The great un-doing

This past week I heard from someone how they overcame their addiction to smoking. A middle-aged man, he said he had been a smoker for many years until he started feeling the ill-effects of the habit. He had tried many gimmicks and treatments to quit, to no avail.

It wasn’t until he let go of his need to control the outcome of his efforts, that he succeeded. In other words, when he was able to tell himself: “I can’t do this on my own,” he finally found the capacity within himself to quit. He was able to stop smoking only when he accepted his own limitations, when he released the false notion that he was the master of his own destiny. Even to do something healthy, good.

He didn’t need to accomplish this on his own. What he wanted (to quit smoking), he needed to let go of. What he sought, he needed to release control over.

Whatever you want, you first need to let go of. Counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Usually when you want something, you go for it. And you don’t let up until you have it, eh?

So, what’s going on here?

What did the rich young man in the Gospel story want (Mark 10:17-31)? He wanted to prove that he was a righteous, good man. He wanted to show Jesus and others that he had fulfilled all the rules of his religion and therefore he was worth his religious beans. And who could compare?

The rich man approached Jesus thinking he had it in the bag. His question—”What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)—sounds disingenuous, inauthentic. In a manipulative, self-congratulatory way, he thus approached Jesus, even kneeling before him.

He had self-righteously fooled himself into believing he already knew the answer. The gospel writer doesn’t even assign the rich man a name, underscoring the fake, artificial nature of the man’s attitude.

But Jesus cuts through the crap, skims the fat off the top, and goes to the jugular! Indeed, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). Jesus sees through the rich man’s pretense, and uncovers the real, authentic person beneath the surface. There he finds an enslaved heart, and brings to light the truth:

In order for the man to be liberated and set free, he has to surrender what owns him, what captivates and grips his soul: For him — it’s material possessions. For someone else, it might be different. But he has to learn, if he wants to grow, to let go and not hold on to those things that keep him stuck in false beliefs about himself, God, and the world around him.

What he wasn’t expecting, was an answer from Jesus that undid him. The one thing that he wanted to get—an unscrupulous, beyond reproach reputation as a religious superman—he would now have to let go of. He would have to let go of everything that made him, that put him in a position of power and wealth in his community and that gave him the grounds to boast.

He would now have to sell his reputation, literally, and become poor. And what do the poor have to show for their religious prowess? Wasn’t (and isn’t) being impoverished a sign of God’s dis-favour?[1]

All the texts assigned for today reflect the nature of relationship with God. Relationship with God is at the root of our spirituality, our church lives, our purpose in life and the meaning of our lives. Relationship. Relationship. Relationship.

And what the lectionary offerings are inviting us to consider today, is the nature of our relationship with God. They ask us to be honest, first, about who this God is we are supposed to relate to.

Let’s say, we want God. Well, detach from what we want. That is the key. Let go of our false conceptions about God. For example, an underlying assumption we will make about God is a transactional, mechanized God. Such assumptions were criticized by reformers like Martin Luther in the 16thcentury but also those before him like Meister Eckhart in the 14thcentury. This image they condemned, was God the “reward machine”.[2]It goes something like this:

God is the great rewarder-in-the-sky. And, if you put enough quarters in the slot, God will send down the candy-bar. In Martin Luther’s world, the criticism focused on the sale of indulgences—the more money you paid to the church, the more spiritual benefits you accrued.

These false beliefs about God then generated attitudes and actions that placed the onus all on us and our capacities and resources as individuals. That it was up to us to garner favour with God and so we would earn, and deserve, our salvation and even prosperity on earth.

I believe this is what is behind the rich, young man’s presumption and approach to Jesus. Certainly, he of all people deserves God’s favour.

And Jesus’ response is, essentially: If that’s what you want, you need to let go of it. And, it’s going to hurt before it gets better again.

Whether it’s a bad habit or false understanding of God or anything else that puts you in the driver’s seat of your life, God is looking you in the eye and challenges you to let go of that pretense. Whatever it is you want, first let go of it, and feel the pain of it. Detach yourself from your attachments if you truly want to be healed. It ain’t easy.

And the image is apt: Putting a camel through the eye of a needle is meant to communicate impossibility. And we say that in our own way every day. “Bah, I can’t change; people can’t change.” “We don’t change.” “People stay the same.” And so, we continue to get mired in unhealthy and self-destructive life-journeys. Transformation is inconceivable, we believe.

Maybe, before anything, our image of God needs transformation. If God is not a reward machine high in the sky, who and what is God all about?

It’s hard to believe with all the rain we’ve had in the past month that earlier this summer the lawns were brown, and the ground was bone dry. We’ve seen a lot of rain, lately. I’ve noticed local creeks are flowing again, and the grass on our yard is thicker and a dark, rich green.

I was reminded this week when I read that waterdrops in the atmosphere are created when water vapour condenses. That part I knew. But what popped out at me was the following sentence: water vapour condenses on tiny particles of dust. At the very centre of every raindrop is a particle.[3]

Our relationship with God is not between entities, to begin with. We don’t relate to being, a God among various God-beings out there in a religious marketplace.

We relate to God as the ground of our very being. Our connection to God already exists. Before we do, say, or think anything. Whether we know it or not. God is already connected to us, in our innermost being.

Saint Paul writes: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16); and, “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love (Eph 3:16-17).

We don’t add God to our lives, like filling a shopping cart in the grocery store. We don’t need to relate to a transactional God-the-rewarder-in-the-sky with our consumer mindset. The Reformation should have put that mechanistic view of our relationship with the Lord to rest. We still need the Reformation!

We don’t add God to our lives. We add our lives to God. Who is already there, at the very centre of our lives.

Imagine rain, falling. The raindrops have a way to go before reaching the ground. It may feel like a free-fall. Unnerving, dis-orienting, it is to let go of our deepest attachments. We experience like Jesus did a painful, momentary ‘forsaken-ness’ (Psalm 22:1). I wonder if the rich, young man had the courage to sell all he had to give it to the poor.

I would love to meet him, especially if had gone through with it. I have many questions to ask him. I suspect, however, that if he did it, if he did what Jesus called him to do — that in the letting go he opened his heart, confronted his greatest fear and experienced a free fall … right into the love of God at the very centre of his life. What a joyous surprise, to find the presence that will always be there, and has always been there!

It may seem impossible to do—this letting go—but in Christ all things are possible. And we discover in the journey: there really isn’t anything to lose that is of any enduring, lasting value.

[1]Today’s so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ implies that when you have it right with God, you will be blessed with material riches; the converse is true, too: according to the prosperity gospel, when you sin, God will withdraw blessing and you will be impoverished.

[2]Bernard McGinn, Praying with the Masters Today, Volume 2 (Meditatio Talks Series CD B, Track 5), 2018.

[3]Richard Rohr, “The God Particle” Daily Meditation 10 Oct 2018 (cac.org /Center for Action and Contemplation)

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Thanksgiving not a 1-day event

Thanksgiving is not a one-day event.

