Rooted in Love – Br. Curtis Almquist
Song of Solomon 8:5-7
I’d like to say something about roots. I’m speaking here the language of botany: the root structure of flowers, and plants, and trees. But first of all I have to offer something of a disclaimer. I am not a gardener. Some of the brothers in the community truly are talented gardeners. I, though, am among the ranks of brothers who are called “weeders.” “Weeders” are carefully told by the “gardeners” what we are to pull… and what we are not to pull. That’s pretty much it. Nonetheless, this is what I know about the root structure of things that grow. The roots, which are usually underground and not easily visible, provide for several essential things: the anchoring of the plant, the absorption of water and dissolved minerals which are then conducted into the stem, and the storage of reserve foods. A plant’s root system has a very determining effect on a plant’s size and health, on its fruitfulness, and on its ability to adapt to various soil types and seasonal changes in the weather. Roots are quintessential to the life and growth of a plant, and yet they are usually not visible to the eye… unless a plant has been up rooted, either by accident or disaster, or by the plant’s being trans planted on purpose. Either way, whenever you see the roots of a living thing, it’s usually quite an amazing sight. It’s not always pretty.
Just a moment ago, in the reading from the Letter to the Ephesians, we heard this most evocative metaphor: to be “rooted and grounded in love.” “…That you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through [God’s] Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts, as you are being rooted and grounded in love .” I’d like to dig down into this metaphor of being “rooted and grounded in love” in light of what we know about roots.
Roots anchor the plant. We find our own anchorage in life through our personal history. We are no accident. Who we’ve become, how we’ve been formed and deformed and reformed so greatly affects (sometimes tragically infects) who we are. And there’s no ultimate escaping our roots. Life’s quest, is seems to me, is for reconciliation with our past, to make a truce, perhaps to throw a party for who we were and who we’ve become… which is not always easy. The author Joan Didion says that many of us are prone to deny or forget or try to escape our past, to “… forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.” She writes, “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be….” [i] And yet we need a clear conduit with all of our past to be the whole person we’ve been created to be today. We need the deep roots of our past or our inevitable shallowness will make us very vulnerable when we meet the predictable storms of life. And we need our roots, or our superficiality may expose us as being unreal or fraudulent.
I don’t think that most of us can claim our roots alone. For many of us, our roots are quite twisted, and with no little amount of darkness. And this is where people from our past are such anchors of hope for our souls. [ii] – People who knew us, especially people who cherished us when we could not cherish ourselves if left alone. People who grounded us in reality, who helped define the boundaries of our existence so that we didn’t just grow wild. [iii] I think this is what the lover is saying in the Song of Solomon in the beautiful phrase, “He has set love in order in me.” [iv] It is mostly people from our own past who help us define our identity by facing and claiming our roots, which are essential to our healing and wholeness, our wellbeing, our stability. People who stood by us; sometimes people who helped lift us up out of the mire and clay of our of our own lives, [v] people who pointed out danger like a lighthouse on a high cliff. I suspect for some of us, those people in our past who stood by us are indistinguishable from God: they are what God looked like and sounded like and felt like. Their presence was, to us, an experience of transcendence. They incarnated God, truly, and maybe for the first time in our awareness. Our roots anchor our identity, our dignity, and our courage, and most of us need this help, sometimes desperately. How wonderful it is when this kind of help is at hand.
We know also that roots absorb water and minerals, and they store food. Roots are ingenious. If you have occasion to travel in the desert, in the driest and hottest and sometimes sorriest of places, even in the dust things can grow. They must grow strong, and yet they often grow with a mysterious and yet undeniable beauty. You actually can see roses blooming in the desert, and a great deal more. Likewise, if you have occasion to visit New England in the winter [sic] in the coldest and bleakest of days, witnessing the frozen skeletons of past plant life, you need only have witnessed one springtime here to know that it all was just waiting for the fullness of time to come again. Winter is not a death; it’s just a well-earned nap for most northern plant life, and in this dormancy, water and minerals are being quietly searched out, gathered, storehoused for the great blowout in the spring and summer. If a plant is meant to be where it is, its root structure will find the provision it needs, not just to survive but to thrive. I think that’s a paradigm about life and love.
