Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Sunday, December 27, 2015

My Entire Life I Searched For Thee

"Angle" by Elias Punch
Sunday, December 27, 2015
Sermon by Katie Mulligan
preached at Ewing Presbyterian Church

Scripture Reading: 
I remember, when I was pregnant with my first child, that it was the strangest, most bewildering year of my life. I knew I was pregnant from the earliest moment—I just felt different. I was sleepy all of the time, parts of my body ached in strange ways, I was an emotional mess. I was not surprised to be pregnant—I was surprised by the way pregnancy took over my entire body. I was ill-prepared for the way a child enters your life before they are even born.

Along about the 4th month, I went to visit my obstetrician for a routine check up. The nurse asked me if I was experiencing any pains or unusual sensations, and since I was pregnant, I was experiencing all kinds of pains and unusual sensations. I had been vomiting for 4 months straight, my stomach was popping out, muscles and ligaments were moving and shifting and changing to accommodate this new life. Oh everything felt strange! And so the nurse handed me a gown and asked me to undress so the doctor could examine me.

A few minutes later the doctor knocked on the door. Startled, she yelled, “Why are you undressed?” I burst into tears, embarrassed that the doctor seemed to think I just randomly threw off my clothes. The doctor explained she didn’t need to examine me that day—the aches and pains and movements of my body were just normal parts of pregnancy. She explained to me that pregnancy was a normal, everyday function of the body.

Except that for me, THIS pregnancy was NOT a normal everyday function of MY body. THIS pregnancy was an extraordinary event, worthy of wonder and amazement and attention. There was
nothing everyday or ordinary about pregnancy. I was astonished that they couldn’t see how incredible this was.

When the child was born, and I held him for the first time, I began to sing. I sang every song I ever learned in church. I sang some songs I learned at scout camp. I sang and I sang and I sang while the doctor and nurses cleaned up around us. Sometimes, if it was a song the doctor knew, he sang along with me. It was a deep spiritual experience, to look into the eyes of this baby child and know that God had knit this child together in the womb, bone by bone, skin and hair, brains and organs, and beauty, oh such beauty. My baby boy was beautiful. I sang until I ran out of songs.

Old Simeon, I’ve been thinking about Old Simeon. A priest, perhaps, in the temple at Jerusalem. He had been promised by the Holy Spirit that in his lifetime he would see the Holy Child, the redemption of humanity, the consolation of all peoples. Before he breathed his last and closed his eyes in death, Simeon would see the Christ child.

How long did he wait, I wonder? How many children did he greet in the temple? Did he look when he went to the market—did he play peek-a-boo with strangers’ babies? No promise was made WHERE he would meet this child or how old the child would be—at every family gathering, did he look carefully at the children present to see if the spark of the divine resided in any child in particular? Did he wonder, Old Simeon, if he had missed the baby and look carefully at the older children, the teenagers, the adults, his peers. In all his years of searching, I wonder what Old Simeon saw as he looked for the child.

How fortunate for a community to have a person who looks diligently for Christ in each and every child!

I was thinking about Simeon the other day because I had brought with me this group of youth that I often do. And as we most always do, we sat in the back section over there. The children were on their phones and whispering, as teenagers often do in church. And sometimes those whispers turned into mumbles and talking and laughter. And sometimes that laughter turned into poking at each other and squirming, changing seats, playfully slapping at one another.

And of course all this wiggling and giggling and noise makes our silent prayer times difficult for those around us. After worship, Ralph came up to me with a stern look and said something about prayer time, and then his eyes moved over the youth, and his face softened, and he smiled. He said, “It’s good that they are here.”

Oh yes, I’ve been thinking about Simeon and the surfacing of beauty and divinity in our children, and Ralph, well he nailed it. It is GOOD that the children are here, and I love how you smile at them fondly. It is GOOD.

Sometimes at youth group we do a thing we call “Grokking”. Usually we Grok at the end of an overnight, after we have spent many hours together eating and laughing and playing and singing. Often we have been working on projects together, forming teams of hospitality for new students we hope will come to our retreats and weekly gatherings. We are tired. And it is time to go home soon. But first, we Grok.

We gather in a circle around a cross, with music playing in the background. We are mostly teenagers, so we sit and lie on the floor. Four students are chosen to lead the Grokking, and I hand them water bottles. Everyone has a tiny cup.

The Grokker with the water bottle chooses another student to Grok, and they go off to a corner of the room. They sit across from each other and hold hands. They look into each other’s eyes. The Grokker then speaks an affirmation to their partner. They might say, “You have beautiful eyes. I love how kind you are to other people. When we first met I was scared about meeting new people, but you made me feel so welcome—thank you for being my friend.” The Grokker takes as much time as they want to affirm the other person—they reveal all the wonderful things they see in that person.

The person being Grokked is not allowed to respond other than to say thank you. They cannot argue with the affirmation. They can’t say, “Oh, that’s not really me” or “If you only knew me better”. They are simply permitted to sit quietly and listen to the affirmation of their self.

After the affirmation, the Grokker pours water into both of their cups. They clink their cups and drink the water, sealing the affirmation. They hug each other, and the Grokker passes the water bottle. The person just affirmed goes and finds a different person to Grok.

At any given time we have 4-6 pairs of Grokkers outside the circle affirming one another. Back at the cross, the rest of us wait to be chosen for Grokking. We talk and laugh quietly while we wait. We eat chocolate while we wait.