Canadian Thanksgiving weekend is upon us. Even so, we know that for many of us in Ottawa feeling thankful is not easy at this time. Especially in the aftermath of the tornadoes, what about the folks in Dunrobin?

Indeed, difficult circumstances in life can challenge our attitudes and beliefs. Bad news can dampen any uplifting feelings. We may even react angrily to those who tell us to be happy and thankful.

Perhaps if we understand thanksgiving more as something we do over time rather than a one-shot deal, we can get through those tough times. Perhaps if we see thanksgiving as something that grows slowly in our hearts rather than an artificial nostalgia imposed during one Fall weekend in October, we can find a way through all the topsy-turvy feelings in our lives. True, thanksgiving is an attitude and corresponding action of ‘giving’ more than a self-serving emotional exercise.

The restoration efforts in Dunrobin, Gatineau and parts of Nepean continue. And they will, for some time to come. The needs of those rebuilding their lives didn’t stop in the week following the devastating tornadoes.

Below is a list compiled last weekend by a neighbor living in the Cityview community. Please consider the various opportunities to help those in need, locally. And, in so doing, giving thanks despite all that’s not perfect in the world.

May God grow the seed of thanksgiving in our hearts at this time of year.

What you can do:

1. Donate to the Red Cross, which is helping both Ottawa and Gatineau residents.

Ottawa: http://www.redcross.ca or by calling 1-800-418-1111.

Gatineau: http://www.gatineau.ca/croix-rouge

2. A financial donation to the Ottawa Senators’ fundraiser on GoFundMe.com. Ottawa-Gatineau supporters have donated $187,798 and the Ottawa Senators Foundation is going to match the total amount raised.

Visit their page at: https://www.gofundme.com/ottawa-senats-amp-fans-tornado-relief

3. Donate clothing, furniture or other household items to St. Vincent de Paul. To locations in Ottawa: Merivale Rd and Wellington

4. In Gatineau, donations of “clean clothing in good condition, personal hygiene products and non-perishable foods” can be dropped off at the former Sears location at the Galeries de Hull on Boul. Saint-Joseph.

5. The food banks are in need of donations. It is best to call them to find out what is needed most. Here are just a couple. There are others too in Gatineau.

The Kanata Food Cupboard – http://www.kanatafoodcupboard.ca/ – it is open for donations on Monday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and will coordinate delivery to the locations “most in need.”

The Ottawa Food Bank – http://www.ottawafoodbank.ca/ – you can hold a food drive, volunteer, and/or make a donation through their website.

6. CBC has set-up The “Ottawa-Gatineau Tornado Community Connector” Facebook group is a place for anyone to share their ideas to help people without power or looking for shelter and supplies.

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Impossible Questions: a sermon for Thanksgiving and Confirmation

In observing Jesus’ teaching style in this text (Matthew 6:24-34), indeed throughout the gospels, notice all the questions he asks.

Normally, you would think the student is the only one who asks questions of the teacher, not the other way around. Jesus, the Rabbi, or Teacher, asks questions to reinforce his point. In fact, Jesus is employing a technique he learned from the sages of Israel who came before him.

There are at least two kinds of questions employed by the wisdom writers of the Hebrew scriptures: The first, is the rhetorical type, the one with the obvious answer. The obvious answer is leading to either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

For example, “Can one walk on hot coals without scorching one’s feet?” (Proverbs 6:28); “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?” (Proverbs 8:1)? To answer these questions, you don’t need to study the night before.

Now, Jesus’ teachings include some rhetorical questions, such as: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” (Matthew 7:9); “Is there anyone among you, who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” (Luke 11:11; Matthew 7:10); “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16; Luke 6:44). No brainer, right? Either yes or no.

We have a large three-panelled window at the front of our house. Recently we placed my reading chair beside it so I can enjoy the natural lighting and look outside. Periodically a bird would hit one of the side panels with a loud ‘thump’ and we would jump each time a bird slammed into it, offering a prayer for the poor bird’s well-being.

One day we noticed a good-sized crack making its way from the top corner of the centre panel. And we called in the window-guy. As he was removing the large centre panel window, he asked for my help. It wasn’t easy getting it out of the frame. Even with the vinyl strips removed we needed to do a lot of jimmying to get that frame out.

“This panel was installed too tightly,” he mused. “That may be the cause of the problem. Windows need to have some give, some space to move. Otherwise when something hits it, it’ll break.”

Rhetorical questions are like that window that have no give. Today, rhetorical questions don’t get much traction in meaningful conversation let alone as an effective teaching method. Like the window too tightly installed, there’s no wiggle room. Laced with presumption, rhetorical questions are often used as cheap shots in a fight: “Do you think I was going to say anything in response to that stupid thing you did?” “Duh! Isn’t it obvious you should not have done that?”

Rhetorical questions are also not very helpful in dealing with crises. When someone struggles, asking them rhetorical questions presumes ‘they should know better.’ I remember sitting in a church assembly years ago when the bishop forbade the use of rhetorical questions in the debate we were having.

Given the trouble associated with this style of asking questions, you can breathe a sigh of relief because–maybe you’ve already noticed– rhetorical questioning isn’t the type of question used in today’s text. But, don’t breathe too easily just yet. Because Jesus’ distinctive voice comes through more clearly in his “impossible questions.”[1]

His impossible questions made him a subversive teacher who often undercut the comfortable assumptions of his audience. His teaching and use of questions were more in the style of Ecclesiastes and Job, rather than the sunnier outlook of Proverbs. Some examples of impossible questions we see in Ecclesiastes and Job:

“How can the wise die just like the fools?” (Eccl 2:16); “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” (Eccl 2:22); “Where is the way of the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?” (Job 38:19-20). Not so easy, these questions are, to answer. Even impossible, in light of reality for many people. Nothing neat and tidy about answers to these kinds of questions.

Impossible questions annoy and even anger people. Why? Because they make us scramble for answers and doubt our most basic assumptions. Who likes to do that? It’s easier to be fixed and unyielding with clear-cut proofs and rules. It’s easier to repel the questions with sure-fire answers. If we don’t yield or bend, however, we will crack under the pressure of our own doing and the challenges of life that come to us all.

  • “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:27; Luke 9:25).
  • “What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36; Luke 9:25).
  • “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” (Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:50; Luke 14:34).
  • “If you love those who love you what reward do you have?” (Matthew 5:46; Luke 6:32)

Indeed, Jesus uses sayings that conform to traditional wisdom like the beatitudes and proverbs. But he uses them not to resolve conflicts of life but to heighten them. He uses them not to preserve the status quo, but to push the hearer to questions one’s own values and assumptions.

Not a very popular technique. No wonder the authorities got nervous and eventually did away with Jesus.

Questions are indeed indicators that learning can happen. Of course, just because we ask questions, or questions are asked of us, doesn’t mean we will respond positively to them. Just because we ask questions to which are provided answers, rhetorical or otherwise, doesn’t mean we will take the next step forward, ourselves, with our growth, healing and transformation.

