The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Proper 12, Year B
Ephesians 3:14-21; St. John 6:1-21
July 29, 2018
There is Enough:
Breadth, Length, Height, and Depth
While finishing the latest edit on my chapter for the upcoming book, I went back to the one book that launched my entire exploration of contemplative prayer. Some 16 years ago, when I arrived at Columbia Seminary, I bought a book by Richard Foster: Celebration of Discipline. At that time, I dug into this book, soaking up the words as fast as I could read them.
As I read back through Celebration of Discipline, I remembered the series of notes I had written in the margins, thoughts in different colors that embodied subsequent years of questions. To me, it is a treasure trove of my own struggling life of prayer and practice.
On page one, there is a note with an asterisk that says “like a hammer to my forehead” next to this quote:
Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant gratification is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.
Foster goes on in this book to lay out what he thinks is a response to this crisis of superficiality, this urgent need for “deep people.” He invites us to see the necessity of a deeper practice of prayer: “Though it may sound strange to modern ears,” he says, “we should without shame enroll as apprentices in the school of contemplative prayer.”
We are invited to realize that we are called to a depth of awareness of God’s presence that will transform our existence. Foster is echoing St. Paul from in this morning’s reading from Ephesians:
I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
This is our call as disciples of Jesus, not to consider following Jesus to be on the external level of following a rule book that can be so easily used as a weapon to judge and categorize, but to so follow Jesus, to pattern our lives after Him, that we “grow into the full stature of Christ,” as our Baptismal Liturgy reminds us.
St. Paul pours his heart and soul into this prayer for the people at Ephesus—and for us today. He sees the signs all around him in his own time: rampant abuse of power, people seeing each other as objects in opposition, and a shallow understanding of what it means to be a person of faith. Out of this deep heart concern, he invites the people, in the face of despair, to depth.
In our own day and time, I think we experience this shallowness in terms of a perception of scarcity. The shallowness in our own existence leads us to grasp for power and control. This is an enormous problem, and Jesus faced it head on.
We see it in the story of the story commonly known as “the feeding of the 5,000.” This account appears in all four Gospel accounts, so pay attention.
We know the basic story: enormous group of people; fearful and anxious disciples; calm Jesus; young child with apparently limited resources; blessing, breaking, giving, and eating; recognition of abundance. A trajectory of transformation.
It’s interesting in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s account, when the disciples act out of their own shallow perception and sense of scarcity, something very important happens.
They immediately turn to Jesus and expect him to be their “strong man” and fix the situation. Give us a solution that will stop this, one that supports our perception of scarcity. They are blunt in their fearful request: send these people back where they came from, because our resources are limited.
Jesus, however is grounded in a deeper perspective, one of abundance. Rather than yielding to the fears or manipulating the anxieties of the shallow disciples, Jesus invites them all into a deeper awareness and an experience of conversion.
Jesus knows there is enough.
St. John’s account this morning finds the fearful disciples acting out of scarcity and anxiety. But look closely at Jesus. John actually “lets us in” on Jesus inner dynamic. There is this line: Jesus asks the disciples, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test [Philip], for he himself knew what he was going to do.
Oh this is so important for us to pay attention to.
The notion of Jesus testing Philip isn’t one of taunting or cruelty. It isn’t hazing. Rather, what Jesus is doing is giving space for Philip’s soul to experience conversion, to move from a posture of scarcity to abundance, from shallowness to depth. Jesus knows that Philip needs room. His soul needs room to stretch, because his ego has become so entrenched in this narrative of grasping and scarcity that it is going to cost him to be transformed.
This is so important for us to see.
I think Richard Foster is spot on, the world needs more deep people. And I think St. Paul and Jesus are saying, guess what, we are meant to be these deep people. This is our call, and we need to start realizing this.
So what does this look like within our parish, within our community? Here’s the interactive portion of today’s reflection. I invite you to take your bulletin and hold it in front of you. If I were to ask you, how many sides are there on this bulletin, I wonder if you would say “two.” Two sides, front and back. At first glance, this appears to be true, but the reality is there are six sides on this bulletin. Six.