On the one hand, we could say that we learn about love, and about the love of God, because of people who have loved us “unconditionally.” If you’ve had this experience, you probably know what I mean. I think it’s true: t hat God’s love is “unconditional,” and that’s true for all of us here. That God has this passionate love affair going on with you. God has created you as you are. God knows you, who you were and who you are. God cherishes you. God longs for your companionship. In God’s scheme of things, God has plans for a relationship with you that lasts forever, a relationship which only grows in intimacy over the years. It’s like an eternal infatuation. You’re always on God’s mind: when you’re sleeping, God is dreaming up ways to be with you. When you’re working or walking or weeping, God is catching up with you in the wind across your face, in the call of a bird, in the free-fall of laughter, in the soothing touch of a friend. God’s wooing you, wanting you, whispering love ballads into your ear. You are the apple of God’s eye. [vi] Whoever you are, really; what you are, where you are, however it is that you’ve become the way you are… God knows and God desires and God loves. God can’t get enough of you. You make God’s day! – I would say that’s true, and true for all of us here. God does love you, and God’s love for you knows no end. – It’s just that I probably would not call this “ un conditional love” any more. These days, I think I would rather call it God’s “conditional love.” (I know I’m playing a bit with words here, but life is inescapably full of conditions and predicaments, and God’s love for us isn’t theoretical or cloned, it’s very real and very personal.)
And so here I go back to our own roots. The parents to whom we were born: whether we were desired by them, whether they had enough money or space or time or patience to raise us. How their love for us was informed by their own needs and desires. Whether our upbringing was for us an experience of liberation or of incarceration. Whether we learned about courage or shame or joy or perseverance or fear or patience from our earliest days was very much informed by the conditions in which we were raised. The effect our siblings (or absence of siblings) had on us; teachers, coaches, pastors, relatives, neighbors, co-workers, friends, all of them sharing in our formation or, perhaps in some ways, tragically, in our de formation. Our experiences of joy and forgiveness, of sickness and health, of acclamation and success, of justice and cruelty, of favoritism and prejudice. Our experiences of what was dependably old and what was excitingly new… in the tiniest and greatest of ways. Our experience of knowing or searching for a home or dwelling place, for a place to belong; our occasions to travel into worlds otherwise unknown. Those are the conditions in which we have experienced life, through which we must survive and ultimately thrive, we pray. Those are the kind of conditions – often times less than ideal – but that’s life, and it is a real and it’s quite an adventure.
And the reason I’m more fascinated with these “conditions” for knowing God’s love is because of Jesus who comes to us, stooping down to us at our on level. We’re no longer talking only about a God of the Law, whose ways were unknowable, whose face was unseeable, whose name was unpronounceable, whose heart and hands were untouchable, but Jesus who entered the conditions of this world as an innocent and needy child, just as we have, to reveal the real presence of God’s love. God Emmanuel: God with us, not just God above us or beyond us, but God with us. God with you in the conditions and in the relationships in which you have known life, past and present.
In the Gospel lesson appointed for this evening, when we hear Jesus ask Peter, “Do you love me?” that question has a history. This is an informed question that Jesus is asking, because his relationship has been “rocky” with Jesus, to say the least. [vii] Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” And Peter responds with a rather embarrassed ‘yes’ because he has every reason to know shame. This seems to be quelled by Jesus’ love and forgiveness for him. There’s an old adage that says, “Love is blind.” It’s not true. It’s quite the opposite. Love sees beyond the moment, beyond the surface, deep inside the other, what could be called “insight.” Love draws on the roots of memory, to contextualize and to cherish, to see the another person (or to see ourselves) through the eyes of mercy. What could seem on the surface a stain on someone’s character we may come to recognize is in actuality a scar, well won and well worn. Peter was loved by Jesus, not despite his history but in light of his history. And so for us all, I would say. The ongoing invitation to life and love is rooted in the conditions in which we have known and have lived our life.
There’s an endearing word of insight in the Talmud that reads, “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’”
[i] Joan Didion in “On Keeping a Notebook” in Slouching Toward Bethlehem (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1968).
[ii] Hebrews 6:19 “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain…”
[iii] From the appointed Psalm 16:5-6 “Oh Lord you are my portion and my cup; it is you who uphold my lot. My boundaries enclose a pleasant land…”
[v] An image from Psalm 40:1-2.
[vi] Psalm 17:8 “Guard me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings…”
[vii] Matthew 16:18 “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…”
[viii] An image from The Letter to the Ephesians 1:17-19 “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”
[ix] From the appointed Psalm 16:6 “…Indeed I have a goodly heritage.”
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Br. Curtis, I found this sermon to be just what I need. I pray that I truly can be rooted in love. If water is scarce, roots must go deeper to find it. Of course, we have seasons of drought and seasons of plenty. We must not give up when our spiritual growth wanes and conditions are not conducive for growth. One thing we know: God is love. He is the “living water”, and He can rescue us even in the worst of circumstances, if we trust Him. Yet, I can think of cases where Christians were not rescued and died for their faith. It is, no doubt, better to say He will give us the grace and power of the Holy Spirit to cope with whatever comes. Think of the experiences of St. Paul.
