You are blessed

(We can better understand the beatitudes of Jesus[1] alongside the texts from the Hebrew scriptures assigned for today[2]. Read together in light of the imagery we find there, we begin to make sense of Jesus’ challenging words. Both the Psalmist and the Prophet paint the picture of a tree or shrub in a state of dryness, and in a state of blessedness, shall we say?)

6They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places.[3]

Being in a “parched place” suggests the unfortunate state of our lives when misfortune and adversity come our way: when we fail at something, when we lose someone or something, or through circumstances beyond our control life hands us lemons.

But the problem is not so much that we are in the desert. It’s not the condition nor circumstance in which we find ourselves. When we are in a bad way, it’s not where we are.

When we are ‘dried out’, the problem is we don’t see the relief that comes our way. We have a vision problem:

We don’t perceive the grace, the gift, and the solutions that present themselves. We, for whatever reason, do not appreciate what we already have. We are blind to this grace.

The sight of which Jeremiah speaks is not merely physical, but of the heart—an attitude, an inner stance—that leans towards what is good within us and in the world around us. It is the intention of our minds and hearts to search for what is good, what is life-giving. And, we nurture this disposition despite what may appear to the contrary on the surface.

Of course, to search and yearn for something means there is something missing in our lives. It is to admit something is amiss. It is to be honest and open about our needs. The longing of the heart exposes our vulnerabilities. But also our hope.

7Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
8They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream
.[4]

Our searching for what feels lost in our lives are like the roots of a tree that naturally expand, grow and spread out towards the source of life—in water, in light. It’s the search itself, the persistent, dedicated and committed journey towards the water that keeps the tree alive, even against the odds.

On the Washington State coast along the Pacific Ocean, you will find the famous Kalaloch Tree, otherwise known as the Tree of Life, or the Runaway Tree.Underneath the webbed roots of the Kalaloch Tree is the Tree Root Cave. Inside, a stream falls into the cave and flows out into the ocean.

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(photo from pinterest.ca)

Many question how the tree continues to grow and the leaves continue to stay green. These questions have been asked so many times with no one really knowing how it keeps on going. So it became known to some as the Tree of Life. Because it continues to live by the stream and the ocean, even though where it finds itself is hardly the ideal spot for stability and longevity.

The Sitka Spruce tree, common along the lush, verdant Pacific coast under the constant influence of moist-laden trade winds, has lived a long time balanced precariously over these rocks. Even though it’s immediate circumstance is fragile, its roots are never far from the source of its very life.

There’s the story about a man searching for his keys under a street light. A friend comes by and asks, “What are you doing?” The response: “Looking for my keys.” The friend says, “Where did you drop them?” The man replies, “Around the corner but I’m looking here because the light is better.”[5]

It’s interesting that in order for the man to actually find his keys, he would eventually have to go around the corner into the dark to find them. But he starts under the light. He starts his search where the light is. Where his confidence rests. Where he can see. And he will go from there, on his journey.

Today, it is common for people to say, “I am blessed” when talking about good fortune. When expressing joy and thanksgiving about all the good in life, we say that “we are blessed.” And, on one level, it is true.

But when Jesus gives a list of characteristics describing those who are ‘blessed’, that’s hardly the case. We find it hard to attribute blessedness to the poor, to the downtrodden, to those who experience misfortune, bad luck, who are given life’s worst circumstances imaginable. We can’t easily make that connection when we associate blessedness with material prosperity, or excellent health, or good fortune.

In Jesus’ teaching, ‘blessedness’ is not absence of trouble. Blessedness, here, is not a reflection of good luck and prosperity. Blessedness, in Jesus’ sense, is not a result of peachy circumstances, fortune and material wealth in the way the word is used in common parlance today.

Rather, to be blessed is “to live through such opposition aware that the struggle is temporary”[6]and that in the end, God will stand by the faithful.

In Luke’s version of Jesus’ great sermon, Jesus stands not on the mountain (as is the case in Matthew 5-7), but on “a level place.” In the bible the word “level” often refers to places of disgrace, suffering, misery, hunger and mourning.[7]

Jesus does not ascend to some high place to give his teaching. Instead, he descends not only to where we stand, but he goes deeper. Jesus descends into the dark recesses of the most difficult, challenging corners of our hearts in order to teach, guide and lead us through. He comes down to that ‘level’.

