On the path of hardship tempered with grace

I suspect that some of you really like John the Baptist, while others would feel intimidated and back off from his forceful energy. Similar to the way two very different recruits into the Canadian Armed Forces reacted during the first days of regular duty.

A friend from Petawawa who is a sergeant and has put many years in the Forces told me last week how very differently some personalities react to his dissing of discipline. When boots aren’t polished, collars not ironed, and back-packs not kitted properly, he would lean in on the rookies and set them straight.

The one young recruit began to well up in tears when my friend started criticizing him for not being prepared. The other, being disciplined for the same problem, smiled, and was energized by the confrontation: “Wow, this is just like the movies, when the sergeant major yells at the recruits, spitting inches from the other’s face, turning the air blue!” Just loving it! The first recruit didn’t last long in the army. The other, was spurred on and challenged through his mistakes, to have a successful career.

John the Baptist is the ultimate reality check for Christianity. In the best of the prophetic tradition, he epitomizes the no-nonsense, truth-telling, going-for-the-jugular style not often associated with a more sanitized approach to religion.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “If you want religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” Is this how you feel about belonging to the church today? Many stand in the line of John the Baptist tradition. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon — influential theologians of the last century wrote: “There is not much wrong with the church that could not be cured by God calling about a hundred really insensitive, uncaring, and offensive people into ministry” (p.45 Feasting on the Word Year A Vol 1). What do you think about that? Would you like that?

John the Baptist’s hard words to the religious leaders of the day call them to repentance. Judgment underscores the tenor of this text assigned for Advent. And that’s why some of us would rather read scriptures and sing songs about sheep softly grazing in fields during these weeks leading to Christmas. Because you may know people in your life who have been hurt by the judgment of others — many of those doing the judging from the church. Even as we in the church have been warned NOT to judge others (Romans 14).

God calls ALL of us to fall on our knees, confess and repent — especially those of in the church.

The original Greek word for repentance, metanoia, literally means — “moving beyond the mind.” We need to have a change of mind as much as a change of our heart. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” argues Saint Paul (Romans 12:2). He goes on to say that this change of our mind would happen, “so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable …” Our changed minds, our renewed way of thinking about things, will then affect how we behave.

“Moving beyond the mind” means that we need, at first, to have our fundamental assumptions questioned. Fundamental assumptions about God and the ways of God in the world. Is it true that we don’t have to do anything more in the church because we were baptized and confirmed here and our grandparents and great-grandparents were Lutheran? Is it true that God hates us and is only out there to catch us breaking a rule in order to punish us?

John the Baptist might have a field day in the Christian church today. John the Baptist is here to remind and recall us to a faith that only makes sense when embraced in the desert, in the wilderness of our lives. John the Baptist is here to remind and recall us to a faith that makes sense only when we have learned to weep at our faults and let go. John the Baptist is here to remind and recall us to a faith that makes sense only when we are called out of our complacency, selfishness, and self-righteousness to a greater cause, a greater good.

Barbara Marshall wrote this prayer poem cited in an Advent devotional for the season (Lutherans Connect); in it she describes the times of her life when she was truly invigorated, motivated and inspired in faith:

“… It was never the turbulent waters that raged and tore through my life that left me floundering, helpless adrift in the surging tide. But rather the lulling beauty and lure of familiar shores that fashioned my days with indifferent thought and compelled me to stay where I was. So, Father, give me a yearning for the valleys shadowed and steep, for deserts that breathe their fire and dust, for waves that crash at my feet. And surely then I’ll accomplish much …when inspiration is fueled on the path of hardship tempered with grace.”

So you can see why I suggest that nostalgia may be a great enemy of Christianity. For it keeps us stuck in apathy and inaction. But, ironically, looking to the past is an essential ingredient in faithful living. John the Baptist himself quotes directly from Isaiah when preaching his sermon: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight …” (40:3). In writing about John the Baptist, the Gospel writer Matthew uses descriptive words right out of the Hebrew Scriptures originally describing the prophet Elijah who was “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist” (2 Kings 1:8). John the Baptist may breathe fire into a soppy nostalgic faith — but he certainly doesn’t dismiss the past.

Remembering the past is important. But there’s a difference between nostalgia and remembering. Biblical commentator David Bartlett writes that “nostalgia is memory filtered through disproportionate emotion. Faith is memory filtered through appropriate gratitude” (p.48, Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol 1). In Advent we re-member, we reconnect. The word “religion” literally means to re-unite, re-align, ourselves out of isolation and into a holy union. In Advent when we remember, we embrace the good God has been and done for us in our past. In Advent we remember, together, as a family, as a church, as a community — what God has done for us in Jesus. We do this remembering at the Table — we remember that in the night in which he was betrayed …. We do this remembering singing out loud together our seasonal songs so precious to us.

We pray. We sing. We remember. Doing this, NOT to a disproportionate emotional longing for a time gone by. No. But rather, to embrace an occasion for re-affirming the good God has done for you in the history of your life, and to affirm our on-going hope and belief that God does care about us and our behavior this season, and beyond.

This Advent, know that we are cherished by God not only for who we are, but that we are responsible for what we do. This is good news, because if God does not care about what I do, I may begin to question whether God actually cares about me. If God loves me enough to welcome me into the family, then God loves me enough to expect something of me.

“One December afternoon … a group of parents stood in the lobby of a nursery school waiting to claim their children after the last pre-Christmas class session. As the youngsters ran from their lockers, each one carried in his hands the ‘surprise’, the brightly wrapped package on which he had been working diligently for weeks. One small boy, trying to run, put on his coat, and wave to his parents, all at the same time, slipped and fell. The ‘surprise’ flew from his grasp, landed on the floor and broke with an obvious ceramic crash. The child … began to cry inconsolably. His father, trying to minimize the incident and comfort the boy, patted his head and murmured, ‘Now, that’s all right, son. It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter at all.’ But the child’s mother, somewhat wiser in such situations, swept the boy into her arms and said, ‘Oh, but it does matter. It matters a great deal.’ And she wept with her son.”

It does matter to God. God is that mother who embraces us when we weep after making a big mistake and mess up. God doesn’t punish us, but rather holds us, and cries with us.

Perhaps the church can give up on judgment, but we cannot give up on responsibility. We can continue remembering and being faithful to our calling in Christ, especially in the desert, because we know God does care for each of us.

So, let’s sing on and re-member!

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About raspberryman

I am a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, serving a parish in Ottawa Ontario. I am a husband, father, and admirer of the Ottawa Valley. I enjoy beaches, sunsets and waterways. I like to write, reflect theologically and meditate in the Christian tradition.
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