The dust of life

I remember when confetti was no longer allowed during weddings. The church cleaners would otherwise be logging in long hours trying to vacuum those little pieces of coloured paper out from the carpets in the sanctuary.

Those who grieved the passing of the confetti era have a point. Because confetti symbolizes something more than just a mess. When it is a mess with intention, it is a celebration of life.[1]

We may not at first associate the ordinary, simple, mundane aspects of life as worthy of notice. Perhaps it is more a question of focus. Like with confetti – do we see the unbound joy of love in throwing bits of paper over the bride and groom; or, do we see in the confetti an egregious mess waiting to be cleaned up?

On Ash Wednesday, we have to deal with a bit of mess when getting some ash on our foreheads. Of course, this symbol draws our attention to our own mortality. Dust we are and to dust we shall return. We turn our attention thereby to the frailty and finitude of life. And this isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. Because death is the one inevitable of life.

But we must learn how to live with it. How can we think about death when may not know how to live?

In the same chapter from which we read the Ash Wednesday Gospel, Matthew records what Jesus says in the face of the mess of life and an uncertain future.  He draws our attention to common, ordinary things. He turns our gaze towards flowers and fowl. Consider the lilies, they don’t sew or spin but are clothed magnificently. Consider the birds, they don’t plant or harvest, but are fed and cared for.[2]

We might add: consider the confetti at a party. Or, consider the ash placed on your forehead. Frivolous, we might think. Unnecessary. We can do without. 

And yet, we know that the measure of our days is rarely determined in the mind-boggling adventures some are fortunate enough to embark on. Rather, when we remember the lives of those we love it is often the small, simple ways they went about the world that live on in our memories.

The focus our God calls us to is life. The purpose of Lent is life, and our journey towards life abundant which will necessarily involve some loss, some pain. But then, what is the focus? What will our God have us see?

Mangrove trees are normally fresh-water plants, I read. But they are now found living in a tidal river flowing into the Coral Sea in North Queensland in Australia, a body of water which is salt water. How have they survived? How have they lived?

“In the service of survival, they have developed an elaborate root system that filters out much of the salt contained in the river water before it can kill the tree. When excessive salt still threatened the life of these trees, they somehow devised a means to guide the salt to particular leaves, which then turned orange and fell off the branches. These came to be called the ‘sacrificial leaves.’ They died that the tree might live.”[3]

Jesus announced his purpose and mission on earth when he told his disciples that he came so that we might “have life, and have it abundantly.”[4]A momentary affliction of loss has not the final word. “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”[5]

The message of Ash Wednesday is inherently a positive message of hope, a call to persevere, and a challenge to risk losing in the sure promise of finding something better on the other side. We cannot bypass the way of the cross. But we go on this journey now assured that life, and life abundant, for us await. That is the focus and the aim. It is about life.

In the small, ordinary, sometimes frivolous acts, in the common, daily experiences of living. “How do we live?” ought to be the focus question during Lent.

Be intentional and pay attention enough to ask the cashier how they are doing, when the lines in the grocery store are long.

To relish in deep breaths when the air is finally warm enough outside it no longer freezes our lungs on the way in.

To say ‘yes’ to more snuggles and one more hug when our children request them.

To say ‘yes’ to resting and taking space when our bodies tell us that’s what we need.

In full view of death, we walk a path on which we show up to life. Trusting that the small things matter, or at least that their frivolity is not completely in vain. And we shall live, living in ways that will attract life and give life to the world.


[1]Thank you to Megan Westra for her thoughtful and moving blog for Ash Wedesday (“Confetti Wednesday” at https://mailchi.mp/d6a0d42b1af8/confetti-wednesday?e=8e6a7196da)

[2]Matthew 6:25-34

[3]John Shelby Spong, Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2018), p.87

[4]John 10:10

[5]1 Corinthians 15:54-55

You can tell a pilgrim …

Before I took my first steps on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage a couple of years ago, I first had to choose my shell—the symbol for St James the Apostle. Along the roadways and paths of the 800-kilometre trek across the Iberian Peninsula in northern Spain you can tell a pilgrim by the shell they have attached to their backpacks.

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Wearing the shell attracted attention, often very positive. The group with whom I was walking came through a small suburb of the city of Guernica one Sunday morning. When we walked into the town square, we soon realized we were at the finish line of a marathon fundraiser for a local, special needs school.

There, some of the locals had set up large barbecues where they were grilling all sorts of meats for the marathon runners to enjoy after their race. We entered the square moments before the first runners crossed the finish line. But those preparing the barbecue called us over and without even asking our names or who we were offered us some of the delectable meats.

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When we expressed our gratitude, they asked us to say a prayer for them at the destination of our pilgrimage: the shrine in the city of Santiago, Spain—still some 700 kilometres away. I promised them I would.

