Last spring we had some wonderful people over for a visit. A toddling bundle of drooly smiles; his precocious older sister, whose beauty, reserve and occasional liveliness remind me of a kitten's; their warm, quiet champion of a mother; and their father, a military chaplain who blessed the house before we sat down to eat lunch and catch up.
These friends are busy and move often, so we don't get to spend much time with them, but they bring us such peace and joy every time we see them, even if the conversation lasts only a few minutes. They've attended our church off and on for many years, which is how I began listening to Fr. David's amazing podcasts from the front lines of Afghanistan ( very spiritually and emotionally intense, and so deeply moving.) While they were stationed in the area, they regularly attended Liturgy at our church, and Fr. David's homilies there remain one of the great blessings of my life.
It's the first week of school, so of course I'm busy and exhausted beyond belief after a week of "preparation" during which I had so many meetings and commitments I didn't have much time to actually, well, prepare. It's so easy to get too caught up in school / work / life and to forget the reality of eternity which we'll all face someday.
So I have had in mind all week Fr. David's last homily at Holy Cross before leaving for another tour of duty overseas last spring. For some reason I thought to record it, and I'm so glad to have it to read his urgent, convicting, inspirational words over and over. He's given his blessing to share them with you, so if you are also trying to summon the courage to follow Christ anew this year, read on.
Well, I have some bad news for you: this world is going to break your heart.
If there’s one thing that we know, it’s that everything changes. Our lives are like the surface of the water: the wind that blows, any new thing that comes along, shows us that our lives are, in a lot of ways (in every way, really) completely out of our control. We can make some plans, we can do some things, but the ultimate reality is, we don’t have a lot of control. Are we together on this? And listen, if we’re not together, it’s time to do some soul-searching, because you might not be prepared for what’s coming.
Everybody likes to think they’re in control, and most of our life, we spend our energy creating fantasies of control that allow us to live in our own skin without feeling vulnerable. Everyone has these fantasies of control, and actually, it does great psychological and emotional damage to us, because when our fantasies finally crack and crumble, not only are we feeling the loss that’s come to us, but we’re dealing with the fact that we have been preparing ourselves for it not happening for so long.
We’re always trying to anchor, and there is no anchor. What can we anchor to in this life? What can we possibly anchor to? Think about the things that we try to anchor to. Think about our fantasies, the things that we think are going to bring us control. A lot of people do it with work, and God help you, because you’re a slave, then, to work; and when, inevitably, work lets you down, it’s a big letdown.
I was talking with a friend the other day; we were having lunch. I hadn’t seen him in a long time. He was telling me about this other chaplain at the Naval Academy he knew, ten years ago, and saying his name, like I would know who it was. I said, “Look, I don’t know who that was. That was a long time ago.” He said, “Well, I’m sure his face is framed somewhere at the Naval Academy.” I said, “Are you kidding me? You think when I leave here, there’s going to be a picture of me here?” Let me tell you how it works: my relief came in last week. It was like a subway pulled into town, and I ran off and he ran on, and the train kept going and it was like it never stopped. And that’s the way it is with everybody. It doesn’t matter how much of a legacy you think you’re leaving at work, that is the ultimate truth: our days are like grass. When we’re gone, people light a candle for us, but they’re moving on.
I remember listening to Garrison Keillor tell a story one time about watching a documentary on doctors. He said it was very off-putting for him because this doctor walked into a room, where the other doctors were drinking coffee, and this doctor threw a chart down on the table and said, “Bed 45 is expired. It happened five minutes ago. Give me Bed 49.” Somebody picked up the Bed 45 folder and threw it on the counter and they went on to Bed 49. And Garrison Keillor said, “I don’t know why I was so affected by this. I guess I thought that when my time came, when I died, that the doctor would shed a tear. Maybe he’d be overcome. Maybe he’d even have to take the rest of the day off.” And that’s not at all what happens. Anyone who’s in the medical profession, you know – the body that’s in 45 goes down to the basement and gets ready for transport, and someone else is in Bed 45.
As some of you know, I’m a marriage and family therapist, and sometimes I look at couples, and I think, “The only thing that must have drawn this guy to this girl was that she was just somebody who he could tie onto in a crazy world. His dad’s an alcoholic, and his mom left the family; his whole life is just chaos, and here’s somebody who will have to take the rest of the day off work when he dies. And the reality behind that is that the reason she’ll be going through grief when he dies is because now she doesn’t have anyone." It doesn’t matter what our anchors are: it doesn’t matter if it’s people. People anchor onto their looks; people anchor onto their athletic prowess. People try to tie anchors in this moving water of life. They try to tie anchors to their way with people. They try to tie anchors to any number of different things, but there’s no anchor that holds.
Here, let me give you a little bit of wisdom. There’s nothing around you, even the people you love – and every act of love is heroic, because love will fail us, one way or another, even here, at church.
Fr. Gregory asked me to preach this week because, he said, “They don’t want to hear me talk about St. John Climacus, because I’ve talked about him a hundred times. They’re tired of hearing about St. John Climacus.” So I was trying to read the different readings for today, and there’s something there about my nautical background, or maybe it’s just the vicissitudes of life that I’m particularly in touch with right now – having little children and my life’s up in the air, moving to a new place – but there’s something in Hebrews that we read today where the Apostle Paul is telling the gathered body of Jewish believers, “We’ve got an anchor in a life where you can’t anchor to anything.” He says this: that God has sworn to Himself and He will not repent: that He will be our anchor. That He was the anchor for Abraham and He didn’t fail him – even, by the way, when it looked like Abraham’s life was being destroyed by the promise. God had told Abraham he was going to have a child; late in his life, he still didn’t have a child, and it looked like he had blown his life waiting for the promise. But God didn’t fail Abraham, and He didn’t fail Israel, who inherited the promise, and then the church has inherited the promise to Israel, you and I, we’ve inherited this promise. In a constantly moving world, like water at the top level of the sea, when nothing else we can tie to makes any sense at all, that anchor ties in beneath the veil.