To be blessed is to be that Kalaloch Tree on the precipice of destruction, and still yearn, search and reach for the water. To be blessed is to pursue the good despite all the bad that is evident all around you. To be blessed is to start that search wherever there is light, and go from there. To be blessed is to trust God to be there in the dark with you. To be blessed is to grow into God’s holy purposes despite adversity, setback and misfortune.

In short, to be blessed is to bear the scars of life proudly. It’s not the absence of difficulty, grief, pain, poverty and suffering that mark a Christian. It is following Christ in his way, despite the suffering that path brings. It is depending on God alone for life, because there is nothing else to rely on.

We thus journey on with hope, joy and trust, bearing witness to the goodness of God to sustain, to nourish and to grow us in the light of Christ.

 

[1]Luke 6:17-26

[2]Psalm 1; Jeremiah 17:5-10, according to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C

[3]Jeremiah 17:6 NRSV

[4]Jeremiah 17:7-8 NRSV

[5]Dr. Earl A. Grollman, “In Search of a Lost Faith”, Frontline (Winter 2019), p.4

[6]Ronald J. Allen, “Commentary on Luke 6:17-26” in http://www.workingpreacher.org

[7]Allen, ibid.

God-talk

Last week in the Canadian Football League (CFL), Ottawa RedBlacks receiver Diontae Spencer set a CFL record in a game against the Hamilton Ticats for most overall yardage gained — just under 500 — in one game. His incredible feat was truly remarkable in a game where his team didn’t score any points in the first quarter.

When asked afterwards about his record-setting accomplishment, Spencer mentioned God several times. He emphasized that the praise was ultimately for God. He couldn’t have succeeded along with his team in that game without God. God was the reason and source of his victory.

Such a witness gets a lot of mileage, especially on national TV covering a professional sports league in Canada. It is true: the public, general impression of Christians is their often-exuberant witness to an all-powerful, almighty God who authors and reflects anything and everything that is glorious, successful, impressive and spectacular. This is the dominant belief and main flavour of the kind of God-talk in the public arena when it comes to Christian witness.

Years ago, a parishioner in a former parish declined my invitation to her to give a testimony of faith during a mid-week Lenten program. I knew she was struggling with some personal challenges at the time. When I asked her why she said no, especially as I recognized in her the strong gift of faith, she said she wanted to wait until things were going better in her life before sharing her faith.

While I understood her reasoning, and was mindful of the delicate situation in her life, I wondered to myself if her attitude didn’t reflect a more general disposition among Christians today. As if you could only give public testimony of faith when you could talk about how good your life was. As if you could only give public testimony of faith when you could point to external circumstances that were favourable, impressive, even enviable.

After all, how could you get up in front of people and talk about God when all was not well in your life? How could you talk about God if you had nothing impressive to show for it? More to the point, would you be giving faithful testimony to God if everything in your life was broken, damaged, failed?

Is God only mentioned when humans achieve something great? Is God only a God who wins contests on the football field and battlefield of life? Can God be talked about only among folks who have succeeded and are healthy and rich? Only when things are going super well?

Or, could God also be present and real to us when we fail, when we are down, when we lose our earthly battles? It seems to me Christians call themselves Christian because we follow the way of Christ. And so, don’t we believe in the God of the Cross? God, by all human standards, failed — being branded public enemy number one and condemned to death. Jesus’ broken body is the iconic symbol for Christians. It is precisely in the suffering of life where God finds us.

On this All Saints Sunday, we understandably focus on what human beings have accomplished: the saints on earth and the saints in heaven. Blessed are those who demonstrate the qualities we read in the Beatitudes[1] — the Gospel text for this festival in the church calendar.

“Blessed” is not the word we might associate with being poor, persecuted peacemakers especially if we use the often-translated English word, “Happy”. I prefer the translation of the first word in the Psalms[2] also often translated to “Happy are they …”:

The Hebrew word here is ‘ashar, which means, literally, “to find the right road.” So, in providing the first beatitude, Jesus is saying: “You are on the right road when you are poor in spirit.”[3] I prefer this translation because it implies a direction rather than a moral state.

Should we take these beatitudes as moral rules for living, as with the Law, we can never fulfill it perfectly. And therefore, we can easily despair and give up. Being on the way, however, gives the long view and big picture. It implies the need for trusting that we are headed in the right direction even if the present circumstances in our lives suggest otherwise.

What is more, as much as we want to make the Beatitudes into the Ten (or rather, Nine) Commandments of the New Testament, this speech from Jesus — given at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel — is not primarily about ‘rules for moral behaviour’ as it is facts about God. These Beatitudes really and fundamentally describe God.