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As you know, I didn’t make it to Santiago, falling ill to pneumonia and coming home early after only a couple of weeks on the trail. I remember struggling with my ‘failure’ to achieve my spiritual and physical goals. For one thing, I wasn’t able to offer a prayer in Santiago for those good people from Guernica who asked me to.

Was it worth it? Did my truncated pilgrimage do any good? Or, was the love and generosity those locals showed us and our receiving their gifts graciously, enough?

On Ash Wednesday, we begin a journey. And at the beginning of this journey, we are given a mark—not a shell, but the sign of the cross on our foreheads. It is a public act, a public ‘coming out’ if you will. By this mark the world will know we are Christians.

I hope you will wear your mark home tonight, wherever you go and whatever you still have to do—keep it visible. And see what happens. You might be invited into some meaningful, enriching conversations along the way. Some might even ask you to pray for them.

Go into the closet where no one can see you, instructs Jesus.[1]And pray to your Father in heaven who hears you, and will reward you for your faithful act. But even when we think our faith fails us? Or only for its visible success? Or only if we achieve our goals?

Arnold Lobel, author of his children’s book called The Frog and Toad Treasury describes the relationship of two friends and how they pass time together, explore the world together and support one another.

In one chapter, the action takes place in October. The leaves are falling. Frog decides to go to Toad’s house, secretly, and rake his leaves for him. “I will rake all the leaves that have fallen on his lawn. Toad will be surprised,” Frog says.

Now, his friend Toad has the same idea. Both manage to arrive at the home of the other unseen, ascertain that no one is home, rake the leaves, and return to their own houses unnoticed. On their respective ways home, however, a wind comes.

The wind blows and blows. The piles of leaves do too, so that the leaves are scattered everywhere. At the end of the day, neither Frog nor Toad realizes what the other has done, because both return home to leaves strewn across their yards. Both pledge to rake their own leaves the next day. Nevertheless, that night Frog and Toad are both happy when they each turned out the light and went to bed.[2]

What is more important: Our good intentions and motivation? Or, the outcome of our actions. Being authentic matters more than the results of our actions. The Gospel is not about the consequences, good or bad, of our good or bad intentions. The Gospel is not about achieving results and being rewarded for our good work, even with righteous motivation. In the end, the Gospel does not leave us stuck (and perplexed!) in self-centred piety, it points to what God is all about.

Normally when we hear the words of Jesus: “the kingdom of heaven is like …”[3]when someone does so and so, we think of the job we must do to enter that kingdom. And so, we imagine and want to be like that religious person, attending to ritual and prayer and acts of charity and justice our whole life long; the more we can do, the better.

Not that we don’t do anything or don’t keep trying. But we cannot ignore from these words of Jesus what Godis all about. I consider those scriptures about the kingdom of heaven as describing the character of God: A God who treasures each of us. And will stop at nothing to find us. And give up God’s very life on the cross—give up everything—in order to be with us and love us.

God is the one who sells all in order buy the field with the treasure buried in it. God is the merchant who sells everything in order to obtain the pearl of great value. Where God’s treasure is (God’s life, God’s mercy, God’s presence—in us), there God’s heart is also.

This is a fundamental message of Christianity. A message of One who comes into our life even in the messiness and despair of being human. Born a vulnerable baby to poor, teenage parents in a backwater town of Bethlehem. Living the life of a simple man from Nazareth, hanging out with fishers, tax collectors and prostitutes. Dying, even, the very humiliating death of a criminal, for all to see.

The message of Christianity is about a God who ‘sells it all’ in order to be with us, live in us and work in us, for the good.

God does all of this in order to know us, really know us. To love us. To grieve with us. To enjoy with us. To walk with us this often difficult journey that we undertake again this day.

And despite the difficult journey for which Lent is a metaphor, may the world in each step we take on the pilgrimage know we are Christians by our love.

And that’s enough.

 

[1]Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

[2]Cited in Lori Brandt Hale, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Vol 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.23-24.

[3]from his later parables (or stories) describing the reign of God, specifically Matthew 13:44-45.

Love got down and dirty

I am not a pet person. In the sense that we don’t own a pet and we don’t have any animals currently living in our home.

However, we do enjoy visiting with the pets of others. And, if we did have a dog at home, I would probably consider a terrier. The word, terrier, is derived from the Latin word terra, meaning, earth.

And, I’ve heard, a terrier will eat dirt. And dig holes in the dirt. It is a solid dog with short legs. It is scruffy and tough. A terrier is, indeed, an ‘earth dog’, living very close to the ground.

Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent. This long season of the church year, some forty days’ pilgrimage, leads us somewhere. It is not an aimless wandering. Though it may sometimes feel like it.

The forty days is largely symbolic, let’s be honest. Though the Lenten season is an ancient Christian tradition going back in its variations to at least the fourth century after Christ, our observance of it today is slight, for the most part.

How can we re-discover its meaning?

At the beginning of any journey – I prefer to see the progress of life and faith as a journey – I want to see in my mind’s eye at least, the destination – the finish line so to speak.

Before I set out on the Camino pilgrimage in Spain last Spring – some 800 kilometres long – I needed to know my destination, which was the city of Santiago. Not only did knowing the destination help me navigate the trail, it motivated me on the way.

What is the finish line of the Lenten journey? Easter, of course.

I said the observance of the faith journey is marked by symbol or ritual. These rituals in the church take the form of sacraments, such as baptism and Holy Communion. At Easter – the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection – we not only receive the promise of our ongoing transformation and new life in Christ, we have arrived at the destination of the Lenten journey of our healing, our forgiveness, our change.

Because of Easter, we can do Lent. The disciplines of Lent would be groundless without the Easter promise guiding our way. The joy of Easter is the destination – the very point – of the long Lenten discipline.

That is why baptisms and confirmations happen during Easter. This so-called first sacrament of the church, baptism, involves using water to make the sign of the cross on baptized forehead.  In some churches, the congregation gathers literally by the river to participate in a baptismal celebration.

Diana Butler Bass grew up as an evangelical Christian. She remembers that more often than not, “The water would be murky, seemingly impure rather than sanctified … The pastor would dunk the newcomer anyway, a drenching testimony of sin washed away and new birth in Christ.” But she wondered “how one could be washed of sin when the water itself was not safe to drink.”[1]

It seems, we cannot avoid getting dirty on the road to Easter and new life. In truth, is there not something good about dirt?

Some years ago, Diana Butler Bass spent the forty days of Lent focusing her discipline on priming her vegetable and flower garden in Spring. Obviously, she lived farther south than where we are. During Lent, she readied the garden, worked the soil, coaxed dirt to life. And, she concluded,

“Dirt was not dirty – it was beautiful. God made it. I was tending it. Caring for soil is hard work. The last thing I wanted to imagine was it being washed away. I was fighting for the dirt. I wanted more dirt, better dirt, richer dirt. I was adding stuff to it to make it mealier. I wanted dirtier dirt.”[2]

Yet, I would agree with Butler Bass, the symbols of the church have become sterile over the centuries. We have become germ-a-phobic, averse to dirt. And this, to our spiritual peril.

“In many dictionaries, the definition of ‘soil’ as a noun is typically scientific” – a particular kind of earth, a portion of the earth’s surface, the ground, etc.”

But the second definition, as a verb, turns sinister: ‘to soil: to make unclean, dirty or filthy; to smirch, smudge, or stain; to sully or tarnish, as with disgrace; defile morally. Its synonyms are ‘blacken, taint, debase, pollute.’ The term ‘dirt’ is perhaps even worse than ‘soil’. ‘Dirt’ comes from Middle English … meaning ‘mud, dung, or excrement’; or related ‘smutty or morally unclean.”

It’s easy to understand the theological leap from dirt and soil to sin and evil.[3] This is why we need Ash Wednesday in our faith journey. We need to feel the dirt on our foreheads in the sign of the cross as much as we make the sign of the cross with baptismal water, impure as it sometimes is.

This may seem like “a tempest in a linguistic teapot”[4] except for the fact that the bible points in another direction:

“Biblical creation stories abound with praise for the soil: God creates the ground and calls it good. Then the land brings forth life, and God calls it good. Humankind is made from the dust; God breathes life into the soil and Adam is born, this ‘soil creature’, and God sees that as very good.[5]

Humans beings are, literally, made from the humus, the ground. We are, simply, animated dirt.

In the famous Gospel story of the sower and the seed – where some seed falls on rocky ground, other seed on fertile, deep soil, other seed on the path, and other seed on shallow soil – Jesus explains that the seed is God’s love and the soil is us. The moral of the story?

“We are not soil-y enough! Spiritually, we would be better off more soiled rather than less. Being soiled is actually the point. You could say: ‘God loves dirt more than plants, soil more than what it yields. God is a dirt farmer, not a vegetable gardener.’ Soil is not sin. Soil is sacred, holy, and good. When we care for it, we are doing God’s work. Soil is life. And it is time for us — Ash Wednesday is a good time, symbolically at least — to reclaim the dirt.”[6] Why?

