Elizabeth is asking this – wondering this: “How do I love you, Robert?”  But I am asking us, “How do I love you, God”.  How far does my soul stretch in my love for God – the depth, the breadth, the height my soul can reach?”  How stiff has my faith become?  How supple is my heart for God?  How healthy is my experience of wonder, of imagination?  

Is our passion for God one of old griefs or childhood’s faith?  Have we become so stuck, so hardened in our love for God, for what we know of God – in what we want to know of God – that our faith has become an image that we still hold on to, rather than a living, breathing, growing, changing, centered part of life in us?  Do we worship an idol of faith, or do we worship a living Presence that stirs faith to life within us?

Do you remember when you or your kids came home from Kindergarten with a clay handprint?  A treasure for sure – baked in a kiln, or dried in the sun, these were remembrances of a certain point in time – an imprint of childhood.  Our faith must be more than an imprint – a remembrance of times past

Paul talks about the grace of God and the ‘the mystery of revelation’ – and tells us of how God taught him things that he hadn’t understood before.  [Romans 16:25-27] Paul’s faith was being stretched.  His understanding of God’s intention became far greater than he’d ever imagined.  If Paul had not opened his mind, his heart, his soul to the awareness of God’s present Presence, to God’s Now, to God’s life and light, he would have been useless.  Instead, he preached the ministry of Christ’s love for all persons.  How did Paul do this?  How do we do this?

How do we stretch our souls?  With exercise. By thinking.  By imagining.  By working.  By hoping.  By praying against all odds.  By going as far as our souls can reach, and then reaching even farther in the next step we take…

 Ephesians 3:16-19

16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Are we willing to open ourselves up?  To be filled up with God?  To wait for the power of God’s Spirit to move in us and then to act to exercise that power?  To allow God to love us fully?  To teach us the dimensions – the breadth, length, height, and depth of Christ’s expansive love?  Are we willing to make room for Christ in our hearts in faith – the stretching, bending, reaching, hard work of faith – as we become more rooted, grounded, and self-confident in love?  Are we willing to discover the power of God’s spirit strengthening us inwardly, in ways we haven’t known before?  Do we have the capacity and the willingness to stretch our souls?

References:  Richard Rohr, “First Sunday of Advent: To Be Awake Is to Be Now– Here,” homily, November 30, 2014 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2014).

https://poets.org/poet/elizabeth-barrett-browning

This message was given to Spokane Friends via Zoom by Ruthie Tippin on Sunday, November 17, 2021.

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