Matthew’s narrative builds towards this awareness, if you can appreciate the classic reversal that Matthew sets up in the first five chapters of his Gospel:

In the first chapter, Matthew’ genealogy firmly plants Jesus “the Messiah” in the lineage of the great Israelite King David. In the second chapter, exotic magi from the East come to pay homage to the newborn king. In the third chapter, King Herod takes seriously this threat to his power and tries to eliminate a contestant to his throne by killing innocent, Hebrew two-year-old boys in Bethlehem. Then, John the Baptist comes on the scene, announcing that he was making way for one who was greater than he. Finally, Matthew has Jesus ascend a mountain where he, like his predecessor Moses, would dispense the Word of God and give his inaugural address.[4]

You can see the build-up, I hope, of an expectation that Jesus would come to bring justice to the wicked and set things right. He, the Messiah, would turn back Roman oppression and occupation of Palestine. But, these words from Jesus’ mouth announcing who is “blessed” pull the rug from under our expectations of who God is. “The one who was supposed to lead revolutionary armies or bring down heavenly fire shows up in Galilee building hospitals and telling people not to hit back.”[5]

Can you imagine the surprise and shock among his disciples! Even the imprisoned John the Baptist does a double-take on his faith and later questions Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we keep looking?”[6] It is no wonder, then, that Peter later rebukes Jesus when he talks of his impending death: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”[7]

These beatitudes must have seriously disappointed his listeners and most ardent followers who had such ‘high’ expectations of their would-be Messiah King. How could they now continue following this man?

Is the reason why we may have trouble conforming our lives to the way described in the beatitudes is that we really don’t believe in these words as giving an accurate and trustworthy understanding of God? This is, after all, Jesus, who we know was persecuted and reviled as the prophets were before him.[8]

Do we believe in a God who chooses to be revealed in human flesh, born a vulnerable baby to a teenage couple? Do we believe in a God who chooses to be revealed dying a grotesque and brutal death on a cross showing the world a bruised, beaten, broken and bloody body?

If we did, perhaps we would hear more from the losers in our society. Perhaps TSN would hear the faithful witness of locker room players talking of a God who knows how it is to lose a big game and still keep faith. Perhaps we would hear more from street people, addicts and the impoverished, vulnerable people talk of their simple yet honest faith in a God who walks with them. Perhaps we would hear more from children declare their love of a playful God who carries our burdens for us, freeing us to be who and how we are without judgement and punishment.

Perhaps we would listen more to the murmurs of our own hearts whisper the love of God for us especially when we suffer the turmoil of life. Then, I gather, the world will open its eyes to the God of grace and love.

Because they will see people who live in hope. They will see people who know they have found the right road where they find God most present in helping people who suffer loss and pain, a road on which Jesus has walked himself, a road upon which God will always first find us.

 

[1] Matthew 5:1-12, NRSV

[2] Psalm 1:1, NRSV

[3] Earl F. Palmer in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A, Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.238

[4] Allen Hilton in ibid., p.239

[5] ibid., p.239

[6] Matthew 11:3

[7] Matthew 16:22

[8] Matthew 5:11-12

The Cross: Not only for us, but involves us

What Jesus did on the cross involves us.

One great temptation of being a Christian today is to delude ourselves into believing that the cross of Christ must be reserved exclusively to the annals of history. What Jesus did on the cross is a historical curiosity, we may think, which has little if nothing to do with our day-to-day lives. As a result, Christianity is basically a theoretical exchange of ideas, and whose energy and passion revolve around whose ideas are more persuasive.

One thing we need to continually challenge ourselves is in the practice of our faith, so that we are not only saying the right kinds of things but doing them as well. The Gospel text for today (Matthew 16:21-28) reminds us again that what Jesus did on the cross involves us today, in our experience of faith. When Jesus instructed his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me” he was displacing the cross for standing merely as an historical idea and fact, and placing the cross directly onto the lives, hearts, and experience of his followers at that time, and for all time to come — including us!

The theme of suffering percolates in the Gospel text. How do we Christians deal with suffering in our lives? In Martin Luther’s German translation of the Beatitudes of Jesus in the New Testament, he conveys the sense of: “Blessed are those who bear their suffering …” It is not a question of whether or not we suffer, or whether or not we can deny or avoid the challenging, difficult work that will come to us all in doing God’s work on earth. After all, Jesus himself said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live …” (John 11:25-26). All of us will die. All of us will suffer. Whether we are Christian or not. Life will bring that to each one of us in a unique way.