God became humus. God’s love got down and dirty. In the person of Jesus, God’s love was shown – in a human being. God is, according to Paul Tillich, not apart from us “but who is the very core and ground of all that is.”[7]

God is part of us, because of Christ Jesus and the incarnation. I read that every day more than sixty tons of cosmic dust fall to the earth. These are microscopic elements we can’t see, travelling in space from the farthest reaches of the universe. This cosmic dust enters our atmosphere where it mixes with existing soil on earth and enters the food chain.

Imagine, this cosmic dust is a source of ongoing creation. We eat and breathe it. Quite literally, human beings are made and being made of ‘stardust’. As the biblical story reflects: the divine and the soil, the Creator and created, are part of the same, theological ecosystem.

The Easter baptismal celebration is the end goal. We see it now, from the perspective of the starting line: Ash Wednesday. Tonight, we also make the sign of the cross on our foreheads, not with water – pure or murky. But with ash. We start by embracing the soil in and of our own lives.

Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust. The traditional words spoken at the start of Lent, and significantly, when our bodies return to the ground. A reminder, viscerally by the imposition of ash on our foreheads, that we are not only mortal, but that we belong to the earth. A reminder of our own need for repentance and new life.

At very least, we have to say it starts with dirt. We are dirt. Really. We therefore have to care for the dirt that is us, and in the earth, on this journey.

“We are not tourists here,” writes philosopher Mary Midgly, “We are at home in the world, because we were made for it,”[8] a world God so loved.

[1] Diana Butler Bass, “Grounded: Finding God in the World; A Spiritual Revolution” (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015), p.53.

[2] Ibid., p.53-54.

[3] Ibid., p.54.

[4] Ibid., p.54.

[5] Ibid., p.57.

[6] Ibid., p.58.

[7] Cited in ibid., p.31

[8] Cited in ibid., p.64

Lent begins again: Why?

We begin a journey of some forty days, which mirrors Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). We continue to observe the season of Lent, year after year, as we approach the most holy of Christian days — Easter, the resurrection of our Lord.

But why do we do this? Why do we continue to do this, it seems, against the flow of society and the dominant culture today? As a child, I remember when it was more popular to ‘give up’ something for Lent; people actually did give something up, like dessert or TV. Some still do, I know.

And yet, it seems from the perspective of our economy and lifestyle today, that planning for March break, and sun-shine, escapist getaways get more attention and energy than any spiritual discipline might.

So, let’s begin our Lenten journey with a close look at why we need to go on this trip in the first place. Speaking of journeys, then, here’s a fascinating one from the history books:

“Early in the twentieth century, the English adventurer Ernest Shackleton set out to explore the Antarctic …. The land part of the expedition would start at the frigid Weddell Sea, below New Zealand …

“‘The crossing of the south polar continent will be the biggest polar journey ever attempted,’ Shackleton told a reporter for the New York Times on December 29, 1913.’

“On December 5, 1914, Shackleton and a crew of twenty-seven men set out for the Weddell Sea on the Endurance, a 350-ton ship that had been constructed with funds from private donors, the British government and the Royal Geographical Society. By then, World War 1 was raging in Europe, and money was growing more scarce. Donations from English schoolchildren paid for the dog teams.

“But the crew of the Endurance would never reach the continent of Antarctica.

“Just a few days out of South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic, the ship encountered mile after mile of pack ice, and was soon trapped as winter moved in early and with fury. Ice closed in around the ship ‘like an almond in a piece of toffee,’ a crew member wrote.

“Shackleton and his crew were stranded in the Antarctic for ten months as the Endurance drifted slowly north, until the pressure of the ice floes finally crushed the ship. On November 21, 1915, the crew watched as she sank in the frigid waters of the Weddell Sea.

“Stranded on the ice, the crew of the Endurance boarded their three lifeboats and landed on Elephant Island. There Shackleton left behind all but five of his men and embarked on a hazardous journey across 800 miles of rough seas to find help. Which, eventually, they did.

“What makes the story of the Endurance so remarkable, however, is not the expedition. It’s that throughout the whole ordeal no one died. There were no stories of people eating others and no mutiny [to speak of …. Some have argued that ] “This was not luck. This was because Shackleton hired good fits. He found the right men for the job ….

“Shackleton’s ad for crew members was different [from the norm]. His did not say WHAT he was looking for. His did not say: ‘Men needed for expedition. Minimum five year’s experience. Must know how to hoist mainsail. Come work for a fantastic captain.’ Rather, Shackleton was looking for those with something more. He was looking for a crew that belonged on such an expedition. His actual ad ran like this:

“‘Men wanted for Hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.’

“The only people who applied for the job were those who read the ad and thought it sounded great. They loved insurmountable odds. The only people who applied for the job were survivors. Shackleton hired only people who believed what he believed. Their ability to survive was guaranteed.” (1)

Year after year, the Gospel text from Matthew 6 is read on Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the Lenten journey. It is a journey, a pilgrimage, you might say. For those willing to embark on the sometimes harrowing yet intentional path, Jesus points to the authentic quality and honesty of community life.

