Ordinary Time

We understandably seek an extraordinary experience of the divine. The stories we like to tell each other over coffee, for example, are those strange, inexplicable even miraculous moments of life. It’s as if we can know God only through these extreme, irregular events: How by some fluke we avoided an accident waiting to happen, or how we were so fortunate to win a prize, or how we happened to be in the right place at the right time to witness something incredible. 

These expectations of experiencing something spectacular of the divine translate into our religious observance. We will come to church at Christmas and Easter – when all the stops are pulled to put on a good show – in order to fulfill our longing for God, for something better than the norm, something more entertaining and stimulating. Aren’t epiphanies supposed to catch our attention after all?

It is so tempting to set religion apart from the ordinary, making of it a sort of “fairyland amusement park.” This leads to an ancient heresy of the church – the split between God and human, the ordinary and the holy, the sacred and profane.[1]And when this split entrenches in our minds, how is it, we wonder, that we would deserve such a God? A God who is made known only to an elite few who will have these extraordinary, divine epiphanies more than we ever can.

But today we find ourselves in ‘ordinary’ time of the church year. According to the church calendar, these times are marked by the colour green. The largest chunk of ordinary time follows the numerous Sundays after Pentecost, running through the whole summer and into late Fall.

But, ordinary time also has a place early in the year, a shorter chunk of time between Christmas and Easter. Combined with the season after Pentecost, ‘ordinary’ time makes up mostof our time – thirty-three or thirty-four weeks of every year.[2]It is not, therefore, the time during which the church is engaged in preparations for, or celebrations of, the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus.

It is the time during which we are called, like Simon and Andrew in the Gospel for today, to follow Jesus. Not because of the star that announced his birth. Neither because of the excitement conjured by the promise of a trip to Jerusalem. But simply because Jesus said, “Follow me.”[3]

It’s ironic that in church history and doctrine we have minimized Jesus’ life and ministry in comparison to his birth and death. Some of the ancient creeds jump directly from Jesus’ birth to his death. But the reason for which Jesus lived on earth cannot be minimized. “Though it is not untrue to say that Jesus came to earth to die, it is more true to the Gospels to say that he came first to live.”[4]

In fact, Jesus’ death is truly significant only in connection with that which he lived for and proclaimed – God’s kingdom. We pray every week, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth. While we go about living, here.

In these weeks between Christmas and Easter we are reminded that, for all their wonders, neither of these great celebrations is sufficient to sustain us in the hard work of following Jesus in our ordinary lives. How can we do that?

In addressing this question let’s be aware again not to be always so taken by the WOW factor —the exceptional even unbelievable nature of the disciples’ response:

“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”[5]

Again, we may tend to focus only on the extraordinary act of obedience on the part of the disciples. All we see and read here is this immediate response by Simon and Andrew to follow Jesus. They don’t think about it, they don’t talk to anyone before agreeing. They just drop everything and go. Wow!

But what has been going on leading up to this moment, this encounter between Jesus and the disciples he calls? You get the feeling that there has been something brewing beneath the surface, even of their consciousness, which then presents in this radical behaviour. What has been going on in their lives preceding this moment? And, over the long haul of their ordinary living?

Saint Augustine from the fourth century opens the first book of his Confessionswith the prayer and statement that “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”[6]It might very well be that even those four fishers had restless hearts – so restless that when they heard Jesus’ call to them, they could do nothing else but leave everything behind and follow. 

Perhaps they were simply responding to what had already been imprinted on their souls from birth—the knowledge of the voice of God—so that when they heard the voice, all they could do was obey. Their hearts were already prepared over time, to respond to that moment of invitation.

Our hearts have been prepared through every experience of our lives, prepared to hear God’s voice when it happens. Our lives, every ordinary moment, is holy ground in which God is working in us to be prepared for when that moment of realization comes.