There is the front and back, the larger sides, but there are also four other sides. The other four are the edges, which, if you looked at them through a magnifying glass, you would see are actually sides. They are just so small that we view them as “edges.” They have a breadth, length, height, and depth that is very, very small.
If you would, turn the bulletin toward you with the edge facing you.
This is what Foster and St. Paul and Jesus are trying to get us to see: our great problem in this life is that we grasp on to these shallow sides when we are invited to be transformed, through the Spirit of Christ, to see and experience the spaciousness of God.
We see that the real miracle in this Gospel story is the transformation of consciousness.
Transformation is, then, being turned to the spacious side, allowing ourselves to be converted, to be moved into a wider perspective—God’s perspective.
These shallow sides are the realm of the ego grasping mind, the preoccupation we have with, as Fr. Thomas Keating reminds us, our urge to grasp and cling to safety and security, affection and esteem, and power and control. We need our minds, but, as we have said, when they drive the car instead of our integrated mind-in-heart, we stay limited to the shallowness of life.
We are called to be people of the deep, people whose hearts resonate with the deep grace of God in Christ Jesus.
In the words of Carl Jung, “In the history of the collective, as in the history of the individual, everything depends on the development of consciousness.” Or, in language more familiar to the Rite I lovers among us, as John Woolman once said, “It is good for thee to dwell deep, that thou mayest feel and understand the spirits of people.”
Now, here’s the rub with how this “works out” in a community. The reality is we are called to transformation. This is our call as followers of Jesus. But, if you think this is easy, you haven’t been paying attention. It is hard as *%#@ because it is going to pinch long-held assumptions, challenge any loyalty we have to political party platforms, and basically make us sick at our stomachs a good deal of the time.
If you think this is an esoteric scenario, I present you with this: already, we are having conversations here that show that fellowship groups and ministry committees are feeling the strain of the political turmoil we experience every time we turn on the news. Fellowship is breaking. People in this parish are struggling to know how to live together—and we can only truly live together as brothers and sisters in Christ as “deep people.”
And to do this, to have this level of relationship, we need to look to Jesus’ experience with his disciples: we need to make sure to give one another space to actually be transformed rather than making anyone feel shamed or guilty. We need to resist the urge we have to respond out of anger and despair, to yield to the impulse of scarcity.
We are a people who believe, in our heart, that God is a God of abundance and grace, and we need to live out of this belief in how we treat one another.
Put bluntly, we can’t grab one another’s bulletins, twist them around, and say, “how can you be so stupid. You’re looking at the shallow side.” Don’t do that. This is not to say that we cannot engage in truthful and honest conversations. This is not to say that we cannot speak from our hearts. But before we speak, first, ask how we persist in looking at the shallow side of things.
See if you can speak from the heart, from this space of greater breadth, length, height, and depth within yourself.
We engage this space through the practice of prayer. In silence, with deep listening, from the heart. We need to resist throwing barbs and engage in deeper listening, to the presence of God within the heart of one another. What is of the Spirit will let itself be known.
As Brother Roger of Taize’ wrote “It happens that, when we accompany another person, the one who listens is led to the essential in themselves, although the other may be unaware of it. . . Listen and keep on listening. . . Listening in this way can contribute to a very broad vision of human beings, inhabited by both fragility and radiance, by fullness and the void.”
“There is a boy here who have five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”
“Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”
 Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth 25th anniversary edition (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 1.
 Ibid., 15.
 Book of Common Prayer, 302.
 See “Collective Consciousness and Cultural Healing: A Report to the Fetzer Institute,” by Duane Elgin, October 1997. http://www.duaneelgin.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/collective_consciousness.pdf.
 John Woolman, The Journal of John Woolman (Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1972), 118. Referenced in Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.
 Brother Roger of Taize’, Essential Writings (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2014), 48.