Being the church in the world is not to give a false impression, to show how exceptional we are in the religious marketplace. Being the church to the world is to be authentic and true to what we believe and who we are, whether or not we measure up to some cultural standards of behaviour.

Maybe that explains why Lent is no longer popular in our day. Society has already been for a while losing ourselves in distractions. In 1985 Neil Postman claimed that we were “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” (2) Over a decade earlier, Ernest Becker wrote a book I read in seminary, entitled, “The Denial of Death” (3) which is a theological reflection on how we live in ‘modern’ North America.

Indeed, we in the West continue on a course of distracting ourselves to death — with stimulating toys, technological advance and even more addictive ways to keep the truth at bay. This strategy, with often tragic consequences, only serves to drive a deeper wedge and division from our true selves.

The symbolic destination of the Lenten journey is the Cross, on Good Friday. And so, right off the start, we know this can’t be an easy journey, when we have to face and bear our own cross. But this is what life is about, is it not? Whenever hardship comes our way in whatever form it does — illness, loss, tragedy, disappointment, conflict and confrontation, failure, guilt, pain. We don’t have to seek it out; Suffering comes to us all. This is a reality we are called to accept.

We are called not to deny that our message is for people who are honest about their brokenness, who in their vulnerability do not want to pretend their weaknesses away. Our suffering can be a great teacher, an opportunity for growth and wholeness.

Suffering, in the words of Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall, “belongs to an order of creation insofar as struggle … is necessary to evoke the human potential for nobility, for love, for wisdom, and for depth of authenticity of being. A pain-free life would be a life-less life.” (4)

Lent is not a path to ultimate self-annihilation. Ultimately, Lent is not a downer. Because suffering can point to a new beginning. Followers of Jesus are not a people who suffer the pains of life without faith and hope. We can face what life brings, with a conviction that together, we can do more than merely survive.

On this journey we can experience that the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. In accompanying each other through the difficult times, we can experience something greater than ourselves. Together we will realize more than we could ever have imagined on our own; transformation, resurection, a new beginning. Together, because God in Jesus goes with us. We are not alone on this journey.

God blesses this journey.

1 – Simon Sinek, “Start With Why” (New York: Penguin, 2009), p.90-93
2 – Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985)
3 – Ernest Becker, “The Denial of Death” (New York: Free Press, 1973)
2 – Douglas John Hall, “God and Human Suffering: An exercise in the Theology of the Cross” (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), p.62-63

It’s ok to fall (2): God is in control

Falling is a bad word if you are over the age of 70, because it can precipitate our dying. So our knee jerk is to take control! We are told not to fall. We avoid slippery, icy parking lots. We rig our homes to prevent falling — getting rid of area rugs, installing grip handles in the washrooms, renovating away any unnecessary steps. Ageing bears with it the mantra: “It’s NOT okay to fall!”

But we will at some point, anyway, whether we like to or not. And when we do, we pray for healing and mending of broken bones and tendons. We may come on our knees in submission and confession, asking God for help.

The story of the healing of Naaman (2 Kings 5:1-14) is normally read during the preceding season of Epiphany, when Ash Wednesday starts later in the calendar year. Because Lent starts earlier this year, it’s not in the lectionary. But this story is an excellent one upon which to reflect at the beginning Lent.

First, it is one of the most well-read stories of healing from the Hebrew Scriptures. And healing is a theme in these weeks leading up to Easter, when we take notice of our sin, weakness and brokenness, and pray for our restoration in Christ.

The journey of Lent is one where we follow Jesus on his journey to the Cross. And by recalling this holy story of Christ’s passion, suffering and death “for us”, we are invited to reflect on our life’s journey of suffering reflected in the hope of faith.

The story of our healing will thus follow the path that Jesus trod. It is our task, therefore, to pay attention to the nature of this path, and not to waver despite the temptations of the world around us to venture in another direction.

Because of the Cross of Jesus, I claim the theme of my sermons this Lent — “It’s okay to fall.” Why? Because God is in control. And this is one of those counter-cultural messages because our world tells us to take control so that we will not fall —

Tighten your grip. Strengthen your resolve. Become the master of your destiny. Show you are strong, even when you are not. All the politicians know this — never apologize or concede to your opponent, never give them the upper hand. In a national election year, we will notice this often, I am sure. The political leaders must show strength, power, control and righteousness.