We may be our greatest enemy in recognizing the work of God in our ordinary routines, as we go about our lives—washing dishes, or walking to the office, or talking on the phone. We can give up the search for extraordinary experiences to validate our relationship with God and service in Jesus’ name. It is obvious. It is right here. In our ordinary lives. Salvation happens in everyday, ordinary experience.[7]

An old man was making rope. Someone came to him and asked him, “What is it necessary to be saved?” Without looking up from his work, he replied, “You are looking at it.”[8]

An episode on one of the nature documentary channels was about the elephant seals of Argentina. The show focused on a mother and her seal pup, who had just been born. Soon after birthing her baby, the mother, now famished, abandoned the pup on the shore so she could go feed in the rich waters off the coast. 

After feeding, she returned to a different part of the beach and began to call for her baby. Other mothers had done the same, and all had returned at a similar time. It was hard to believe they would find each other. 

The camera then followed the mother as she called to her pup and listened for the response. Following each other’s voices and scents, soon the mother and her pup were reunited. The host of the show explained that, from the moment of birth, the sound and scent of the pup are imprinted in the mother’s memory; and, the sound and scent of the mother are imprinted in the pup’s memory.[9]

That’s how it is between God and each of us. We are imprinted with a memory, a longing for God. And God is imprinted with a memory, a longing for us. And even if it takes a lifetime, we will find each other.

No bright stars. No earthquakes. Just a voice that strikes our ear amid the ordinariness of our lives and announces that God has found us and God is among us.


[1]Gregory Mayers, Listen to the Desert; Secrets of Spiritual Maturity from the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Chicago: ACTA Publications, 1996), p.105

[2]David Toole in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.284-286

[3]Matthew 4:19

[4]Troy A. Miller in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., ibid., p.287

[5]Matthew 4:20

[6]Cited in Rodger Y. Nishioka, Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.286

[7]Gregory Mayers, ibid., p.105

[8]Ibid., p.97

[9]Rodger Y. Nishioka, Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.284-286

The angel

I know an angel.

She’s the deli counter server who smiles when taking my order.

He’s the fourteen-year-old who dreams of winning $10 million to give to Parkinson’s research because his grandpa suffers from the disease.

They’re in the bus shelter laughing and giving hi-fives and kisses to friends who do not share the same skin colour, age, language and physical ability.

She’s the one who comes in the nursing home room to encourage with a soft and happy voice.

She challenges world leaders to pay attention to and do something about the climate crisis.

I know an angel.

Today, and every year on September 29, the church recognizes the annual festival, “Michael and all Angels”. In the bible, we acknowledge the popular ones: Gabriel, who brought news to Mary of God’s intention to give her Jesus. And, Michael the great protector whom we read about in Daniel and Revelation.

Herein lies one of those very grey areas for Lutherans who have, in our recent history, become increasingly nervous about the angels. Why is that?

In the Confirmation class which started this past week, we closed our time together by praying Martin Luther’s evening blessing: “I give thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have graciously protected me today. I ask you to forgive me all my sins, where I have done wrong, and graciously to protect me tonight. Into your hands I commend myself: my body, my soul, and all that is mine. Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me. Amen.”[1][emphasis mine]

By the way he prayed, we can tell Martin Luther believed in angels. On the other hand, Luther didn’t care too much for those parts of the bible that suggested allegory—those so-called apocalyptic descriptions that described futuristic, other-worldly, colourful, image-rich portrayals of angels, arch-angels, cherubim and seraphim, of sword-wielding horseman, dragons and giant wheels in the sky. Luther consequently relegated these scriptures to a lower priority for the biblically literate.

“Angels cannot be our intermediaries between us and God,” we reformers insist. “There is only one mediator and that is Christ,” we claim. Christ alone, we’ve made things simple. Concrete. More about this in a minute …

And yet, at the same time, we cannot deny the reality and the truth, that just beyond the thin curtain of our awareness and perception there lies a dimension of reality in which we, too, participate—for good and for evil. Our highly trained, rational minds—thanks to the Reformation and Enlightenment eras of the last few centuries—have made us suspicious and skeptical of making such risky forays into those ambiguous, beyond-rational notions. We just don’t know what to do with that part. We just don’t know …

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells a beautiful story about an experience he had following his mother’s death: “The day my mother died I wrote in my journal, ‘A serious misfortune in my life has arrived.’ I suffered for more than one year after the passing away of my mother.