We will likely stumble out of the gate. And continue to stumble on the path of life. And sometimes get stuck in the mud. But just because we can’t fathom how to emerge from the shackles of our own humanity, our own failings, our own weaknesses, doesn’t mean all is lost. Doesn’t mean the journey is not worth taking.

Jesus stirs the pot. And continues to do so. But because he believes in us. Because Jesus believes in our growth, in our transformation. Because Jesus is anchored in his divine self, Jesus is free “to dive into a fully incarnate and diverse world—as it is. He can love this ordinary and broken world … and critique all false absolutes and idolatries at the same time.”[2]

Jesus nudges us and beckons us forward on the journey, refusing to abandon us when we get stuck. He goes ahead on the muddy path. In shine and shower, wind storm and in the calm stretches. And, on the way, can we learn to let go of the false absolutes and idolatries in our lives? Can we release our preoccupation with worry, for example, to hang on too tightly to the emotional securities of material wealth, which seems to be the message of the passage today? But I would extend this to worries about what awaits after  we let go of anything that we have held on too tightly in our lives?

Every time we worship and every time we say the Creed together, we are being confirmed in faith. We have a confirmation every Sunday! And the one being confirmed is YOU!

Yet, as I’ve tried to make clear to the confirmation classes year after year, just because you are saying ‘yes’ today, just because you are saying the words of affirmation of baptism printed on the sheet in your hands, just because you are standing up at the front of the church doesn’t mean:

  • You’ve got it all figured out
  • You have all the answers to all the questions of faith
  • You are finished on this journey of learning
  • You have nothing more to learn
  • You will now never again make any mistakes nor experience any hardship

You keep on keeping on, as they say, not because the church is perfect. Listen, if you haven’t figured that out yet let me emphasize again: the church is not perfect. The church will continue to be full of people who are far from perfect. You stay on the journey NOT because the church or its leaders are perfect and never make mistakes. Your faith and your participation in a life and journey of faith is not validated by the church to which you belong, but by the God who loves you and us despite all our failings.

If anything, what you are doing today is bearing witness to the need to keep on the journey. You are standing with the rest of us, calling for us to stay the course alongside you. By your witness today you are calling the rest of us not to stop asking questions. Not to stop doubting from time to time. Not to stop saying once in while, “Hey, wait a minute. I’m not sure I believe that. What’s that all about?” Not to stop looking up and asking for help from time to time. Not to give up, on the journey.

Your window of faith will last intact a lot longer when there continues to be ‘give’ around the frame of your beliefs.

Jesus suggests to us that knowing all the answers and not making mistakes is not the point of the faithful life. Rather, it is the imperfect yet faithful following on the journey that makes all the difference.

Despite all that is wrong, God is still there.

We stay on the path not because it is easy. But for those moments of grace. We do this for those moments of joy where we notice the pinpricks of light across the dark canvas of our world.

Where forgiveness melts cold hearts.

Where mercy triumphs over condemnation.

Where love embraces the weary traveller.

Thank you, God.

 

[1]Alyce Mckenzie, No Easy Answers: Reflections on Matthew 6:24-34 (patheos.com, February 21, 2011)

[2]Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation,3 October 2018 (www.cac.org/Meditations@cac.org)

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A New Way to Pray: Tracking the Trajectory of the Reformation

What follows are the lecture notes for Week Three in the course I am giving at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality (www.osts.ca) this Fall. Reformation Sunday is on the last Sunday in October, October 28, 2018. It is a time for Lutherans and all Christians to reflect on the legacy of Reformation, commemorate its contributions, and to pray for unity among all who try to follow in the Way of Christ Jesus today.

Lucas Cranach was a Renaissance painter and printmaker in woodcut and engraving. He was a friend of Martin Luther and his wife Katharine von Bora. In one of his paintings (1547) focusing on the Cross of Christ, Cranach depicts Martin Luther preaching to the congregation. I remember this particular painting vividly as it hung above the bookshelf in my house growing up.

image.png

It shows Martin Luther standing in a pulpit perched high on the wall of the chancel at the front of the medieval church. One of Martin Luther’s hands rests on the bible. And he points with his other hand to a cross with Jesus hanging bloodied bruised planted in the floor space between Luther and the crowd gathered in the church. Jesus hanging on the cross forms the center of this work of art.

Today this painting comprises one of the plates surrounding the altar in the Wittenberg church where Luther preached. As such, we often recognize and associate this painting with the ‘Reformation altar’.

Its prominence in Lutheran history suggests how poignantly this painting describes Luther’s theological bias: The Cross stands at the center. And Christ crucified informs everything in the church and even our reading of the bible.

Before we can embrace deeper understanding of Martin Luther’s theological claim that we find salvation by God’s grace—which finds us— through faith, we must first encounter the centrality of the Cross in Luther’s thinking and prayer.

In the seminary that I attended[1], we used the term, “Theology of the Cross”. Martin Luther first coined the phrase in his Heidelberg Disputation written in 1518. A theology of the cross is a way of understanding and imagining God. Fundamentally, in addressing God, we need to ask the questions: What is my image of God? Where is God primarily revealed? How is God best known?

Luther provided an answer: God was, and is, being revealed to us in all truth most clearly and unequivocally in suffering. In the vulnerability and pain of death on the cross, Jesus revealed—and continues to—the God who suffers alongside us wherever there is pain and suffering in the world. It is no wonder, then, that the longest sections in each of the four Gospels in the New Testament are dedicated to the various passion narratives[2]of Jesus.

Therefore, the Cross is theologically vital not just to Luther but to the Apostle Paul (the central figure of the Acts of the Apostles and some of the earliest Christian writings and Epistles) who central theme is: “God’s power is shown in human weakness.”[3]

The Theology of the Cross is contrasted to a Theology of Glory. Especially today among spiritually materialistic cultures in the West, what has been coined ‘a prosperity gospel’ has grown in popularity. This theology of glory presumes God validates faith, and is only validated by, success, measures of progress and triumphal conquering over any weakness or adversary.

A prosperity gospel fueled by unbridled optimism avoids places of defeat, failure, vulnerability and weakness as having anything to do with divine identity or purpose. A theology of glory undermines real people and a God who is known in the darkest times and places of life. It compromises and even derides a common humanity and the losses we all endure.

Prayer, as I have said, is the act of letting go. If prayer begins with God, and our address of God, we must presume before all else who this God is, and how this God is revealed—in scripture, in tradition and in our own experience.

One of the first creeds that circulated among the earliest Christians is from a hymn imbedded in Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2:5-11. The poetry first describes the descent of God. This is the primary movement of God, and of faith: downward. The Almighty chose to enter the lower and lowest regions of human birth, life and death. Only after this primary downward movement can the rising out of the depths happen.

Theologians over the centuries have used the term kenosis, from this text in Philippians, to capture the primary movement of faith. It starts with Christ’s self-emptying and letting go of God’s pure, divine nature. In God’s humility, Jesus compromised a perfect divinity in order to take on the fullness of a human existence.

Our God is a God who lets go, releases, self-empties what has become part of the God-self. This calls for a descent of the soul which in the words of St John of the Cross entails, indeed, a ‘dark night’ of the soul. Prayer is not easy, in so much as it may very well be simple.