You seem to feel that God is one or the other, either the loving Jesus or the God of the old testament. But of course God is both. And I believe we forget that at our own peril.
There is so much in this sermon that is insightful, good, and helpful. I will re-read this many times. I have contemplated the spirituality of roots often. Your declaration that love is not blind but rather real love happens with eyes wide open and the heart loves still is beautiful. And much more here to ponder and take to heart. Many years ago I read that when Jean Stapleton was accepting an award she said that she was thankful for every single person she had ever met. I thought that was the strangest thing to say and didn’t understand. But her words stuck with me and gradually I began to understand what she meant (she was clearly more evolved than I was). After many years I can now say the same thing–much to my surprise–and mean it. Every single person in my life has taught me something, and even if it was “bad” or hurtful, I now realize that I have learned something very valuable from each of these people and it has formed me–with God’s help–into the person I am today. I am reminded constantly that God has a marvelous (if mysterious) plan for me. This is true for each of us if we are willing to open the eyes and ears of our hearts.
Thank you for this exceptional sermon!
Thank you Curtis. Appreciate this invitation to soul integration- seeing all our life moments as the loam in which our roots stretch and mature.
I have to confess that I didn’t “get” this sermon at all; and I read it slowly, word for word. I got snippets, but not the gist. Oh well, I’ll try again tomorrow.
Thanks, Br. Curtis you have instilled in me that God loves me in spite of me. Jesus’ question to Peter is appropo.
Thanks, Br. Curtis for instilling in me that God loves me in
spite of me. Jesus’ question to Peter is a great example.
Thank you, Br. Curtis. After reading this I am filled with an appreciation of some of the people in my life and events of my life that I have not thought of recently. And my heart is overflowing with gratitude to God for each of them. It thrills me to see how God works for our good, our holiness, our re-shaping into His likeness — even when we cannot see it. Thank you for continuing to share with us.
I have experienced springs in both Minnesota and New England and always say there is no spring like a New England spring!
It is not so much that God accepts and loves us in spite of the conditions we come from and the ones we have manufacture ourselves, but it is how we accept and loves ourselves in spite of those conditions. God’s hope for us is that we practice mercy with ourselves and with others as he has shown us time and time again
When we Christians talk of love it really dose’t matter if love is blind or insightful. But that “romantic” business People talk about it is not only blind but decietful. It is not really love it is infatuation and very different than love.
Thank you, Br. Curtis. I will be pondering on ‘conditions’ – those in my own environment and those I help create for others.
Living in the west, ‘living water’ has a special conotation for me. I remember my mother saying when I was just a child, that she was sure Cain and Abel’s fight was over water —- what got water first, the animals or the produce.
Peace and good – Sally Hicks
Thank you, Curtis! As I look back over my life, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that God wastes nothing. Every person, every experience, every triumph, every disappointment, every hurt, every healing, every dark moment, every blinded-by-the-light moment has played a role in creating me as I am today. I needed every one of the moments I have lived to anchor me in God’s love now. And so I immerse myself in the practice of gratitude for each precious moment of my past, regardless of how I felt during it, and I extend that practice to each precious moment now, regardless of how I feel in it. God is good all of the time, whether I see it or not.
Reading your text, I am painfully aware of the contradiction of God´s passionate love affair going on with me in my life along with incarceration. Those who guided me would speak God´s very pronounceable yet incomprehensible name with shame and spiritual abuse and deform me. It was all oddly motivated in love or in love turned inside out, some angels saying to grow in love, other wannabes to cut down with the well-worn, self-propelled lawn mower church of love. Perhaps it´s no coincidence that the words “sacred” and “scarred” or so similar.
If I am rooted and grounded in love, were my roots poisoned or was all that shit good fertilizer? As a child, I could not differentiate what seeped into my roots. Now I still feel myself simultaneously reaching out in passion and recoiling in horror when love asks “Do you love me?” How can I be cognizant what I pass on to my vulnerable sons? I don´t know, I can´t know. I am healing. I claim grace and glory springing from my wounds and love. And it is good.
thanks for those words curtis. i think we all have a purpose in this life and with Gods help we will be able to carry it out. even when john & i where young i always looked out for him and will continue to do so with Gods help. Actually all my brothers & sister have been always close and stuck together to help one another out after loosing my father when we where so young. it certainly brought our family closer together and learn to give and take as wer where growing up. we are still very close. jane