A wintery spirit

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The winter of 2018 has been record-setting, so far. And we are barely one week into the new year! Did you know it was Ottawa’s coldest New Year’s Day since records began in 1873? At 8am on January 1st, the mercury dipped to a frigid minus 30.2 degrees Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit); New Year’s Day also marked Ottawa’s sixth consecutive day with temperatures below -17 degrees Celsius (1 Fahrenheit), which made it the longest run in exactly one hundred years.[1]

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A full onslaught of winter can help us appreciate the meaning of Christianity. Though much of the bible’s stories and lessons were wrought out of the harsh desert climate surrounding the Mediterranean and Arabian seas, the winter realities we face in Canada are not that much different. I suggest, then, let’s take desert and winter as synonymous – meaning, essentially, the same things.

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American Lutheran theologian, Martin Marty, describes the importance of what he calls a “wintery spirituality”, defined by the shrill cry of absence, frost, and death. In contrast to a summer spirituality, winter is more given to being emptied than being filled. Winter is harsh and lean in imagery, beggarly in its gifts of grace and love.[2]

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Of course, Jesus goes into the Judean wilderness to be baptized in the Jordan River. And right after his baptism, he spends forty days and nights in the desert.[3] The desert is not a comfortable place to be. For one thing, it makes scarce and even denies the basic need for our survival – water. A desert is an arid region where annual rainfall remains miniscule. Some deserts average only one centimetre a year, with parts of the Sahara not receiving a drop of rain for more than twenty years.[4]

The word and image of water appears in each of the Hebrew readings assigned for this festival day in the church calendar, and is tied to baptism in the readings from the New Testament.[5] More to the point, water is given out of the chaotic void in the creation story, and in the arid wilderness as a gift and a grace. Water is thus a sign of God’s love amid the harsh winter or desert realities of our lives.

The prophets of old affirm that it is precisely in the desert where God expresses God’s love to the people. The grace of God cannot be received outside of winter. “Thus says the Lord: The people who found grace in the wilderness … I have loved you with an everlasting love …. I remember your love, how you followed me in the wilderness.”[6]

How, then, can we appreciate and even thrive, living out of this truth? How can we follow Jesus in his way? After all, the Baptism of our Lord is about Jesus beginning the journey to fulfill his God-given purpose in life. How he does it is of particular importance to us, if we are interested in following Jesus in our life-style.

Listen to a story first told by a nineteenth-century teacher, Awad Afifi the Tunisian, who drew his wisdom from the wide expanse of the North African desert:

A gentle rain fell on a high mountain in a distant land. The rain was at first hushed and quiet, trickling down granite slopes. Gradually it increased in strength, as rivulets of water rolled over rocks and down gnarled, twisted trees that grew there. The rain fell, as water must, without calculation. After all, water never has time to practice falling.

Soon, it was pouring, as swift currents of dark water flowed together into the beginnings of a stream. The brook made its way down the mountainside, through small stands of cypress trees and fields of lavender, and down cascading falls. It moved without effort, splashing over stones – learning that the stream interrupted by rocks is the one that sings most nobly. Finally, having left its heights in the distant mountain, the stream made its way to the edge of a great desert. Sand and rock stretched beyond seeing.

Having crossed every other barrier in its way, the stream fully expected to cross this as well. But as fast as its waves splashed into the desert, that fast did they disappear into the sand. Before long, the stream heard a voice whispering, as if coming from the desert itself, saying, “The wind crosses the desert, so can the stream.”

“Yes, but the wind can fly!” cried out the stream, still dashing itself into the desert sand.

“You’ll never get across that way,” the desert whispered. “You have to let the wind carry you.”

“But, how?” shouted the stream.

“You have to let the wind absorb you.”

The stream could not accept this, however. It didn’t want to lose its identity or abandon its own individuality. After all, if it gave itself to the winds, could it ever be sure of becoming a stream again?