Prayer, in the words of Laurence Freeman, “… always involves us in the paradoxes of growth, the cycle of losing so that we can find and then of having to let go of what we have found.”[4]

Prayer is a continual process of detaching and dislodging from places of comfort, stability and strength. Prayer is a deconstructive process. It is disruptive. In prayer we begin first to detach our self from all that we are attached to, all that has defined our identity and lives, all our constructs—mental and material—that constitute the construction and containment of our ego. All of this, in prayer, is placed on the precipice of loss.

All is not lost, however. Because in action and contemplation prayer’s aim and understanding is the prayer of God and for the sake of the God of the Cross. “Prayer calls the active person to a life of interiority and soul discovery … by detaching from all the fruits of action and doing everything purely for the love of God.”[5]In letting go, we discover our true self in God which includes and transcends all that we have been and are becoming.

By kenosis we resolve the Lutheran paradox. Some complain that the grace of God is cheap, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer last century who sacrificed his life for a greater cause of justice in the Nazi regime. He wrote a book entitled, “The Cost of Discipleship”. Bonhoeffer argued that the theology of the cross ought not lead the Christian to rest on their laurels and not do anything. Just because we are saved by grace and since Christ lost everything for everyone once and for all doesn’t mean there isn’t a point doing anything. There is a cost of discipleship.

In prayer, we move into response because prayer is not for our sake. When we pray, it is not my prayer or our prayer. Praying is like walking along a path on the banks of a fast-flowing river and frequently stepping into the water. The current is strong. It is moving in one direction. We immerse ourselves into presence, the presence of Christ. We fall into the river of prayer that continues, the prayer of the living, resurrected Jesus, whose destination is union with God.

It is in Christ’s name we pray, and for the sake of our God who chose to be revealed in the humility and defeat of the Cross, in the most desperate human condition possible: death. We step maybe timidly yet faithfully into the water, fast flowing towards the great hope of new love and life in God. 

Questions for reflection and discussion:

  1. When you pray, after considering your image of God, what is God doing? What is God’s purpose—a purpose that is consistent with that image of God? Construct your prayer by strengthening the connection between image and function. If God is revealed in human suffering, where does that suffering lead? If God is compassionate, why? If God is patient, for what purpose? If God forgives and heals, to what end? Practice making this relationship between image and function as clear as possible before you make any petition to God. And write down some examples of the connection you make between image and function of God, to share with others next time (See copies of “Prayers of the Day” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship for good examples of how short prayers can be constructed).
  2. What is one non-negotiable spiritual practice and/or belief you would hold onto, if everything else had to be take away? (Ask yourself this, after visiting a place of worship other than your own)
  3. If time was short, what is most important to you in the end? Have you had this crucial conversation with those closest to you? If not, why not?

[1]Martin Luther University College (formerly, Waterloo Lutheran Seminary)

[2]The last several chapters of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John describe in detail the last days of Jesus leading to his arrest, torture and death on the cross. These passion narratives form nearly half the total lengths of the Gospels.

[3]1 Corinthians 1-2

[4]Laurence Freeman, Christian Meditation Newsletter, June 2005.

[5]Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, 17 August 2018

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The Meditation Journeys

This text represents a draft of a talk I gave at the Essential Teachings Weekend (ETW) for the Canadian Community for Christian Meditation (wccm-canada.ca) in Alexandria, Ontario (September 21-23, 2018). This was the third of three talks, entitled “Stages of the Journey” which complemented the first talk (“The Essential Teaching”), and the second talk (“History of the Tradition”).

STAGES OF THE JOURNEY

The notion of journey, or pilgrimage, originates in the very birth of Christianity. Christ-followers came to be known as “Christian” only after Christianity became the official religion of the empire in the fourth century C.E. But until then they were known as those who followed in the “Way”, implying a path, a road, a journey to be followed.[1]

The notion of motion is integral to those who try to follow Jesus to this day. In the last several decades the pilgrimage has become very popular, especially the Camino de Santiago which attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year. Many who walk the eight-hundred-kilometre journey across the Iberian Peninsula in northern Spain will attest that the journey is a metaphor for the passage of life or traversing some interior path.

Indeed, the exterior journey, such as the Camino, mirrors the internal journey where one explores the contours of the heart and the landscape of the soul. It is a journey that takes time and is fraught with danger. And, at some level, determination, dedication and faithfulness.

Speaking of Spain, it was perhaps the great Spanish mystics of the sixteenth century – Theresa of Avila and St John of the Cross – who first in their writings exemplified the interior and often difficult journeys of faith, such as in ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’. Recently, Richard Rohr describes it best when he asserts that it is through great suffering or great love by which we move along the path towards meaningful change and growth. Crises of faith and challenging circumstances of life are invitations to go deeper into the truth of self and the presence of God.

I want to describe these two journeys to you by using several metaphors—involving water, an hourglass, a wagon wheel and the Exodus story from the Bible describing the desert wanderings of a people. These symbols and images I hope will convey effectively the meaning of these journeys.

When we commit to meditation, we are undertaking what I would summarize as two journeys, operating on a couple of levels.

1.THE FIRST JOURNEY

The first is journey that happens during the time of the meditation.

The Ottawa river at Petawawa Point: the rough & the smooth

I used to live close to Petawawa Point in the Upper Ottawa Valley. Petawawa Point was a lovely spot on the Ottawa River which broadened out into a large lake dotted by several islands. And, I loved to kayak through and around these islands and waterways.

When I first put out onto the river at the beach I was immediately into the main channel lined by the green and red marker buoys, where all the motor boats would roar through. This was the turbulent section of my paddle. I often fought the waves created in the wake of speeding, noisy boats. This part demanded my determination, resolve, and good intention to get past the hurly-burly and through the narrow passage between a couple of islands.

Once through, the water opened up into an area of the river where the large, loud motor boats avoided – only the loons, hawks and sometimes eagles. Here was the more peaceful part of my paddling experience, one that I have treasured to this day.

Meditators have often mentioned to me—and I have experienced this too—that during the first fifteen to twenty minutes they are fighting themselves, their thoughts and distractions. And then something inexplicable happens, and they finally get into some kind of peaceful rhythm with their mantra in the last five minutes! Whether it takes you fifteen minutes, or only a couple of minutes into the meditation, it’s important to keep paddling even when things settle down in your brain.

You see, the temptation once I got through the busy channel into the peaceful expanse of the river was to stop paddling altogether and just float for a while. I would gaze at the birds flying, the clouds in the sky and the distant Laurentian Hills. It was beautiful!

In meditation, this is called the “pernicious peace”, where we just float in some kind of relaxed state our mind really doing nothing and it just feels good and we don’t want to do anything else. I soon realized however I wasn’t doing what I had set out to do. I came to the river to paddle, not to float. And as soon as I dipped my paddle again in the peaceful river, I found my stride, purpose and joy.