‘But one night in the highlands of Vietnam, I was sleeping in the hut of my hermitage. I dreamed of my mother. I saw myself sitting with her, and we were having a wonderful talk. She looked young and beautiful, her hair flowing down. It was so pleasant to sit there and talk with her as if she had never died.

‘When I woke up it was about two in the morning, and I felt very strongly that I had never lost my mother. The impression that my mother was still with me was very clear. I understood then that the idea of having lost my mother was just an idea. It was obvious in that moment that my mother is always alive in me.”[2]

Perhaps you, too, can point to these subtle yet profound moments—especially following a loss or some great suffering or deepest love—when the cloud breaks, the sun streams through, a bird calls, an image flashes across your vision, a dream’s effect captivates you, a momentary feeling of peace and well-being engulfs you, a stranger impresses you in some unexpected, surprising way.

This is real. People talk to me about these experiences all the time. We can’t put our finger on it. We can’t rationalize our way through it. Well, we try, by talking about neural impulses and undigested fats in our bellies. But here we go again, dealing with our discomfort by reaching for yet another rational explanation. But can we explain away these experiences? Should we?

It’s easy to place religion into the esoteric realms of doctrinal outer-space. That’s our head space whose thoughts, theories and machinations serve to disconnect us from what is, right in front of us. And, sadly this state has almost exclusively defined the Reformation since the days of Martin Luther.

What about our bodies? What about our feelings? What about the natural occurrences in our daily lives? Are these not the purview of God as well?

Martin Luther insisted on the real, the tangible, as a valid and powerful expression of the divine. A faith that is characterized by the incarnation—Word becoming flesh—is a faith that cannot deny what we see, hear, taste and feel. When God became human in Jesus. When the Holy Spirit indwells in our hearts, our bodies. When we eat the body of Christ in the sacrament. God makes our reality God’s domain. Angels among us. The spiritual becomes tangible. Matter is, and has always been, the hiding place for God.

One of the clever jingles of the TSN1200 radio station in Ottawa is their oft-repeated phrase introducing whatever sport they broadcast: “The Sens play here” (NHL hockey); “The NFL plays here (football)”; “The RedBlacks play here”(CFL football); “The Fury play here” (soccer); “The 67s play here” (junior hockey).

That needs to be the church’s motto: “God plays here.” In real, tangible, visible, ways. “God plays here” among mortals, among real people in real situations. “God plays here” along with the angels and archangels.

We may not be able to figure it out completely. We may not know the mind and ways of God fully. We may not know this spiritual realm that interplays with our own. We may not even be able to rationalize it in the usual ways. And yet, we trust.

In the last line of the Evening Blessing from the Small Catechism, Martin Luther, after praying for the holy angel to be with him, he gives the following instruction:

“Then you are to go to sleep quickly and cheerfully.” And falling asleep quickly and cheerfully can only happen when, despite our inability to have all the solutions and figure out all our problems, we can feel that it will be well with my soul.

God will make God’s ways and purposes knowable to us, in the regular grind, routines and ordinary circumstances of our lives.

May you know some angels, too.

Trust.

 

[1]Martin Luther, “Small Catechism” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006), p.1162.

[2]Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life (Riverhead Books: 2002), p.5.

Even among the lost

I hear Simon’s despair, tainted with frustration and even anger, when he reacts to Jesus’ instruction to put the nets in deep water to catch the fish in Lake Galilee.[1]

“Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” He’s trying to make a point that there is no use to doing what Jesus asks of them. After all, they did all they could do. They employed all their resources, knowledge and effort into catching fish that night. But to no avail. Understandably frustrated, Simon scoffs at the futility of doing what Jesus asks. As if he knows better. There is not point to it all.

