Freedom in a time of Trials

“Watcha doin’ tomorrow?” Leroy asked as we postponed my stick-shift driving lessons after his niece Courtney demanded my attention. The child had jumped out of the bathtub and come running straight out the house yelling “Hannah! Hannah!” when I drove by on my way to work that morning, and by the afternoon she was tired of waiting for her promised adventure. It would have been impossible to escape; she had an ear attuned after much practice to recognize the sounds of Brenda’s car and intercept her on her way from Rainbow to Camp Symonette. And now, driving Brenda’s car, I was to reap the benefits of all that practice.

“I’m going to Preacher’s Cave tomorrow,” I answered. Preacher’s Cave had captured my fascination from the first time I heard the words about eleven months ago. On a trip with some amazing clergywomen from my home Conference, Eastern Pennsylvania, I had come across a tea named after Preacher’s Cave. A tea which I, of course, had to purchase and spend the next few months drinking. I have to admit that I did not even realize that Preacher’s Cave was a real place when I bought the tea. I simply thought it was an elegant Bahamian metaphor for the secluded state that is necessary for many when giving birth to a sermon. Don’t ask me why I thought that the marketers believed that might appeal to the general populace.

Imagine my shock and delight then when during my first week on the island, somebody told me that I needed to go to Preacher’s Cave. Whip lash – “Wait, Preacher’s Cave is a real place?? And I am close to it right now?”

Apparently Preacher’s Cave was a real place, but not many people came across it because it was on a secluded island. Yet, wonder of wonders, I too was on that secluded island.

God had already blown my mind with this spiritually tantalizing serendipity, but there was more!

First, Preacher’s Cave was amazingly beautiful and the aesthetics – light filtering in through holes in the roof of the cave – were equally delightful to my eye and to my heart. For someone who chose to name their blog after the Cohen lyrics “there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” it felt that this place was the visible representation of the contours of my heart. It revealed the reality that holes and cracks and imperfections are not the things that destroys us, but rather the things that make us beautiful. And yeah, the rain pours in the holes when it is storming, but on most days the sun streams through those same holes; I accept that you have to take a bit of rain on your head, in order to experience the sunlight on your face.

Second, Preacher’s Cave had a powerful story to go along with it’s imposing form. In 1647 a group of adventurers set out from Bermuda on a journey seeking a space to worship and practice their religion in the way they felt led. They called themselves the Eleutherian Adventurers (for those rusty on their Greek, eleuthera means “freedom”). As they passed by a long strip of land, 100 miles long by 2 miles wide, they found themselves face to face with the Devil’s Backbone – a tremendous reef that winds along the Atlantic side of the island. The survivors of the shipwreck made it to shore and found shelter in a large cathedral-like cave. It was there in that perfectly contoured space, that they gave thanks to God for their lives and celebrated their first worship service.

They found the beautiful island to be uninhabited; not because it had gone undiscovered, but because it had been discovered. This island was one of many whose population had been drained and decimated by Spanish explorers.  The original Arawak inhabitants, the Lucayans, had been taken from the island to work the mines in Cuba and Hispaniola, in an era before the attention of the “explorers” had turned away from native populations and towards the continent of Africa to satiate their thirst for slaves.

The shipwrecked adventurers decided that God had brought them to this perilous and beautiful snake of an island, and so they decided to stay. They spread out and became the first to settle the Bahamas, still returning for over 100 years to worship at the cave. They carved a rough pulpit into the rock, seats for the ministers, and even a choir loft. They named it Preacher’s Cave, and they named the island Eleuthera – the place where freedom is found.

In those days, that was indeed how one found freedom. There was plenty of “empty” places in the world to go and set up shop; and if they were not empty you could simply convert, enslave or decimate the populace – usually a combination of all three was employed. Ironically, the way that the European world found freedom, was the same way that the rest of the world lost it.

Thankfully that is not the accepted method to find freedom anymore. Yet, there is still a draw towards freedom, a hunger for freedom. People are still wrestling today about worship; but these days the struggle has shifted from not only how you worship, but also with whom do you worship.

Back home in Eastern Pennsylvania, where my Preacher’s Cave Tea sipping friends are laboring through the final week of Advent, it feels like everything is in question. The United Methodist Church wants to affirm the dignity and sacred worth of people of all genders and orientations; while simultaneously withholding certain positions and ceremonies from those who diverge from the traditional norm. We simply cannot have it both ways. The longing for freedom that has run its course through every phase of the church bears the fruit of its ancient DNA right in front of us today. The pot of discontent boils over, and the voices heavy with the guilt of many years of silence hold their tongue no more.

My Bishop stands in the center, and God be with her, is finding the words and the courage to lead us through it. My friends stand upon ground they would never choose – judge, jury and credential-executioner for one of their own. Today the Rev. Frank Schaefer goes before the Board of Ordained Ministry, having refused to voluntarily surrender his credentials after performing a marriage ceremony for his son and his partner. He stands today firm in his integrity, having satisfied the demands of his convictions. He confronts the church with the question, is there not another way?

I cannot be with them on this painful day, a day that cannot be easy for anyone regardless of their stance, and so I will travel up this snake of an island and stand in Preacher’s Cave and I too will ask God, is there not another way? I will plant my feet on solid Eleutherian soil, and ask what freedom means and how we are to find it.

While, thankfully, exploration, conquest and colonization are no longer the methods employed to find religious freedom, it does leave us all with a little less air to breathe. We cannot escape one another, we have to fight it out living side by side.

Unfortunately, we still do find it necessary to employ the other ancient tool of struggle within the church – the trial. The trial is a method that reached its low point during the Inquisition, while throughout the ages never seeming to bring out the best in us regardless of the time or space. In the United States, we usually consider the Salem witch trials to be the low point of church trials, and looking back it is hard to believe that really happened; hard to believe we really did that to one another. The recent genealogy craze revealed the loss of an ancestor on my mother’s side to the Salem witch trials, and it is certainly not difficult these days to feel a sense of sardonic affinity with that virtuous woman.

The funny thing is, the man in whose name we carry out these trials, fell victim to a very similar trial himself. The witnesses were brought in, the rigged questions were asked, and Jesus Christ was declared a religious heretic. His sentence was not the loss of his credentials, but the loss of his life. There was no appeal, and no mercy. And at the will of the jury, we put God made flesh to death. It is just so hard to imagine that same man wanting trials to be carried out in his name.

So today, I will stand in Preacher’s Cave, and I will pray – for a miracle if the Board can find one; and for a new way forward if they cannot. We do not need more trials, we do not need more executions of calling. That is why I wear an Eleutherian rock around my neck rather than a cross these days. It represents for me the cave of refuge, the solid rock on which I stand, and the tomb that gave birth to resurrection. Because it was not a trial, an execution and a cross that changed my life; it was the tomb in which death was defeated, a verdict was overruled, and life burst forth with freedom.

Trial, execution, death – that is only half the story. Shipwrecks have survivors. Tombs have escapees. Trials have pardons. Death has resurrection.

The pulpit at Preacher's Cave
The pulpit at Preacher’s Cave
Holes add to the beauty in Preacher's Cave
Holes add to the beauty in Preacher’s Cave
The entry to Preacher's Cave
The entry to Preacher’s Cave
Plaque at the entry of Preacher's Cave
Plaque at the entry of Preacher’s Cave
Watching the sunset with Leroy's niece
Watching the sunset with Leroy’s niece
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