The desert replied that the stream could continue its flowing, perhaps one day even producing a swamp there at the desert’s edge. But it would never cross the desert so long as it remained a stream.

The stream was silent for a long time, listening to distant echoes of memory, knowing parts of itself having been held before in the arms of the wind. From that long-forgotten place, it gradually recalled how water conquers only by yielding, by turning to steam in a natural cycle. From the depths of that silence, slowly the stream raised its vapours to the welcoming arms of the wind and was borne upward, carried easily on great white clouds over the wide desert waste.

Approaching distant mountains on the desert’s far side, the stream then began once again to fall as a light rain. At first it was hushed and quiet, trickling down granite slopes. Gradually it increased in strength, as rivulets rolled over the rocks and down the gnarled, twisted trees that grew there. The rain fell, as water must, without calculation. And soon it was pouring, as swift currents of dark water flowed together – yet again – into the headwaters of a new stream. [7]

Jesus instructs his followers to become the people they are called to be.[8] God is aware that our lives are like a journey through the desert. Or, as Canadians, we can say that our faith journey is not dissimilar from living through an Ottawa record-setting winter.

To thrive in this life is to see that this journey of becoming is not static. We are not called by Jesus to become mere swamp lands at the edge of the desert. Rather, the journey calls us to be vulnerable, to recognize what we may initially want to resist in us – like the stream that first struggled against yielding to the wind.

Our journey through life are journeys of vulnerability. Of taking little. Of trusting God. Of appreciating the value of small things. Of letting go into the Spirit wind of God. Then, we can, with the Psalmist see that, even in the wilderness, the Lord fulfills God’s promises and does indeed give strength to us and bless us with peace.[9]

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[1] Ottawa weather records, Twitter @YOW_Weather

[2] cited in Belden C. Lane, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.37

[3] Mark 1:12-13

[4] Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.38

[5] The Baptism of our Lord, Revised Common Lectionary Year B: Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

[6] Jeremiah 31:3; 2:2

[7] as written by Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.20-21

[8] read the entire section from Matthew 10:5-42

[9] Psalm 29:11, NRSV

An opportunity

By golly, we do it to ourselves! Time and time again.

There’s a sense in the gospel text for today (Matthew 21:33-46) that we are the captains of our own demise.

Let’s stay with the allegory to mean that the owner of the vineyard is God the Father, and the Son that goes at the end to the wicked tenants on his Father’s behalf is Jesus.

Notice that in the story-telling, right off the bat, it is noted that the owner goes away to another country. It is this initial leave-taking of the owner that precipitates all the action in the rest of the story.

Also, let’s not forget the premise of the story which is that the owner does provide all that is good, all that is needed, all that is required for a beautiful, satisfying, enriching life — for everyone involved. The primary grace is the gift of the vineyard. And this vineyard is intended and supplied to fulfill the needs of the economy. In other words, God provides, for all.

But it doesn’t work out so ideally in this parable. Violence and death characterize most of the action in this story. So what do we do when things don’t work out according to the divine intent? When things go wrong, do we blame God, or someone else?

When things go wrong, do we deny or repress the new thing wanting to emerge, and we re-trap ourselves in living the way we always have? But then don’t we just remain unhappy, somehow living with this low-grade confusion about our lives. Richard Rohr says, “If the old game doesn’t stop working for you, you’ll keep playing it” (Discharging Your Loyal Soldier, DVD, Centre for Action and Contemplation, 2009).

It seems the tenants are stuck in playing the old selfish game of ‘what’s in it for me?” And how does that work out in the end for them? When the old game does not work anymore. When the way you used to pray just doesn’t connect anymore? When God’s love for you doesn’t mean anything to you anymore.

Some may call this a spiritual crisis. Good! It is! And in that, lies the invitation to change. To try something else. To go deeper.

Some believe the solution to all our problems is to turn the clock back to 1950. And do everything in the same way that people once did in the church, in their families, in their communities, in their politics in the last century. Like conforming robots, mimicking the past. But that’s like advising someone who is experiencing some difficulty with their motor vehicle to get rid of it and buy a horse and buggy.