This is not the first time we hear Jesus say or do something that mystifies us. Earlier in this season after Epiphany, we witnessed Jesus being baptized. Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River often confounds our sensibility. Why does Jesus need to be baptized? Aren’t we the ones that need to be baptized? Not God!

So often we find salvation in what we do, and the meaning we attribute to what we do. In the church, we often do exactly what the crowds at the Jordan did: We come to worship, pray the printed confessions of sin, receive Communion and hope that these liturgical acts will wash away our sins. And make life right.

Then, we also have other programs for self-improvement, such as trying a new diet, cutting down on drinking and smoking, or finding someone who will love us just right. But these things are all futile for making real change in our lives, for making our lives right.

But Jesus walks into our lives just as he waded into the Jordan to be baptized by John. If Jesus was to walk into our lives today, he could just as well arrive at our job interviews, wedding receptions, or retirement parties. He could just as well stand in the long lines with us at the Tim Horton’s or sports venues. Jesus could just as well join us in all our driving around town to this and that – and the next futile thing we are trying to do in order to make life right.

Yes, I could feel the futility behind Simon’s statement—but we fished all night and caught nothing. Would Jesus step even into that despair?

When work seems futile. When other people frustrate us. When life seems pointless. When what we do appears to have little purpose, meaning or utility. When we fail. When despair sinks in.

Or, not far removed in the face of uncertainty, we clamber and clamor for the next shiny, new thing. We distract ourselves. We fall into mindless routine or stimulating addiction, to occupy our minds or numb them. And escape reality. Even just below the surface of seeming industry, there broils a fearsome anxiety.

Yes, I hear Simon’s despair. But I also see Jesus, right there.

What is Jesus up to here? Getting baptized. Going fishing with his friends. Going to weddings. Hanging out in the streets. What is Jesus up to here, living the life we all live?

For some reason, Jesus is taking on our lost condition. Jesus participates in our lives, doing what we do, engaging our routines, our work, our lifestyles. And, as we become more aware of Jesus closeness to us in our successes and our failures, we discover the Gospel truth: that salvation comes not because of our activity, our brains, our efforts. Salvation comes through a loving Savior who finds us and takes on our lost condition.

So maybe our job is not to explain the mystery, but simply to obey the seemingly pointless, futile instruction from Jesus. And act on it, as Simon did. “Yet, if you say so, I will let down the nets.”[2]

Visit the sick. Befriend the poor, the outcast, the refugee. Accompany the vulnerable, the weak, the dying.

After selling their large house where they called home for decades, Jack and Betty moved to a smaller two-bedroom apartment in town. Once settled in, they invited Craig, a church friend, to dinner in their new home. Craig was happy to oblige.

After all, on Sunday mornings they would sit together in worship. They didn’t say a lot. Betty might say something odd, but her countenance was so bright. Jack seemed always bothered by something, like he was scowling. But the couple was always together. And they liked each other.

Craig tells the story of his experience visiting Jack and Betty. He writes,

“Once I arrived at their apartment on the appointed evening, it didn’t take me long to realize that Betty had Alzheimer’s disease. It now seemed so obvious that I felt foolish for missing it earlier. Jack never let her out of his sight. It was then that I realized that he hadn’t been scowling for the last couple of years. He was just worried.

“Before I even had my coat off, Betty took me by the hand and led me to the painting above the sofa that depicted their stately old home. She became a bit more lucid as the stories of the old place tumbled out of her soul. I felt her squeeze my hand as she talked … [as if she were trying to say], ‘There is more to me than you see now.’ … Jack stood behind us and allowed his worry to ease a bit with a tender smile.