When we begin in our meditation, we usually immediately encounter the distractions of the mind. For example, I ruminate over what I am I having for supper, what groceries I need to pick up, what errands I need to run, how will I handle a problem at work or in my family, where am I going on my vacation, the main point of my upcoming sermon, etc.

How do we respond to these distractions? Do we simply float in some sleepy, dream-world, following the course of this stream-of-consciousness? Yes, sometimes we do fall asleep during meditation. It’s good to be relaxed. Yet, we also pay attention and are alert to the experience by remaining faithful to the paddle, so to speak, to the mantra. We focus the mind.

On the underwater rock: dealing with distractions

Another water image, from Thomas Keating, may help us.[2]It is the example of sitting on a large rock on the bottom of the river. Here, deep under the water you watch far above you the boats of various sizes and shapes float by and down the river. These boats represent all our thoughts and distractions. Often, the temptation of our mind is too great, and we push ourselves off the rock—it’s so easy! —and we swim to the surface.

Sometimes, we will even climb into the boats and sail on down the river in these thoughts. In other words, we will let our minds sink into thinking about it for some time in our meditation. Of course, when we do this, we are not saying our mantra, which is the discipline and faithfulness of sitting on that rock down below.

It’s important not to be harsh with yourself on this journey. Give permission for the boats to come by your mind in this river. Then, as you return to the word, you let these distractions keep floating on down the river. Let them go. Return to the place of deep silence, stillness, on the rock deep below.

Despite the incessant distractions of the mind that come to me during my meditation, I continue to ‘return to the Lord’ and my mantra. Someone once said that it is ok to ‘catch yourself’ in a distraction during meditation. In fact, the more often you catch yourself and gently return to the mantra, the better. Why? Because each time you return to the word, it’s one more time you are loving God. Each time I bring my concentration to the saying of the word, I am offering my love to Jesus. Each time I say the word, I am saying, “I love you” to Jesus.

The journey throughout the meditation period may appear simple. We sit quietly and in stillness for twenty minutes not doing anything except saying, interiorly, the mantra. But it is not easy. We confront in this journey the imprinting of our go-go culture and a hyper-active environment upon our egos. We encounter our very humanity in this journey —

A humanity which incessantly strives to accumulate more information and judge progress according to expectations. We already go into it expecting it gets easier over time. We expect benefits to accrue, like lower blood pressure and more patience. And when nothing like this happens after meditating for a few months or years, we give up. This is a spiritual capitalism.

We encounter our very humanity which also craves stimulation and distraction. Already in 1985, Neil Postman wrote a book indicting our culture with the provocative title: “Amusing ourselves to Death”. For most of our daily lives we choose to keep busy or entertain ourselves rather than sit still and face the truth of ourselves. No wonder we are bothered by distraction during meditation.

We encounter our very humanity which finds self-worth in active productivity. We do therefore we are – the mantra of our culture. The more we produce, the more we have to show for in our day, in our vocations, the better we are. So, it just doesn’t make sense from this perspective to be so unproductive by sitting still and doing nothing with ourselves, really. What’s to show for, after twenty minutes of idleness?

And so, we may also, at deeper levels, encounter anxiety, fear and/or anger – which represent our resistance to the journey of our meditation. These normal, human feelings, given now the freedom of space, time and a loosened ego, erupt to the point of a significant disruption.

When I first started on this journey in 2004, I was beset by anxiety, to the point where I felt that I might explode during the silence and the stillness, to the point where I felt I would run screaming from the meditation room. The waves in that channel from the wake of the speeding motor boats threatened to swamp and drown me! I remember how I resisted the letting go, by asking for example that I not sit in the circle but by the wall in a corner of the room. And then, by suggesting we should sit wherever we want to, not necessarily in a circle. Anything to assert my control, even over the meditation period.

Here, depending on the nature of the deep-seeded emotional pain, you may want to encourage those who find meditation times a time of suffering to seek help to deal with whatever is being uncovered—loosened—during meditation. Some have expressed concern that when we open up our inner lives in meditation, the devil/evil will come in. Laurence Freeman, to this question, said: “It is more likely the devil will come out! Negative feelings and the forces of the shadow will get released as repression is lifted. This is quite natural although it’s important to be prepared for the inner turbulence it can create at times.”[3]

This becomes a journey, then, of healing and transformation.

2. THE SECOND JOURNEY

This journey of healing, then, links us to the second journey operating at another yet concurrent level. The second journey we undertake when we meditate connects us with our whole life, indeed life’s journey.

Being a meditator is about slowly but surely learning how to meet life’s greatest moments with grace, acceptance, generosity, courage and faith. Meditating teaches us how to navigate a crisis of faith, a crisis in our relationships, in our work and in our health. It is about forming an attitude toward life in general. Meditating trains us to bea prayer rather than merely say prayers from time to time. This is contemplation: an inner attitude to all of life so that we are indeed praying always, or as Saint Paul puts it, to pray without ceasing.[4]

The dropping stone in water: deeper we go & letting it happen

James Finley talks about a dropping stone in the water, a journey characterized by a deeper simplicity, a deeper solitude and a deeper silence. He describes well this image of a descent.

“Imagine,” he writes, the stone is “falling … And the water in which the stone is falling is bottomless. So, it’s falling forever … And the water in which the stone is falling is falling along an underwater cliff. And there are little protrusions along this cliff and every so often, the stone lands on one of these protrusions; and pauses in its descent. And in the movements of the water, it rolls off and it continues on and on and on and on.

“Now imagine you are that stone; and imagine we’re all falling forever into God. And imagine you momentarily land on a little protrusion where you get to a place and where you say, ‘You know what? I think I’ll stop here and set up shop and get my bearings and settle in. After all, this is deep enough. That’s as far as I need and want to go. It’s comfortable here.’

“And then you fall in love, or your mother dies, or you have terminal cancer, or you’re utterly taken by the look in the eyes of one who suffers. And you are dislodged, by [a great love or great suffering], dislodged from the ability to live on your own terms and from the perception that the point you’ve come to is deep enough for you.

“And so, you continue on your descent, experiencing successive dislodging from anything less than the infinite union and infinite love which calls us deeper.”[5]

Meditating teaches us not to give up on this journey to a deeper contemplation. Some of the comments I have heard from parishioners who came only to one or two sessions of meditation. And then they declare as if for all time: “I don’t like it.” “It’s not for me.”

Meditation is emblematic of staying the course with what is important, of giving what is important a chance and committing to the path, the pilgrimage – even though we fall short time and time again. And as John Brierley mentions in his introduction to his popular guide for pilgrims, “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey, we are spiritual beings on a human journey.”[6]A very human journey. We will encounter and deal with all our inner and outer limitations on this journey. Sometimes we will need to stop because the human path challenges us in ways we must address. Sometimes the human path will keep us from embracing the fullness of the journey in what it offers.

The Exodus: a journey of transformation to liberation that never seems to end

The Exodus, from the bible, is a narrative of a desert wandering that takes a long time, much longer than you would think: If only the Israelites under Moses’ leadership walked a straight line from start to finish!

