It’s Canada Day. It’s a day we celebrate our identity as Canadians and our beautiful home, in Canada.
They say the best part of travelling abroad is coming home. The first time that hit home for me was when in my late teens I visited southern Poland where my parents were born.
I recall being driven about the countryside there. And though there are gorgeous landscapes in the valleys and hills surrounding the Tatra mountains in the south, there were [and are, still] many coal mines in operation. We had a tour of one of these mines—its stark and dirty images still occupy my mind. There wasn’t a day being in Poland that I didn’t smell the pollution in the air.
Until I got off the homebound plane at Mirabel in the Laurentian hills between Ottawa and Montreal (when it was still an international airport during the 1980s.) Walking on the tarmac from the plane to the terminal, I felt the cool breeze coming down over the hills from the north, and breathed deeply the pristine air. And I recall being so thankful for living in a country where I could breathe that clean, natural air.
To this day when someone asks me why I love living in Canada, my immediate, visceral response is: “The air. I can breathe.”
We can all, I suppose, point to aspects of living in Canada for which we are grateful. Whatever we call home is so important to our sense of self. Indeed, our identity is formed out of however we define home. It’s usually some combination of family, relationships, personal history and place.
Often I hear the definition of home as ‘where you come from’. Where I come from includes relationships, family history, where my forbears settled and worked the land. This tie, this bond, can be very strong.
It’s ironic, maybe even disturbing, that we confront a gospel reading for this Sunday that challenges— to the core— our comfortable ideas of home. To those who first want to attend to family, Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” Then, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”In another Gospel, Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
He even warns those who want to follow him that they will have to do without. That the spiritual journey involves the way of material simplicity and letting go. It involves a poverty of sorts. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus was a transient. As a baby—Emanuel, Son of God—he was a refugee.
But while he didn’t boast of a physical home on earth, he certainly had what it took to be at home in himself and with God. He was grounded within himself, quite distinct from any external, material ties to land and hearth. Jesus turns to his disciples and beckons, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
A Jesus-identity stands in sharp contrast to everything we want to focus on in our celebration of Canada Day—material prosperity, security, affluence and strong, traditional bonds of family.
Jesus’ lifestyle describes what ancient and contemporary wisdom teachers have called a spirituality of subtraction.This way is counterintuitive. Our human nature gravitates towards a spirituality of addition. That is, we normally say the solution to all problems is to do more, to add on, to do better, to achieve greater heights, to impress, to work harder, etc. Add. Accumulate. Get bigger, faster, better. More, more, more.
However, Jesus tells us that the less we do and the less that we desperately try to be someone, the closer we come to this kingdom of God. This state of being is where there is no longer any need to struggle to protect ourselves and to survive. “It’s the way of subtraction, where less is not just more, but everything.”
Canada Day, while not a festival in the church calendar, gives us nonetheless opportunity to be thankful and celebrate God’s good gifts in all that we have and are. It is also an opportunity to reflect on our identity and our home as Christians:
Where do we land, at the end of the day? If we are the ones on the positive side of history, what is the state of our own inner life, distinct from the externals and the material wealth? What are our go-to beliefs and unacknowledged assumptions? Who are we, really, when all else is stripped away? And who are we becoming? What do we need to let go of? What do we need to embrace, anew?
The way of subtraction is a way of recognizing, acknowledging, even embracing what the normal ebb and flow of life brings to us all. Not just yahooing when good things happen. But also not turning a blind eye, ignoring or denying the suffering, the losses, the fear and the anxieties that serve a very important purpose in life: Because they point to the way of our healing and transformation.
We can start, on Canada Day, by acknowledging that not everyone is happy today. Not everybody would have reason to celebrate Canada Day. And who are these people? Do we see them? Do we care?
When by some injustice some people are excluded. When some people feel judged or discriminated against by the majority. When history exposes problems with the way we settled this land, the way we did things in the past. When our people used unjust means to achieve goals that breached ethical lines.
On a personal level, we pay attention to those difficult transitions in life, those that cause great stress. When who we thought we were, when our long-held identity, when the home of our conditioned self doesn’t work or make sense anymore:
For example, when divorce or separation breaks down our idea of being someone who is happily married …
When growing up means no longer being a dependent son or daughter but someone who is a responsible, self-actualized and an independent adult…
When ageing means we can no longer derive purpose from our physical abilities; that is, how we see ourselves can no longer depend on being able to dothings …
For men especially, when we are not the breadwinners of the household, or don’t have grandchildren to brag about, or can’t point to a list of worldly accomplishments …
When having children is not a possibility, despite the dreams of youth …
When we no longer can have or do what we want …
In all these cases, and there are more, when who we are—who we thought we were—no longer works. Then, who are we?
“What we’re really being invited to give up [when Jesus talks like this] is not our car, our house, our laptop and our multiple hand-held devices (although it would be healthier to have a much lighter grip on all of those things). The possessions that we are really fiercely attached to are much less tangible: our ideas about who we are, beliefs deeply hidden even—especially—from ourselves, the self-sustaining narratives that we run for reassurance over and over again.”
What would it look like in our lives when our priorities would shift? When we would regard all that we have and our relationships through the prism of faith? When all the material things we possess, when our long-held, cherished assumptions, our stalwart beliefs were seen through the perspective of faith?
What if Jesus were calling us to re-align our inner compass so that Monday through Saturday had just as much to do with faith as Sunday morning did?
When I breathe in the refreshing, clean air blowing from the north, I reflect on the nature of breath. Breath is gift. I take it in. I need it for life. I delight in it.
But I also have to let it go, for life. I need to breath out. I can’t continue to inhale unless I also exhale. Give it away. Return it to the world. The gift continues to become a gift for someone else, over and over again. I don’t possess it.
As Hildegard of Bingen wrote in the 12th century, “I am a feather on the breath of God.”
I recently read a wonderful definition of home. It wasn’t so much a definition stated with absolute resolve, more a suggestion to consider. What if home was not so much ‘where we’re from’ but more ‘where we are wanted.’
In God’s realm on earth and in heaven, you are wanted. God wants you. In that mutual desiring, that is where our home is. And, what is more, God wants the stranger, the outsider, too. The other. God wants all of us. The span of God’s love covers this land and the whole world. “For God so loved the world …”
Home is where we are wanted. When we are in communion with God, when we affirm our connection with the living Lord, when we can live out of the power of God’s Spirit in whom we move, live, breathe and have our being.
Meister Eckhart, Richard Rohr, Jim Green—to name a few.
Jim Green, Giving Up Without Giving Up (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019), p.67.
Jim Green, p.68-69.
Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone (Toronto: Random House, 2009)