Let me just tell you something about anchors. You probably know this: some of you know physics. I don’t know physics, but I guess I’ll say something about physics. How does an anchor work? You have to tie it to yourself, that’s the first thing, and then you’ve got to drop it and it’s got to go through the water, right? You don’t want the anchor in the water; the water’s the problem. The water’s what’s moving around. The water’s what we can’t count on. It’s got to go through the water, and it’s got to get down to the bottom, and then what? It’s got to hook on to the rocks. Not just sand, mud. This isn’t going to work; the anchor’s not heavy enough when the wind starts blowing. You need to actually get into some bedrock, and then the immovability of the rock is transferred to the boat. And let me just say, once and for all: you’re kind of crazy if you go out on any kind of boating expedition, and you’re on any kind of body of water, for long, without anchors. You don’t know what’s going to happen. The wind’s going to start blowing, and you find yourself without as much fuel as you need, and you’re fighting the current to get back, or it’s getting dark and you’re not making as much headway as you need to: anchors are important. Anchors are what keep you where you need to be so you can make plans. Anchors are crucial. The anchor goes through the water and settles into the rock, and then the immovability of the rock is transferred to you.
This is exactly what our life, and faith, is all about. The problem is that we are always trying to put anchors in that don’t go down to the deep, that sit around in the middle of the water, and we get moved around. But when you have a heavy anchor, you don’t notice when you’re getting moved; you’re being moved slowly. You’re way out from the position you thought you were in, because your anchor’s not in the rock.
St. John Climacus wrote a book called the Ladder of Divine Ascent, and we talk about it today. He says this: his first chapter is on the rejection of the world, but in his second chapter, on detachment, he basically says in there, “don’t bother reading the rest of this book if you don’t get this right.” It’s one of the classics of our faith, of being united to God: it starts with catharsis, the emptying of ourselves, and he says, you’ve got to have the right attachment. What’s the attachment? He says that you’re attached to things that are hurting you. You’re attached to things that you’re putting faith in, and they can’t do anything to help you. Not only are they not saving your soul, they are destroying you. If you don’t feel it now, you’re going to get there. Our anchors are not behind the veil, our anchors are not the Lord Jesus Christ, who is already stuck in bedrock: he’s sitting at the right hand of the Father; there’s not a more steady place than that. He’s stuck to the bedrock. He is the bedrock. He’s handing us the line, gently and patiently, every day of our lives. St. John Climacus says, basically, we’re just ignoring Him and dropping our own anchors. And not only will they not save our souls, they will destroy us.
God says to get free from the things that we are anchoring ourselves to – it’s completely a fantasy; there is no rock, and there never was – so that we can see the Lord Jesus offering Himself to us as a rope, already tied to the bedrock. He can help our lives have some kind of continuity in a world that’s constantly changing.
I actually didn’t have to preach this sermon; I could have gotten up and just given you the image of an anchor, because I think you could all close your eyes and in about five minutes you could tell me where your anchor is that’s not attached to the rock. This is the thing that, when you go to a party, you kind of want everyone to know about you as quickly as possible, because you like this about yourself. It’s how you see yourself. It’s a part of your ego-driven narrative about yourself. Right? This is the thing that, when it’s going right in your life, you are high as a kite; you are higher than you’ve ever been. And when it’s threatened, when someone dismisses it or you’re feeling insecure in this area, you are as low as you could possibly imagine. Maybe you even think dark thoughts. I think you could all close your eyes and in five minutes you could tell me what your anchor is.
This is my suggestion to you: you have a week, the week that begins with the Sunday of the Ladder of Divine Ascent. Don’t bother reading the book, and going past the second chapter, if you’re not past the second chapter. What is it that you’re holding onto? What is it that you think is giving your life gravity and meaning, that’s giving you something, that is completely moveable? Ask yourself: what is it? It is destroying you, and Lent is of no value to you, until you change.
Let me say it this way: when that anchor’s hauled up and smashed to bits, and the rope is burned, Jesus is there waiting for you. That anchor that you have, that you’ve been trying to hold onto, when it’s destroyed and it’s sitting at your feet in ashes, that is where the Lord is waiting, handing you the line that will never move.
I don’t want you to feel bad for me, but let me just say, I’m going to Afghanistan this week again, and it’s a miserable, miserable place. But you know, what’s great about it is that almost everyone you meet there who’s an Orthodox Christian – they have no fantasies about their anchors. They know the things that hold and the things that don’t hold. So it’s an honor to go and see people who know suffering – and some of you do, too; I could talk to some of you in this room who have no fantasies either. That’s the beautiful thing about the body of believers; I don’t have to go half a world away to find people who are sane. But I’m not sane, and I think a lot of people here aren’t sane, and this is a call to sanity. How are you living your life? What are you attached to? What are you fighting for? Where’s your energy coming from? If you can pull up this anchor that doesn’t even work, that’s dehumanizing you and blinding you to what’s real, if you can pull it up, you could have something that will never, ever change. You could have something that’s real, in a world full of fantasies. You can be sane. And, like the in Ladder, you can go through the Passion and into the Resurrection with the One Who has already gone through it and is standing in the bedrock, seated at the right hand of the Father.
Pray for me. I am not sane. I think some of you aren’t sane either. So I’ll pray for you, and you pray for me, and maybe it will be a call to sanity that moves us somewhere – or rather, that attaches to something immovable. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Fr. David Alexander
Sunday of St. John Climacus and the Ladder of Divine Ascent (April 14, 2013)