This weekend’s preview of Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence tells the story of a day in New Mexico when I learned that rocks aren’t really all that stable — and that to call God “the rock” might not mean what I thought.
THE ROCK THAT ROLLS
From Freeing Jesus (HarperOne) pp. 246-249.
c. Diana Butler Bass, 2021
Some people refer to the rocks as red, but they are only red when the sun rises or sets on the desert. In full light, which, admittedly, is most of the time, the mesas, cliffs, and buttes of New Mexico are rusty-tinted siltstone and sandstone, with layers formed by primeval waters and winds. The landscape itself is history, where time reveals itself in the shape of the sand and rocks, the past visible to human sight.
I stood in the blazing sun in the Zen garden at Ghost Ranch, in Abiquiu, New Mexico, once home to artist Georgia O’Keeffe and now a retreat center of the Presbyterian Church, looking up at the Shining Cliffs, a massive formation dating back some 165 million years. “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,” proclaims the Psalmist, “my God, my rock in whom I take refuge” (18:2). The wind was still that day, the creek below, dry, giving rise to an eerie silence all around. God the rock. I leaned down and scooped up a fist of garden pebbles, wanting them to impart their permanence to me.
“On this rock I will build my church,” said Jesus, “and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Indeed, scholars argue whether Jesus pointed to his friend Peter when saying this—or to himself. But other verses are clearer. “The rock was Christ,” said Paul to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 10:4); and even Peter referred to Jesus as “a living stone . . . a cornerstone” (1 Pet. 2:4, 6). I looked at the pebbles in my hand, considering these verses, when the words from that Larry Norman song of my teenage years came to mind: “He’s the rock that doesn’t roll.” Smiling, I gazed at the small stones, realizing they were a kind of icon of Jesus, and I prayed, eyes shut as if seeking deeper sight, feeling solidarity with the earth and God.
Then, a low rumble followed by a thunderous crash interrupted the silence, quite unlike anything I had ever heard. I looked to the sky, fearing a bomb at Los Alamos had exploded, searching the blue for a nightmarish mushroom cloud. There was, indeed, a cloud. Not in the sky, however, but lower. The Shining Cliffs were shrouded in clouds of red dust. The rumbling continued, and when the dust dissipated, I could see huge boulders tumbling from the top of the cliffs and landing far below, as the sheer face of rock collapsed. The earth literally quaked, not from within, but from massive stones smashing against the ground, as if hurled by angry gods.
When it was over, newly revealed layers of ancient red rock reflected the sun like a bloody gash on the cliff. And, at the base of the mount with its nearby creek, a pile of crushed boulders awaited the next flooding rain, all in anticipation of a watery erosion that would turn them into soil and dust. What came down to earth remade the very earth on which it landed. Christ the rock moves, and indeed Jesus is a living stone—the dynamism of creation, which never ceases its restless, thundering work to make the earth anew.
We humans have a habit of domesticating God. Christians turn Jesus into a static figure, the one who is “the same yesterday and today and forever.” Perhaps the thundering rock is too much for us. Yet God remains the One who “shatters,” as C. S. Lewis once remarked. “Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?”
To read the Bible fairly, with open eyes, is to discover a God who is always on the move, the wind across the sands and the watercourses in the desert, embodied in a people who tend toward wandering, whose first prophets, Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, journeyed from Ur to follow a sacred call. The ancient Hebrew people were not terribly good at settling, their occasional stability interrupted by exile, displacements, and pilgrimage aplenty; they were a people who knew God in the wilderness.
This same restless movement is part of Jesus’s story. He was born on a journey away from his parents’ home, an immigrant to Egypt escaping political violence. As a man he was chased out of a synagogue by his own neighbors and found himself a peripatetic preacher and prophet. Even his last night and day on earth were not settled; he was tossed from one legal authority to another, and his final journey was a cruel pilgrimage to execution. This God — this Jesus — is met along the paths of spiritual and political upheaval.