The Gospel of Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to show weakness and vulnerability. For me to stand here and say, it’s okay to be vulnerable, show weakness; it’s okay to be honest about our stumbling in life; It’s vital for our soul to apologize when we have fallen and to seek forgiveness from the other —

This is revolutionary — totally counter-cultural! Totally going against the grain of our lives! How can we be okay with our ‘falling’? How can we even risk that?

When we camped a couple summers ago at Sandbanks Provincial Park on Lake Ontario, it was windy for the first couple of days. And the kite-flying enthusiasts were out on the beach in full force. Fortunately, we too had packed a kite.

And so there I was, with all the rigging, trying to keep the kite afloat high above us. I thought I had the knack of controlling the strings and handles — even controlling by my direction the flight, height and movement of the kite up or down, regardless of what the wind did — or so I thought.

Because ever so often, a micro-burst of air would come upon us unexpectedly — and only the most skilled (and lucky!) of us kite-fliers was able to anticipate and compensate for the burst of air that brought most of our kites diving into the sand. No matter what I did, the control was ultimately in the wind.

General Naaman was a command and control guy. He was the successful leader of the army of Syria (or Aram). He was used to issuing orders and getting results. People admired him for his strength, his resolve, his prowess on the battle field. He commanded the respect of not only his king but the kings of his enemies. He would be the poster boy for our culture when we imagine ‘strong leadership’.

Except for one thing. He suffered from a skin disease. It was his ‘thorn in the side’, as Saint Paul described one thing that brought him to his knees (2 Corinthians 12:6-10). General Naaman was hurting. And he tried everything to find healing. He used the resources of his country, accessed the healers, magicians of his nation and the powerful ones, all in order to rid him of his ailment.

Isn’t it true — relief from suffering becomes our sole desire, our fixation? When it comes to dealing with our suffering, control is exactly what we want. Like Naaman, we would like to control when and how this relief will come, expending all the resources at our disposal. And it wasn’t working. Nothing was. His command and control approach failed.

When we are really hurting, we will listen to anyone with a good suggestion, even those at the bottom of the food chain. In Naaman’s life, it’s the servant girl of his wife who first suggests the prophet Elisha, and the low rung servants who convince Naaman to listen to the prophet’s simplistic remedy to wash seven times in the Jordan River.

In his suffering and journey towards healing, Naaman is humbled. He concedes control to a process that is not normative for him. His world of protocols, kings, wealth, and well-known rivers is turned upside down. He has no option left at the end, in his journey, but to let go, and let God work through the prophets and the servants, and the dirty Jordan River.

We witness here, in the story of Naaman, falling can be redemptive. How letting go of control in those areas where we really do not have any control over anyway, is critical. How listening to the voice of God in unexpected places, and being obedient to that call even if it means doing something outside of the norm.

It’s okay to fall, because God is in control. This is the point of the passage, which shows us how in the end our ‘getting up’ is not because we know the best ‘rivers of healing’, have all sorts of money to buy it, or have connections with the people in power. We ‘get up’ not because we have engineered it somehow, not because we have employed our resources and worked hard to convince ourselves that we are the reasons the kite can fly.

We ‘get up’ solely and only because of God’s initiative to love us. We get up only because God, not us, is in control.

It’s okay to fall, and be humbled in our suffering. It’s okay to fall and admit our need. It’s okay to expose our vulnerability, our anger and doubt, and confess our sin. Because, in the end, the healing comes by the grace of God.

When Saint Paul prayed to be healed from his ‘thorn’, God assured him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Naaman was not the only one in the history of faith in God that needed to hear and heed the words of the Psalmist (147:10-11):

“God’s delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;
but the Lord takes pleasure in those …
who hope in his steadfast love.”

Healing with others

In worship, we pray regularly for problems in the world. We do this partly because we are not disconnected from the consequence of conflict in far-off places. Neither are we, in large part, innocent from the causes of these conflicts.

The growing conflict in the Ukraine affects the whole world. This problem is not isolated in its implications for the well-being of people everywhere. For example, a couple of days ago, the markets in Europe and North America tumbled. Especially in Moscow – where the rubble sank to its lowest value in decades and their stock market lost 11%, or some 60 billion dollars, of value in one day. Russia holds the highest reserve of natural gas in the world.

We might very well feel the effects of this crisis in our global economy. The markets dipped because of the fear that shipping of natural resources from Russia through the Black Sea will be disrupted. Hence, the price of oil goes up.

I mention the economic problems not to neglect the more important issues surrounding violence, loss of life, and respect for nationhood that is being stripped from the people of Ukraine at this time. But, only to underscore the truth of our inter-connected, inter-related and interdependent reality – both for good, and for bad.

Both the texts from Isaiah (58:1-12) and Matthew (6:1-6,16-21) that we read this evening on Ash Wednesday call our attention and some criticism to practicing our faith apart from a social awareness. It’s not so much to condemn fasting per se, for example, but what is motivating that fast.