So, the question of faith is: HOW will we bear that suffering? How will we appreciate the experience of life’s failures, losses, pain, grief, death?
The second reading for today from Paul’s letter to the Romans (12:9-21) suggests a way forward through our suffering: “Let your love be genuine,” he writes. How we bear our suffering depends on the quality of love in our lives. How is love genuine?

It has something to do, I believe, with letting go of the need to control someone’s else experience of ourselves, our gifts, our hospitality; letting go of our need to impose on another what we think should be for them. This is most difficult to do. But it is true love when we love, unconditionally, with no strings attached.

In my travels over the summer, I’ve met people in Newfoundland on the east coast as well as in the urban jungle of California on the west coast. As I reflect on my encounters with various people on that journey, the most meaningful ones were almost always around a meal time in a B&B or coffee break at a conference. It was listening to our B&B hostess at breakfast near Gros Morne Park, talking with our servers at the Duke of Edinburgh pub in St John’s, chatting with American tourists at breakfast in L’Anse aux Meadows, or with students at the next table in a Thai restaurant in San Francisco — these are memories that come quickly to mind and leave a lasting impression. Around a meal, with others. And never an outcome that I could have planned, expected or managed if I were in control. My experience over a meal with others was totally a gift.

In this Meal we ritually share every week as a people of God, we become vulnerable to one another as equals before God. We bring all our “stuff” to the Communion railing — good and bad. It can be nerve-wracking to be pulled out of our comfortable pew, so to speak, and come forward and lay it bear before God and one another.

But it is here, in all our honesty and true humility, that we are made aware of Jesus’ faithfulness to us. Jesus is truly present around the table. Holy Communion is a regular reminder that Jesus is with us, especially in the disruptive events of our lives. And it is here that we receive the hope and promise that all will be well through the suffering of our lives.

What Jesus did on the cross, after all, does not only involve us, it was for us.

In all that we must bear, we are not alone. When the twin brothers from Quebec were eliminated last week from the Amazing Race Canada Reality TV show, I could relate to something said in the brief interview on the mat after hearing that they were “the last team to arrive.” The twin who had done poorly in one of the challenges and was the reason they had been eliminated said with tears in his eyes, “It’s amazing being a twin because even at the worst of times you are never alone.” Twins or no twins, as Christians we are never alone.

Because of what Jesus did on the cross, God now understands and relates to our suffering in an intimate way. God’s love is shown most powerfully in what Jesus did for us. Whenever we suffer and take up our own cross, Jesus suffers along side of us, bears with us, and endures with us — all for our sake.

Something Peter and the disciples seem to have missed in reacting to the way of the cross, is the promise of resurrection. They stumble at the “undergo great suffering” and being “killed” parts of Jesus’ speech. But did they hear: “…and on the third day be raised”? (Matthew 16:21)

The way with Jesus, that must go through the cross and suffering, leads to new life and fresh, new beginnings. The way with Jesus, that must go through the cross and endure suffering, is a way of great hope of a holy transformation of our lives that starts now and lasts through eternity.

Bane and Blessing

In the popular Brothers Grimm fairy tale, “Rapunzel”, that was in recent years adapted for the big screen in the movie “Tangled”, the main character, Rapunzel, has extremely long hair. This is her gift, it would appear.

But the evil witch has locked her in a room at the top of a tall tower without any entrance or exit except a window near the top. The witch and the prince climb up to the room where Rapunzel lives, by calling for Rapunzel to let down her long hair; they use her hair like a rope ladder.

But Rapunzel never uses her gift of long hair to free herself from her entrapment. While others recognized the gift she had, for better or for worse, why couldn’t she just cut off her own hair? Why could Rapunzel not use her gift, especially if it meant freedom? She had what she needed to be free!

Was it her strong emotional attachment to her hair that prevented her from living life truly, freely? If only she could let go and surrender that which was most precious to her….

In the famous Beatitudes, Jesus described the ‘blessedness’ of those in the kingdom of God. How can we understand this ‘blessing’? This Sermon on the Mount does not read like a self-help manual for the successful, in the twenty-first century. There is something counter-cultural going on here; something paradoxical, even radical.

It seems to suggest to me that to be followers of Christ we must also be able to see in ourselves what we see in others: the bane and the blessing, the good and bad, both/and. It is, on the one hand, to recognize the sinner in ourselves, and to forgive – let go, surrender – ourselves of that sin. And not let it rule us.

To recognize, embrace and confess the poverty of spirit within us.

To explore and acknowledge places of grief and loss in our own lives.