The journey, however, is much more than you think. After escaping the shackles, confines and suffering of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites are now a free people, or so you would think. Liberation as the goal is however a process that involves transformation. They are free to go to the Promised Land, yes. And yet, their journey in the desert, confronting the fierce landscape of their souls, is rife with resistance and conflict as they take a long and circuitous route towards their liberation.

They complain to Moses. They say they would rather return to the fleshpots of Egypt than eat the Manna from heaven given in the desert. They create distractions and build a golden calf. It’s not an easy journey for them, to get to the Promised Land. It’s not easy, to be free.

Yet, as what happens on the first journey (during a meditation period by returning to our mantra), we return to the Lord our God over and over on the journey of life. We learn over time to trust the journey and stay the course. By being committed to the journey of meditation, we cultivate the spiritual muscle of trust, despite the resistance and conflict we confront within us.

Trusting in God. Trusting in life. Trusting that the trajectory of our pilgrimage is heading in the right direction despite all the bumps in the road. As the small stone on the underwater ledge drops to a deeper level through every crisis and twist and turn of life, we learn to surrender and let go. Richard Rohr, I believe it was, said that all great spirituality is about letting go. Of course, trusting this process involves taking the risk as we ‘fall’ deeper into the mystery of life and God towards an unknown yet hopeful future.

Riverbank: dipping into something bigger

On this journey of life we remain faithful to the path, which winds its way on the banks of a great river. The river is moving. We stay connected to the river, regularly stepping into the waters to say our mantra. We step into the flow of the river. The current is strong. The River is the prayer that continues in our hearts that is Jesus’ prayer to Abba.[7]

When we so dip into the prayer of Christ, which is ongoing, we participate in the living consciousness of Jesus who continues to flow in the trinitarian dance of relationship with God. In meditation, we learn that life is not limited to myprayer or ourprayer. Dipping into the river is stepping into a larger field of consciousness. It is dipping into the very prayer of God in which we participate every time we meditate.

If this journey is not about us, we therefore look to relate to one another, especially those who suffer. We see in the other our common humanity and act in ways that are consistent with the grace that first holds us. In the end, meditation’s journeys lead us beyond ourselves, to others in love, and to God in love.

Meditation, therefore, is essentially a journey in community. It’s a pilgrimage we undertake with others and for others. It’s not a solitary journey. Thus, the importance, at least, of attending/being part of a weekly meditation group.

Contemplation, then, leads to action. The journey of life, like the journey through the time of meditation, embraces paradox. While on the surface seeming opposite and incompatible, contemplation and action are integrated into the whole. Both are essential on the Way.

In truth, following Jesus is embracing paradox. “In order to find your life you must lose it,” he says.[8]Later, Paul announces that strength is found in weakness and the weak have shamed the wise.[9]Of course, the major paradox of the faith centres on the Cross; God is defeated. And in that vulnerability and loss, Christ and Christ-followers discover new life and resurrection.[10]

To do well on the journey of contemplation, on the path of meditation and indeed life, is to accept the ambiguities, the ‘greys’ and the uncertainties of the Way. As any peregrino will tell you on the Camino de Santiago, there is no end to the daily surprises and challenges that meet the faithful pilgrim. If one’s mind is already made up about what to expect and how it should go, disappointment and premature abandonment of the journey is likely to follow.

To do well on the journey corresponds to the capacity you have to hold paradox in your heart. The solution finds itself more in the both/and of a challenge rather than an either/or. Perhaps the faithful pilgrim will have to compromise an initial expectation to walk every step of the way. And, in dealing with an unexpected injury, the pilgrim might need to take the train or bus for part of the journey. In other words, the dualistic mind is the enemy of the contemplative path.

On the spectrum between action and contemplation, where do you find yourself? If you want to become a better meditator and enrich your soul, then seek social justice. Become active in the cause of a better humanity and a better creation. Speaking to a group of social activists and community organizers, I would counsel the opposite: If you want to become a better justice-seeker and advocate, then dedicate more of your time to meditation. Both/And.

The hourglass: flow ever deeper

 The direction of the flow in an hourglass starts at the top in a basin that collects all, then moves downward into a narrowing, finally coming through into an expansive region flowing ever deeper and wider.

The top of the hourglass represents all that our mind grapples with – the squirrel brain. It represents all our efforts, desires and intentions – good and bad – of a furtive, compulsive ego to come to the expressed need for this practice. “I need some quiet in my life.” “I enjoy the silence shared with others.” “I need to slow down.” “I like being by myself.” Admittedly, many introverts are enticed by the prospect of meditation. Although these are the same people who realize, on the path, it is much more than stoking the flames of a rich imagination or escapist tendencies – all ego-driven.

On the path, then, meditation leads us deeper into the heart, at the narrows. This is the place of a pure heart, a singular, aligned heart-mind place—some have called it the still-point.

From this point, the journey then expands as we go deeper and farther into the broad, ever-expansive areas, towards the infinite depths involving others and participating actively with all creation.

The wagon wheel: towards the still point

Teachers of Christian Meditation, such as Laurence Freeman, have used the image of a wagon wheel to describe how different forms of prayer relate. These various ways of praying – body prayer, labyrinth walking, petitionary, sacramental, song, poetry, art – represent the spokes on the wheel. All of them attach to the centre.

At the centre of the wheel is the hub. And when the wheel is in motion, which it must be in order to fulfill its purpose and continue on the road, the one part of the wheel that remains still and sure is the hub. This is the place of meeting, convergence, the point, the centre: the Jesus consciousness. Always in motion yet always still. The still-point. Another paradox of prayer. Action and Contemplation.

If the hub is vibrating and not still while the wheel is in motion, then the wheel is out of balance and there is something wrong. The whole riggings may even fall apart if not attended to! For the wheel to function properly, the hub must remain still even as the wheel is rotating at high speeds.

It is here at the infinite center, time and time again, where our prayers lead. Like the labyrinth whose destination is the centre, it is on the path to this centre where we experience a taste and a foretaste of the feast to come, where we taste the freedom and joy of the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Where we can be free.

Questions for reflection

  1. Which image presented here about the journey of meditation touches you immediately and speaks to you most effectively?
  2. On the spectrum between action and contemplation, in which direction do you naturally lean? What are some ways you can improve the balance in your life?

 

 

[1]Acts 18:25; 19:9; 19:23; 22:4; 24:22

[2]Cited by Cynthia Bourgeault, transcribed from the recording of a live retreat titled, An Introduction to Centering Prayer given in Auckland, New Zealand, in October 2009 (www.contemplative.org)

[3]Fr. Laurence Freeman, A Pearl of Great Price.

[4]1 Thessalonians 5:17

[5]  Adapted from James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 6 (Center for Action and Contemplation, 2013); cited in Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, www.cac.org, April 27,2018

[6]John Brierley, A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago(Camino Guides, 2017)

[7]In the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his death, Jesus addressed God in prayer with this Aramaic word, meaning ‘Dad’.

[8]Matthew 10:39

[9]1 Corinthians 1-2

[10]All four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke & John –  conclude with lengthy passion narratives.