“Dinner was interesting. Betty couldn’t be allowed near the stove, and Jack wasn’t about to learn to cook. So he had asked their housekeeper to make them an extra-large omelet before she left that afternoon. When we were ready to eat, Jack put the egg dish in the microwave, then cut it into thirds and served it on Betty’s best china. For desert he brought out Klondike bars that we ate using the good silverware, which wasn’t easy. Several times during the meal, Betty got up and wandered around the apartment a bit. I was impressed by Jack’s ability to maintain our conversation, which was always of secondary importance to him, while always watching his wife.

“Throughout the evening I kept thinking that I needed to say something useful. After all … [isn’t that what we’re supposed to do with others?] But how profound could I be with Betty, whose mind was too clouded for conversation? What would I even say to Jack…? I could try, ‘Keep up the good work’ or ‘This must be really hard,’ but that would be so inane.

“After dinner, we left the old dining-room table and made our way back to the living room sofa, where I sat next to Betty. Jack took the chair across from us. I began to talk, trying to speak of …[relevant] things, but I wasn’t doing well. [As a Christian friend, from church] I knew that I was called there to be a blessing to them and … to witness to Christ’s presence among them. But how? I felt like a pilot circling above the clouds, looking for an opening to land. Soon Betty got up and wandered off again.

“When she returned, she stood behind the chair where Jack was seated and put her trembling hand on his shoulder. And as only old lovers know how to do, he reached up to take her hand as if it were the first and millionth time he had done it. I stopped talking as they both smiled at me.

“Well, there it was – the blessed presence of Christ. Then I knew that I wasn’t there to say a thing. My calling was to behold and be amazed. It was as if their mutual smile said, ‘Don’t you dare pity us. We are blessed.’ Beneath the gentle act of holding a trembling hand lies the mystery of … [love].

“In the end, this is as good as the calling to love can be. …There is just the holding of hands …”[3]

There is neither brow-wrinkled explanation nor fear-induced despair.

There is just the smile of God in the face of another.

 

 

[1]Luke 5:4-5

[2]Luke 5:5

[3]M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor As Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009) p.97,103-105

Meeting the unexpected

On New Year’s Eve, the roadway was completely covered in snow. All I could see in the waning light of day was the general shape of the roadbed curving slightly to the right in front of me.

I couldn’t see the customary yellow and white lines on the pavement to guide me. There were no tracks left in the snow of cars gone down this way recently. The snowfall was fresh and the road was not well-travelled.

I could control my speed, of course, but I didn’t have a lot to go on. Would I get home in one piece? First, I had to slow down. And even be prepared to stop.

The Magi were on a journey to arrive at the home of the young Christ child. Christmas cards and the popular mindset show the Magi at the baby Jesus’ side on the night he was born. But that is likely not the case.

The Gospel of Matthew indicates the Magi visited the holy family’s “house” in Bethlehem, hardly a description of a cave or stable for animals.[1]The Gospel of Luke, from which we read the birth narrative on Christmas Eve, does not mention the Magi.

The Magi were on a journey that took months if not years to accomplish. Their journey took time. Their coming to Jesus, so to speak, was not an immediate, instant, snap-of-the-fingers conversion. Their experience was slow, plodding and winding course across the deserts of the Middle East. On their journey to find Jesus, they had to have the long-view in mind. A whole lot of determination. And a commitment to the journey with all its fits and starts.

I also get the impression, reading through these verses from Matthew, that the Magi who were nearing the end of their long journey had to make in-the-moment changes to their plans. They had to check their assumptions and change their minds about initial expectations.

For example, at least half the Gospel text for today focuses on Herod. Initially, the Magi came to him in good faith, believing the Roman governor would sincerely help them. But an angel of the Lord had to steer them away, literally by a different road, and from Herod’s manipulating, plotting, fear-ridden treachery. The Magi had to trust ‘new information’ and make changes to their flight plan in mid-stream.

Then, the gifts. Three gifts: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. In biblical times, these gifts were usually given to a king or a person with highest status. Gold was such a gift. From the Hebrew scriptures, when The Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon she gave him precious gifts: “Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan – with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones” (1 Kings 10:2). The spices that she brought with her might very well have been frankincense and myrrh.