After all, Moses fasted for 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:27-28); Elijah fasted for 40 days and nights on that same mountain in response to the call of God (1 Kings 19:7-12); And Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the wilderness before being tested by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11). During his earthly ministry, Jesus often went off to be by himself to pray (e.g. Luke 6:12).

But the difference is whether that fast or prayer is motivated ultimately by self-interest; or, an interest to help others. Isaiah (58:3-7) is quiet clear to focus the attention of the Israelites on acts of social care. Isaiah is among those prophets who say that the Lord does not want our ritual sacrifices (Micah 6:6-8), but the sacrifice of our hearts (Psalm 51:16-17) for the sake of others. Matthew reiterates the pious, self-centred worship when he records Jesus’ indictment: “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.” (Matthew 7:21)

Over these forty days and forty nights that we call Lent, our mid-week worship will focus on the healing ministry of our church, according to the liturgy in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship Book (Augsburg Fortress Press, 2006, p.276).

The discipline of healing is an important theme in the Christian life; and we will be fortunate to hear the testimonies of several people from the church who will share their experience of healing; we will also practice the laying on of hands and anointing with oil that grounds our practice in tangible ways. We come to this discipline freely, unforced, and open to the promise of God (e.g. Isaiah 58:8-12).

But lest we, too, fall in the trap of making healing something that is the sole purview of our individual, abstract, isolated, disconnected-from-the-real-world selves, I encourage us to reflect on the way we do this work for one another, and its effect on the world around us.

Yuriy Derkach is the chaplain at Algonquin College. He is a member of the Ukrainian Orthodox Community here in Ottawa. We met last week to get caught up, reflect on the situation in his homeland. And, pray together.

He told me of an Orthodox discipline that some practice every year on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week, around the giving and receiving of forgiveness. In addition to recognizing the personal aspect of forgiveness between people that know each other, they also ‘ritualize’ the inter-connected effect of forgiveness on the community.

So, a few of them go into the downtown core of Ottawa, walk the streets, and meet total strangers. There, on the street corner, and quite genuinely, they ask the homeless for forgiveness, recognizing their own complicity in creating the problem of poverty in the world today. After receiving a word of forgiveness, they also offer forgiveness.

Yuriy believes this practice has a domino or butterfly affect. We may not go into downtown Ottawa and meet total strangers with words of forgiveness. But reflect, for a moment, on the power of forgiveness: When you throw a pebble into a still pond of water and see the ripples expanding outward, so, too, when you give and receive forgiveness the stratosphere is affected. Similar to the proverb you may have heard that when a butterfly bats its wings in Japan, a tornado is spawned in the American mid-west. When we pronounce words of promise, forgiveness and affirmation – as we do intentionally to one another in the liturgy for healing – we affect the atmosphere and ‘climate’ of the community around us.

It goes both ways: When we carry around anger and express hatred to those we meet during the day, it may very well have a net negative, global consequence. But imagine, should words of affirmation, healing, and love come from our hearts to those we meet and relate to on the streets of our daily lives, and in the church – what affect that may have in the world? Not fear. But hope.

One of the passages from the bible that has also challenged me from the lips of Jesus, is when he said: “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first” (Matthew 19:30). Yuriy gave me a wonderful interpretation of that passage. Using the analogy of running the race, which St. Paul uses (1 Cor 9:24), he said if those at the front hold hands with those at the back; and those at the back hold hands with those at the front; then, everyone can cross the finish line together. Then, indeed, the first are the last, and the last are the first.

Healing is not done alone. Whatever that healing is, it doesn’t happen in an earthly vacuum, by ourselves and in our heads alone. Very likely, there are always people around, people who care, people who reach out to touch another with loving intent.

We are as much a part of what is happening across this world, for good and for bad. We are, each and every one of us, in need of forgiveness and healing for what we have done, known and unknown, to cause hurt in another. And we are, each and every one of us, capable of affecting the world positively in small acts of kindness with God’s love.

Let it be so, this Lent.

And though we may at times stumble and fail, we will not give up. Because God’s word is true: Our light shall break forth like the dawn, and our healing shall spring up quickly; the glory of the Lord shall be our rearguard; we will call, and the Lord will answer; God will satisfy the needs of the afflicted; our light shall rise in the darkness; the Lord will guide us continually, and satisfy our needs in parched places and make our bones strong; we shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail; our ancient ruins will be rebuilt; we shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in (Isaiah 58:8-12).

Let it be so, this Lent.