The truth is, we can’t turn the clock back. Accepting this takes great courage, because then you need to confront what might first feel like a great abyss, before you. Spiritual masters, like St John of the Cross, have called it the ‘dark night of the soul’.

There are times when we hit ground zero in life. This occurs to more people than you may imagine. People ask me when they are in crisis — where is God in this? — presuming God is absent. Indeed, it may feel very much like God is absent. It’s a good question.

But the answer, I believe, is not in returning to the old patterns of thinking and living, to fill in the ‘gaps’ with our hard work, as if the solution is merely to ‘buck up’ and lose ourselves in distraction until we ‘fake it’ back to behaving in the ways we used to. Presuming, of course, that we save ourselves from our malaise. Eventually, our toiling is over. And then what?

But it is precisely In the ‘dark night of the soul’ where what emerges, if we choose to see it, is the invitation for renewal, for beginning anew with deeper growth and maturity for life.

Are we paying attention to this call of God? I believe that when we are confused, unsettled, even despairing – these are moments of grace wherein God softly and gently calls us to deeper and more authentic living. So we no longer have to live on the surface of our lives, but discover more of whom God has created us to be, created in God’s very own image for a purpose.

When the darkness comes, and you recognize it, allow the process and don’t rush back to the economy of the way it has always been. Learn from the darkness. Be vulnerable and humble. Hold and traverse through these periods of transition in your life with gentleness and compassion.

The absence of the land-owner is contrasted with the image that concludes the allegory — the cornerstone. A cornerstone, obviously, evokes images of constancy. The rest of the building upon which it rests is measured against this aligning force. A cornerstone doesn’t move. It provides the guidance and standard against which everything else is measured.

But, in verse 44, we see another function of the cornerstone: “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

When we make mistakes, and our old game doesn’t work anymore, we live the consequences of our own mis-deeds and thoughts. We are the architects of our own demise. And when we fail and fall, it does feel like we are crushed. In the imagery of the prophet Isaiah, God is a stone over whom the disobedient inhabitants of Jerusalem stumble (Isaiah 8:14-15).

How do we ‘stumble’? One way is when we reject the prophets, the messengers, of God. Prior to sending his son, the landowner sent others in his name — all of whom the wicked tenants rejected.

We reject God when we reject some of God’s people for reasons of our own. After all, human beings are capable of doing terrible things to other people whom we are somehow able to define as less worthy, less human, less valuable than themselves.

We can be as brutal to one another as were the tenants who beat, stoned and killed the owner’s messengers.

In the last century, the Canadian government and mainline churches sought to stamp out the Indigenous culture in the residential school system, by abusing native children and simply defining them as the ‘other’. Germany employed the Holocaust, and the Soviet Union used the gulags (work and labour camps in Siberia). It was apartheid in South Africa and ethnic cleansing in the Balkan region of Europe and in central Africa. In 21st century India there is still a group called the ‘untouchables’ and in Australia there still continues to be discrimination against aboriginal people. When we reject some people, we reject the God who created them. (Marvin McMickle, “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, JKP Westminster, 2011, p.143).

But God continues to have faith in us, despite our ongoing sin. This is the kernel, the heart, of the Gospel good news. The owner says that surely, despite all, “they will respect my son” (v.37) before sending him to what turns out to be his brutal death. God still has faith in us to do the right things, even though we so often fail God our creator.

God loves us so much, that we are given the grace and freedom to make up our own minds. God will maintain at least sufficient distance to enable us to determine our own fruitfulness or to make our own mistakes. God is, of course, not an absentee landlord. But mature faith means we know that we have the freedom to make mistakes, yes. But also the freedom to grow up and practice sound values and judgement on our own — even, and especially, when God seems distant. (Richard E. Spalding, ibid., p.144)

After all, God has already given to us everything we need. God has prepared everything we need for fruitful living.