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Over mangoes

IMG_7760

Mercy Lawluvi’s first days in Canada were met by the famous ice storm. Arriving from Ghana a young woman in 1997, Mercy had never seen first-hand, touched nor felt snow, let alone freezing rain that made moving about a danger and terror for slipping and falling.

Mercy was alone. And she felt lonely, surrounded by the four walls of her apartment. She couldn’t even see her backyard garden bushes and trees buried and drooping under the heavy, thick accretions of ice.

Nevertheless she decided to slip-and-slide over to the nearby Loblaws. Surviving this first test of Canadian living, she made her way to the fresh produce section. Mercy was delighted to find some mangoes, her favorite fruit.

And as she was standing there, turning over a small reminder of her homeland, a woman came up to her looking for mangoes herself. “Hello,” she smiled. “The mangoes look good. What’s your name?” she asked.

“Mercy,” she responded.

“Where are you from?” the woman asked. “Ghana, in Africa. And these are my favorite fruit. I am so happy they are here.” And so, the two stood there for a long time chatting and exchanging mango recipes. Finally, the other woman asked, “What is your occupation?”

“I am a teacher.”

“I know the administrator of an ESL (English as a second language) school in Ottawa. Let me get the name of my friend to you. Maybe you see where that goes?”

“Thank you so much!”

Twenty-one years later, Mercy stands before us during the “Welcoming the Newcomer” session hosted by the Ottawa Lutheran Refugee Sponsorship Committee[1]this past Thursday, to tell us this story of her first welcome to Ottawa.

Because of the kindness shown by that nameless woman in Loblaws twenty-one years ago, whom she has never since met again, Mercy was able to find the emotional strength and resources to settle well and grow in her new country.

She said how much that simple encounter by the mango display made all the difference in the world to her, not only on that first day during the ice storm to help her through the loneliness and fear. But how important that encounter was for her development, networking and success-finding in her new home in Canada. Someone—a stranger to her— acknowledged her. And was genuinely interested in her.

Twenty-one years later she stands before us as the executive director of “Immigrant Women Services Ottawa”.[2]

And it all started by a caring, open-hearted person asking, “What is your name?”

Indeed, what is our name?  We have a family name sign in front of our house. In my first parish twenty-one years ago in the heart of farmland in southwestern Ontario, every house along the long and straight rural concession roads had one of these kinds of signs hanging or posted in the front yard.

IMG_7762

Fast forward to today, I believe we are the only house in Arnprior, maybe even the whole of Ottawa, who has one. Obviously, it’s not a thing.

I understand Millennials prefer their private, cocooned lifestyles. I understand that, fueled by fear, we are hyper-sensitive about things like identity-fraud and being targeted by criminals. So, if there’s anything we can do NOT to be publicly identified or exposed, the better.

I wonder, though, how much we have, because of this attitude, dampened, even snuffed out, any collective heart-filled reaching out. Because before newcomers, or anyone for that matter, can get to know us and trust us, we need to be available, visible, transparent, accessible to them. In other words we cannot hide from others, and then say that we are welcoming.

I read this week that the first step to building an ethical culture in churches, in business and in society in general, is to let people be who they are. Without needing to persuade, sell something, impose our opinion or argue a point. Without believing they first need to conform before I/we will give them any time. Without needing to protect, defend and uphold my or ‘our’ way of thinking, fearful that any such approach means a loss of integrity or personal safety.

Letting people be who they are, first. Means an open heart. Means, listening first. Means, asking questions first. Means, listening for points of similarity – mangoes. And, then, when trust begins to build, going from there.

“I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you,” Wisdom says.[3]I have the image of a couple of friends getting together at the end of a long day over drinks. And each takes turn pouring out their hearts to the other. Arms waving. Voices rising and falling with each impassioned response. Laughter. Silence. A mutual-inpouring!

I heard recently that each human being requires these two things to survive and thrive: unconditional love, and complete understanding. Both are met in this image from the Wisdom writings of the Bible. An intimacy that affords love and understanding to the partners involved in relationship.

Intimacy. God promises a deep and lasting connection within us. Despite our foibles, our missteps, our compulsions. God promises a deep connection within us despite our mistakes and failures.

Transparency, on the surface, goes only so far to the truth of who we are. You may see the name sign outside my home. You may see my license plate on the highway or city streets. This may be a good first step, I believe, to an honest transparency and invitation for conversation. But, that only goes so far.

When Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is, the question reveals more about the disciples than it does about Jesus. “Who do you say that I am?”[4]Jesus ask them, not because Jesus doesn’t know the answer himself but because the disciples are on a journey of growth with Jesus. These wayward disciples don’t often get it right on this journey. They miss the point of Jesus time and time again.

Jesus’ rebuke of Peter is consistent with how the disciples are portrayed by the Gospel writer.[5]And while Peter might I.D. Jesus correctly, while Peter can give Jesus his proper title and name—the Messiah—he still doesn’t understand what that name actually means in Jesus:

That this Messiah will suffer and die; that this Messiah will be rejected by the powerful, scorned by the knowledgeable, that this Messiah will be arrested a criminal, tortured and die a brutal death by capital punishment. And that this Messiah will rise again three days later. The disciples, Peter among them, do not really understand Jesus.

Just because we may know God’s name, doesn’t necessarily mean we know what is called of us under that name. Just because we can name Jesus and say the right words of faith doesn’t mean we get the follow-through right all the time. In another Gospel, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”[6]

Because, ultimately, our titles and our names only give us an entry point into who we are. Words, titles and names cannot capture the totality of who we are. As James so pointedly writes, the words we say by our tongue will get us into trouble; “though small, [the tongue] stains the whole body.”[7]

Getting it right verbally isn’t what faith is about. It’s rather about experiencing God in our own lives and in relationship with others. Wisdom pours out her thoughts into us, not at us. God writes God’s law upon our hearts, deep within, despite our mistakes.[8]This faithful following of Jesus is not just a function of our brains.

Intimate relationship with God and with others in Christ is a matter for the heart. We know God and we know truth not by the words we say or the names with which we identify, but by a deeper knowing marked by deeds and experiences of faith, hope, trust and love.

When the heart is in a good place, we start simply, in small ways, to see the other, reach out to them with a smile and a question: “What is your name?”

And God replies, “Mercy.”

[1]olrs@bell.net

[2]http://www.immigrantwomenservices.com

[3]Proverbs 1:23 NRSV

[4]Mark 8:29

[5]Mark 6:51-52; Mark 8:21; Mark 9:32; Mark 10:23-32,38; Mark 16:13

[6]Matthew 7:21 NRSV

[7]James 3:1-12 NRSV

[8]Jeremiah 31:33

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Into the deep end

I’d like you to meet Harry Truman, at the end of his life.

This is not Harry Truman the 33rdpresident of the USA. This is Harry Truman, the eighty-three-year-old who, in March 1980, refused to budge from his home at the foot of Mount Saint Helens near Olympia, Washington State, where the volcano began to steam and rumble.