Crossing Yourself in the Pantry

One of the rooms that stands out in my memory from childhood was the kitchen pantry. It was a small room that was accessed from the kitchen — like a very big walk-in closet you see in newer homes off the master bedroom. When you walked in the pantry in my childhood home, shelving lined the side walls from floor to nine-foot ceiling.

It wasn’t a room that I often went into. It was rather cool and dark inside, for one thing. The flooring was old and the tiles were curled at the edges. The light switch was a string tied to the a ceiling light bulb, giving off a dingy feel. Once I hid there playing hide-and-seek with my brother; and scared myself sitting in the dark corner on the floor when I leaned into a spider web.

It certainly wasn’t a room whose purpose was to show off to company, even friends. This room was not designed for entertaining. In showing this house for sale, this would be the last place you’d consider “staging” for viewings.

And yet, I considered this room a treasure trove. Because lining the shelves were cans and packages and bags of all kinds of food. And lots of this good stuff that my Mother would convert to very tasty home-made cooking. I revered this room because it had a sole purpose — to store and keep this precious food. And food was something so closely related to the health and well-being of our family. Not a very attractive place. But in many vital ways the heart and soul of our home.

So it is with our hearts — a place often considered as the center of our being. We get to the “heart of the matter” when we arrive at the truth, the essential, what is most important in our lives, who we really are.

Getting at the essential element of our faith is a task that didn’t seem urgent some decades ago when Christianity was pretty well assumed in our culture and “everyone went to church”.

But today, Christians are struggling more and more to discover- re-discover, maybe – what their faith is about and what is really important. To get to the heart of it. To understand who we are as a Christian community and as individuals of faith.

And we do so on Ash Wednesday by first getting to heart of being human. We experience a visceral reminder of our humanity when we feel ashes smudged on our foreheads. Because basically, essentially, our bodies are made up of carbon molecules, and “to dust we shall return”. Nothing like facing our mortality to focus our attention on what is most important in life.

But it’s not only about the ashes. The ashes are imposed in the sign of the cross. We learn to cross ourselves from a young age, in the church. We see professional football and baseball players cross themselves before making a play. We may do it, or at least think it, before going under for surgery, or before doing something scary. Tonight we ritualize the act of crossing ourselves with ashes. This is a good practice.

So, why do we cross ourselves with ashes?

Perhaps we do so in a false humility, which is really a sign of self-rejection. We may make the sign of the cross, or receive it on our foreheads as we do tonight, more out of self-demeaning inferiority.

As I said, “Remember you are dust…” slams home the reality of our definite and eventual mortality. While important to accept and not deny, does our mortality bind and trap us in patterns of unhealthy self-hate? Or can it point to new possibilities for life? Does this reminder of our mortality cement our negative self-regard that we are good for nothing? Or does it keep us grounded in the reality of God’s never-ending love for us? Do we literally cross ourselves into oblivion or into the freedom of God’s grace?

In the traditional Gospel text for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-6,16-21), Jesus instructs his disciples to pray in their inner room, or closet. This holy place has been likened to our heart — the deep, inner self where God meets us ‘in secret’.

A more accurate description of this place, according to Laurence Freeman, is a root cellar; I imagine that pantry (because folks in Jesus’ day did not have private rooms in which they could close a door).

It may not be a place we normally spend much time in. And so Lent invites us at least to consider going there — to go to this place where we’re not always comfortable going: whether that means starting a new discipline of prayer, or intentionally taking on a new project, an exercise program, giving something up, spending time getting help, counsel. It’s a place that can scare us, make us feel vulnerable. That challenges us to face our greatest fear and confront our imperfections.

What is that ‘room’ in your life? Is it a place of shame, regret, pain, fear, in-healed memory? How often have you gone there? Can you?

And yet, paradoxically, therein lies our greatest treasure, that which sustains and heals us in life despite our imperfections. Saint Paul spoke of a thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), and this was his perceived weakness. And yet, he used that ‘thorn’ to communicate the power and strength of God’s grace.

So much so that he wrote at length in his letter to the Corinthian church of the first century about the power of God being shown in human weakness, human limitation.

Normally we see our weakness and imperfection as reason for self rejection and denial. An embarrassment. A shame.

But the road to healing and wholeness is turning it around: by accepting those limitations and imperfections as precisely where Christ is present to us. Not denying that which causes us pain and suffering; not hiding from the “root cellar” in our hearts, but going there boldly as the place where Christ meets us, cobwebs and all, with his love and forgiveness.

This is the very definition of prayer, is it not? Not something we do self-consciously in front of others to show off and display our righteousness before the world. But a communion with God in precisely that place that shows our greatest weakness to the world. Therein lies the power of God.

Indeed, God’s grace is sufficient. The essential element of our faith, for Lutherans especially but for all Christians witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus, is God’s grace, God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s gift of Christ in us.