To practice humility with others, a stance that recognizes God as the “source of our life” (1 Cor 1:30).

To identify and name our own hungers, longings and thirst for righteousness.

To be merciful unto ourselves, to begin with.

To search after the purity of our own heart.

To share the gift of peace that is within us.

And to endure the persecution and suffering we all encounter in whatever form, for Christ’s sake.

It’s easy to point the finger, and see it in others, and preserve our own sense of self. It’s easy to do nothing and ‘wait’ for someone to come and save you from your problems (like Rapunzel), without noticing the resources you have yourself to do the right thing, even it means starting by confessing your own sin.

The Gospel of Jesus, while being simple is not easy. Therefore, we need not shy away from seeking after the ‘blessing’ of God upon our lives in our honest, simple, vulnerable selves. We need not hold back from coming to God in all our sinfulness, because God won’t hold back his love to us.

“Consider your own call …: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not…” Paul writes (1 Cor 1:26-28).

Spiritual greats over the centuries have recognized this truth of God. St Augustine says, “In my deepest wound I see your glory and it dazzles me.” Julian of Norwich put it, “God sees the wounds, and sees them not as scars but as honors … God does not blame us for them.” Paul wrote elsewhere, defining God as one “who creates life out of death and calls into being what does not exist” (Romans 4:17).

On the cross, Jesus reconciled all these divisions in himself (Ephesians 2:10). It was, and is, the pattern of his life with us, as the Scriptures testify: Jesus himself was crucified between a good thief and a bad thief, hanging between heaven and earth, holding on to both his divinity and humanity, expelled as a problem for both religion and state.

His dying – his absolute letting go – upended any religious program that said, ‘You need to earn your worth and favour with God.’ Letting go is the nature of all true spirituality. Letting go is the nature of any genuine reconciliation. Letting go is the engine of meaningful and lasting transformation. And these are all, admittedly, a mystery – a paradox.

For Rapunzel, we cannot blame her for being attached to her hair; after all, it was a gift. Why would she want to cut it off – for any reason? Why would she want to give that up? It was such a deep part of her identity.

When we see Jesus on the cross, we see that our faith is about being ‘attached’ in love. Jesus instructs his followers in the Golden Rule to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27).

But there’s a price, a cost, to pay for it. When you love someone, and act out of love for them, there is always the risk of pain and we will suffer for it. If we love, we give ourselves to feel the pain of the world. Love will simply lead us to the cross.

Sometimes the worst possible circumstances in our lives turn out to be the greatest gift – and vice versa. Because our greatest gift can be the source of our downfall; or, at very least, keep us from become the people God called us to be. Yet, it is in the collision and letting go of these opposites, where the blessing is realized.

Listen to the witness of a Catholic priest who visited the Philippines:

“I saw so many shining eyes in the Philippines, yet these are souls who have been eaten up and spit out by life. The Filipinos are a people with so little. I celebrated a Sunday Mass in a squatter’s camp. Shacks all around. Yet they were so excited that ‘Fodder’ was coming. The kids met me to lead me into the barrio. Out of these shacks came kids in perfectly clean clothes. I don’t know how the mothers kept them so clean. They were all dressed up for Sunday Mass. The boys all got their guitars, and it was the big event of the week. They have something we have lost.

“I felt like telling them, ‘You live in a dump by our standards, but do you know what you have? You’re not cynical like we are. You’re all smiling. Why should you be smiling? You don’t have any reason to smile. You live in a shack! It smells like garbage. But you have father and mother and clear, simple identity.’”

Then, this priest confesses: “I don’t know who trained them to do this, but you constantly feel your hand taken by the little Filipino children. They take your hand and put it to their head. They don’t ask you to bless them. They take it from you. It made me weep. For they have their souls yet! They have light, they have hope. The little children call you ‘Fodder, Fodder,’ and I think when they pull blessings out of you, blessings really come forth.

“They are ready for the blessing. They believe in the blessing, and you are not really sure if it was there until they saw it, expected it, and demanded it. These are the blessed of the earth,” he concludes.

These are ones who don’t need to be taught the faith. They live it. They live the mystery of life and death, blessing and loss. They’re okay with paradox, even if they can’t articulate it as such. They don’t need everything explained to them. They just love. And bless. And are blessed.

They, indeed, have the light of Christ. And they know it, deep down, in their souls.

Apart from the reference to Rapunzel and the film, Tangled, most of this reflection is adapted from Chapter 6, “Return to the Sacred” in Richard Rohr’s book, “Everything Belongs”