The idea that Jesus traveled to meet us is found in words my New Testament professor spoke of so many years ago: Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:7). This short verse refers to the kenosis, the “emptying,” in which Christ abandoned the fullness of God and joined humankind, even as a slave, as one who had no home. In effect, this is the thunder of theological boulders crashing to earth. Christians may sing of this moment with familiar Christmas carols, but the truth of the matter is that the silence of that night was broken by a shattering quake, as the side was ripped from the ancient butte, revealing the wound of the world.
Rock is not static, not permanent or stable. “Cosmic destruction, disintegration, self-giving, and limitation,” writes theologian Catherine Wright, “are inextricably intertwined with cosmic creativity, innovation, self-affirmation, and growth.” The self-emptying Jesus, the Jesus who falls from heaven and is born on earth, is also the Jesus whose journey of suffering and death becomes the genesis of the new creation. The emptying, always-moving Jesus is the birth mother of the cosmos. Rock is generative. As God reminded the people of Israel: “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth” (Deut. 32:18).
Over the next couple of weekends, I’ll share just a few more sneak peeks of my forthcoming book here at The Cottage. Of course, there will continue to be the regular essays on faith and what’s going on in the world and in the news more generally (usually on Monday or Tuesday). But I’m pleased to invite you into an early look at Freeing Jesus — a book I hope will inspire new questions about what it means to follow Jesus in these fraught days.
The book comes out on MARCH 30! It combines spiritual memoir, history, the Bible, and cultural observations into a genre I call “memoir theology” to unpack who Jesus is — and can be — in our lives.
Everything dreams. The play of form, of being, is the dreaming of substance. Rocks have their dreams, and the earth changes.
― Ursula K. Le Guin
The rock I'd seen in my life looked dull because in all ignorance I'd never thought to knock it open. People have cracked ordinary New England pegmatite - big, coarse granite - and laid bare clusters of red garnets, or topaz crystals, chrysoberyl, spodumene, emerald. They held in their hands crystals that had hung in a hole in the dark for a billion years unseen. I was all for it. I would lay about me right and left with a hammer, and bash the landscape to bits. I would crack the earth's crust like a piñata and spread to the light the vivid prizes in chunks within. Rock collecting was opening the mountains. It was like diving through my own interior blank blackness to remember the startling pieces of a dream: there was a blue lake, a witch, a lighthouse, a yellow path. It was like poking about in a grimy alley and finding an old, old coin. Nothing was at it seemed. The earth was like a shut eye. Mother's not dead, dear - she's only sleeping. Pry open the thin lid and find a crystalline intelligence inside, a rayed and sidereal beauty. Crystals grew inside rock like arithmetical flowers. They lengthened and spread, adding plane to plane in awed and perfect obedience to an absolute geometry that even the stones - maybe only the stones - understood.
― Annie Dillard
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness
Have lain too long
Facedown in ignorance,
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.
The Rock cries out to us today,
You may stand upon me,
But do not hide your face.
— Maya Angelou, “On the Pulse of Morning”
NEWS AND EVENTS
Please join us on April 26!
BREATHE: Making sense of the past year, finding hope for the future
This one-day virtual gathering is for women in spiritual leadership (trans women and non-binary persons who are comfortable in women-focussed events are - of course - welcome) – clergy, spiritual directors, lay leaders, authors and poets, and teachers – to catch our breath after this difficult and challenging year.
Breathe is an opportunity for you to be encouraged, affirmed, and to connect with others from across the country. Together, we'll find new grounding for the final stretch of the pandemic. The gathering will allow time to reflect on what's happened to us in the last year, and open our hearts toward a new phase in our lives and ministries.
For booking events, including events based on Freeing Jesus, please contact Chaffee Management. We’re booking virtual events through spring 2021, and blended and in-real-life events for later 2021 and into 2022.
For podcast, media, review, and interview inquires and availability regarding the book launch, please email Dan Rovzar at HarperCollins publicity: Dan.Rovzar@harpercollins.com.