A former World War 1 pilot and Prohibition-era bootlegger, he’d owned his lodge on Spirit Lake for more than half a century. Five years earlier, he’d been widowed. So now it was just him and his sixteen cats on his fifty-four acres of property beneath the mountain.

Three years earlier, he’d fallen off the lodge roof shoveling snow and broken his leg. The doctor told him he was “a damn fool” to be working up there at his age.

“Damn it!” Truman shot back. “I’m eighty years old and at eighty, I have the right to make up my mind and do what I want to do.”

An eruption threatened, so the authorities told everyone living in the vicinity to clear out. But Truman wasn’t going anywhere. For more than two months, the volcano smoldered. Authorities extended the evacuation zone to ten miles around the mountain. Truman stubbornly remained.

He didn’t believe the scientists, with their uncertain and sometimes conflicting reports. He worried his lodge would be looted and vandalized, as another lodge on Spirit Lake was. And regardless, this home was his life.

“If this place is gonna go, I want to go with it,” he said. “’Cause if I lost it, it would kill me in a week anyway.” He attracted reporters with his straight-talking, curmudgeonly way, holding forth with a green John Deere cap on his head and a tall glass of bourbon and Coke in his hand. The local police thought about arresting him for his own good but decided not to, given his age and the bad publicity they’d have to endure. They offered to bring him out every chance they got.

He steadfastly refused. He told a friend, “If I die tomorrow, I’ve had a damn good life. I’ve done everything I could do, and I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do.”

The blast came at 8:40am on May 18, 1980, with the force of an atomic bomb. The entire lake disappeared under the massive lava flow, burying Truman and his cats and his home with it.

In the aftermath, he became an icon – the old man who had stayed in his house, taken his chances, and lived life on his own terms. The people of a nearby town constructed a memorial to him at the town’s entrance that still stands to this day, and there was a TV movie made based on the story.[1]

Opinions may be divided as to whether he did the right thing, by staying and dying so violently. Some herald his gritty resolve. Others shake their heads considering the effect of his decision on his loved ones, and the public resources expended on his behalf to inform and keep the community safe about the impending danger.

What would you have done?

4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’

5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
7 the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.[2]

This poetry from the prophet reads, generally, in a comforting, encouraging and promising tone. However, the second half of verse 4 feels out of place. God “will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense” and then God “will come and save you.”

It sounds like salvation will come only after an horrible, terrifying experience. Perhaps, Harry Truman’s salvation came on the heels of being drowned in the burning lava flow.

This interpretation can lead, however, to dangerous conclusions. Such as the only way to something good is create and go through untold suffering: Such as the ends justify the means; That it is ok to do something hurtful, cruel, and violent if the result of that violence is pleasing; That salvation can only come through terrible suffering.

We know life happens. We don’t need to search out and fabricate all the pain that is a natural part of life. We don’t need to choose suffering. Great suffering comes in different forms quite apart from any conscious decision to bring it on.

The better question is not whether or not we must suffer, but how do we respond and live in the midst of our suffering. That is the question of faith.

No doubt, Harry Truman had experienced some significant losses in the years leading to the eruption of Mount Saint Helens. No doubt at age eighty-three, his physical capacities were failing. He had lost his spouse. He had broken his leg. He was coming up against his very sure limitations. And, likely, grieving in his own way the passing of his event-filled and active life.

One can only have compassion on him.

The words of Isaiah are spoken to “those who are of a fearful heart.”[3]Ultimately, the war of all that divides and challenges us is waged on the battlefield of our own hearts. Any external fight on our hands is really a fight happening in our own hearts. Do you fight against a circumstance beyond your control? Are you so terrified that you can’t even speak of it?

At the centre of that odd, out-of-place verse is a word I do not like much: “vengeance” (in Hebrew, naqam), because I struggle to link this promise with Gospel good-news.

And then I came across what Biblical scholar Hendrik Peels showed about this word, naqam, in the Bible. This word refers to a retribution by a legitimate authority. And especially in this text from Isaiah, the emphasis is a retribution that brings liberation to those who are oppressed, and freedom from a situation or need. Its meaning is closer to a restoration rather than to vengeance of any kind.[4]

We tend, naturally, first to react to our fears by targeting some outside source. We blame others, when all along we hold the source of our trouble in our own hearts by refusing to examine our attachments and address our own sense of loss and fear.

It’s not easy to learn how best to let go at the endings of our lives. Most of us, unfortunately, confront these deeper questions and challenges at the end of our lives when we face a critical crisis: our health fails and all that we have been attached to in life we lose, suddenly.

We can do ourselves a favour. But it takes exercise, and some pain during the course of our lives when we are not yet at this life-ending crisis time. Learning to die before we die is the point. When we meet with common challenges of life – a physical move, a changed relationship, a job loss, a surgery, a life-changing experience, daily challenges – we can practice how to die to what has been (in the past) and welcome the feeling of terror about the unknown future. We learn how to surrender to what cannot be controlled; or, find the courage to throw off the weight of internalized oppression. This is all serious heavy-lifting.[5]

Following Jesus provides a way through, so we don’t get stuck in despair or denial. The wisdom of the inspired Word of God has something to say about this journey of heavy-lifting:

It is to turn to our neighbor and help them on their journey. It is seeing with the mind’s eye and the heart’s passion that we share a common humanity with those who suffer, who are oppressed, who are vulnerable and needy. To look, and go, beyond ourselves. And not give up.

“Compassionate Justice” is therefore one of the four vision priorities of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC).[6]Of course, making statements and standing up in the public sphere for the sake of the poor, the newcomer, the homeless, creation, the marginalized and weak can get us into trouble. Of course, we can spare ourselves a lot of trouble by shutting our eyes to the suffering.

But our closed eyes will also shut out God. The Word is spoken, indeed, to “those with fearful hearts”. To those who need to listen. And do something.

I’ve never met Harry Truman. I didn’t know him, personally. I didn’t know his family, his community, or his religious background.

But I wonder – what would have been in the last years of his life especially if someone he respected and trusted leant him an ear more than once-in-a-while.

What would it have been, if a friend offered to shovel the snow from the roof of his lodge.

What would it have been like, if family or friends showed him unconditional, loving attention despite his bravado and curmudgeonly behaviour.

I wonder if his ending could have somehow been less violent, less tragic.

Our hearts may be fearful. And yet hearts also race in expectation of something good. Something better. Hearts race in hope.

And hope never fails.

God of compassion and justice, bring justice to those who hunger for bread. And give a hunger for justice to those who have bread. Amen.

 

[1]Atul Gwande, “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” (Anchor Canada, 2017), p.66-67.

[2]Isaiah 35:4-7a, Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 16B

[3]Isaiah 35:4

[4]Hendrik G. L. Peels, The Meaning of the Root NQM and the Function of the NQM-Texts in the Context of Divine Revelation in the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 265-66.

[5]Brie Stoner, A Reflection: Into the Deep End in The Mendicant Volume 8 Number 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation, Summer 2018).

[6]http://www.elcic.ca

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