Eventually everyone Groks and is Grokked several times and we end the circle. We worship. We go home. We go home, knowing we are loved.

For some of us, Grokking is a profoundly uncomfortable experience. To hold hands with another person and maintain eye contact for several minutes—by itself that kind of intimacy can be challenging. Especially for us adults! And then to remain still and silent while another person lists off the things they love about you—no response, no shying away, you must simply allow the other to surface beauty and love and God in your soul.

Our teenagers are becoming like Simeon. Ever seeking after the way God moves in the other. Sometimes they Grok us adults—and oh let me tell you how strange and beautiful it is for a young person to see the divine in you as an adult. Occasionally my son—my first born—will pull me aside to Grok me, and I am moved to tears at his words of love and affirmation.

Years ago, when I was 10, I attended an Episcopalian Day School for a year. It was my 6th grade year, and I had been a troubled child. My mother was very ill, and an uncle was very abusive. I had been doing poorly in school and at home and with peers. Every place in my life hurt. My parents thought perhaps this school, with it’s small class size might help. There were 16 children in the class, and 14 of them had been together at that tiny school since kindergarten. There were two of us who were new, and Ramona and I made friends out of necessity. We were the new girls.

Every Tuesday and Thursday we had chapel. My family had never attended church, but the 6th grade class was expected to help lead worship as we were the oldest students. Ramona and I volunteered to be acolytes, because our job was to light the candles, and we liked to play with fire.

And I liked to sing. I liked to sing a lot. I learned some hymns that year at the Episcopalian Day School, hymns whose words meant absolutely nothing to me. But I loved to sing and ring the bells and play with fire, so I loved chapel. I learned the songs that meant nothing to me, and in the pain and ugliness of my life I lost myself in the music. And one of those songs was a Song of Simeon. I remember the words now:

Let me now depart in peace, to my passing reconciled
Thankful ere my life should cease to have seen the Holy Child.

Lord your servants long have waited, trusting you to keep your word
Now our faith is vindicated for these eyes have seen the Lord

Jesus hope of every nation, dawn of God’s eternal day
Sent to offer men salvation, Jesus Lord shall light the way

Glory be to God the Father, Glory to His Royal Son
With the Everlasting Spirit, praise forever God as One.

I sang that song every Tuesday and Thursday and sometimes in between. The words meant nothing, just the rhythm and the tune and the welcome twice a week into the sanctuary. We made up our own religion, Ramona and I. The main Goddess Tiffany was embodied in a pink candle housed in a sea shell. We weren’t church kids, Ramona and I. But nobody worried too much about it.

And the rhythms and the tones and the welcome of worship sank into my spirit and carried me through difficult years. Until a Presbyterian pastor met me a few years later and welcomed me with new and different songs and rhythms, but with the same love from God.

And my faith began to take shape. There was, in that church, recognition that I had been created by God, and that I had intrinsic worth simply because of that fact. I didn’t have to earn love there—I couldn’t really even earn love. I simply was loved by the people of that church, as best they could and as often as I let them. And over 20 something years, I began to see what they saw—that old church of Simeons—the presence of God in me and in my life.

Sometimes I am asked by people, “What can we do? How can we help with the children?” People will tell me that they are too old, that they don’t drive at night, that they cannot roller skate, that they do not know how to relate to youth. And I want to tell you that while roller skating and pizza and a youth pastor with a guitar all played a factor in becoming a Christian as a conscious choice, it was the rhythms and the tones and the welcome that planted the seed and allowed me to come to faith in my own time and in my own way.

It was that every now and then, when I sat in church, an old person—and they were all old to me back then—would look sharply at me for a moment, perhaps exasperated, and then in the next moment, their face would soften, and they would smile, and they would say, “It is good that you are here.”

I am so grateful for the Ralphs and the Simeons and each of you who look upon our youth, sometimes in exasperation. I am grateful for your smiles of welcome and kind words. I am grateful for the rhythms of the church, for our rituals and music and habits.

For after all, it was in a temple ritual that Simeon finally found the Christ Child—on the 40th day after Jesus’ birth, his parents took him to the temple to be presented, as was their custom. And it was there that Simeon finally laid eyes on the Holy Child, as he had been promised all those years before by the Holy Spirit. How many babies had he held? How many little faces had he looked upon longingly? How many times had he looked into the eyes of another and wondered, is this the child? Is this the one? And now, finally he had seen the Holy Child and could rest.

Beloveds, may we also look tirelessly for the Christ Child among us. Let us look into the eyes of every child, woman, man and seek Jesus in the other. Let us gaze upon one another in church, over coffee hour, at every committee meeting, and session meeting, and let us remember that God dwells in the relationship between us and that each and every person was carefully knit together in their mother’s womb and was fantastically born into this world. We were made to love one another. We were made to see God in one another. Let us answer that call.


  1. Beautiful, Katie. Does "grok" have a hidden meaning?

    1. We borrowed the term and a very modified explanation from Robert Heinlein's Stranger In A Strange Land. The story we tell about sharing water doesn't match the book well, but that is the origin.

      here's a wiki link that might help. I could probably do a whole other sermon on the meaning of grokking in the book and how it could relate to what we do, but it would take some time to unpack.

      I'm not sure who began grokking as a youth group thing. we got it from someone who got it from someone else and so on.


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