The gifts themselves are a powerful sign of what these visitors originally intended. The Magi were coming a long way to worship who they considered the true King. Not Herod. Not Rome. But the divine Son of God.

And, still, not what they expected.

The meaning of these gifts needs to be examined in light of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. For us, what is ‘kingship’ in light of Christ—certainly not what we might first assume: glory, power, military strength and victory. Jesus’ journey took him through the defeat and humiliation of the cross. That’s the kind of kingship Jesus is about.

Myrrh represented healing. Healing in the light of Christ was not so much about an instant cure to earthly disease. But rather, healing is a transformation of the inner life of our attitudes and finding wholeness and grace in every moment of life, especially in the midst of suffering and pain. The king whom the Magi came to worship was a king who, in truth, represented values and meaning that countered—were at odds with—the values of the world.

And that is why this story starts the season of Epiphany in the church. Epiphany means, Revelation. The baby Jesus is revealed as the Son of God who shows us the way of God—God’s path of transformation and salvation. The season of Epiphany invites us to participatein this way. Participating in this journey asks us, like the first Magi, to be prepared to change course and examine our standing assumptions about God and the world.

It’s the manner in which the truth is revealed that ought to catch our attention in the biblical story. And this way is both apparent by what these three gifts mean, and by the expectations we first bring to this story.

For example: We assume and even say ‘it’s biblical’ that there were three men and they were three kings. But that’s not what the bible says. For all we know, there could have been a whole caravan of them. And what if some were women?

Although we sing, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,”, these visitors from the East were also not kings. The term Magi is a plural form of a word in Greek which means, literally, Zoroastrian priests.[2]And, maybe they earned the title ‘wise’ because of their skills in interpreting dreams and understanding astrology.

It’s as if the proverbial rug first needs to be pulled from underneath us before the truth is revealed. We don’t come to it straight on. Our expectations first need to be checked, and likely over time, over turned.

Once on New Year’s Eve when driving down a country road covered in snow in the middle of a blinding snow storm I thought I was driving in the middle of the road. I figured I best check that assumption. Thank God I did.

In a moment no other vehicle was passing, I stopped and opened the driver’s side door. With my boot, I scraped away the fluffy blanket of snow believing I would find the dark asphalt of the road and maybe even a lane marker painted on the hard top.

To my horror, I turned over stones and gravel, indicating I was already on the shoulder of the road. Had I not stopped at that moment, my vehicle was heading in the direction of the deep ditch on the side of the road.

Thank God, I had it in my mind to stop when I did, and scratch the surface of my belief. Then, I was able to change course.

The star finally stopped over Bethlehem, showing the Wise Ones where the destination of their journey lay. At this sign, “they were overwhelmed with joy.”[3]Arriving home in one piece from driving in less-than-ideal road conditions gave me a sense of joy. The joy comes because of the journey, maybe because the journey was difficult. Maybe because the journey called forth the best from you, to meet the challenges and make headway despite the journey’s challenges, pain and suffering.

The amazing thing is that God somehow brought the Magi–the Wise Ones–to the exact location of their hopes and dreams. Perhaps not what they expected at first. But this gift they surely recognized.

Here are some questions for reflection as we enter this new season after the Epiphany: What was the most important gift you received this holiday season? Did you expect it? Why is it important? How did you receive it?

God has given us the greatest gift in Jesus. Where we find him will be shown to us, on the journey. This grace continues throughout our lives.

May our trust grow in a God who has this uncanny ability to trust and have faith in us to get home. Let us pray: God, you led the Wise Ones by a star to find the Christ child. Lead us as we strive to follow you in living our faith. No matter how long it takes. No matter how winding the journey. Help us trust your promise to bring us home. Amen.

 

[1]Matthew 2:11

[2]Niveen Sarras, “Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12”, http://www.workingpreacher.org

[3]Matthew 2:10

Behold, I prepare the way!

“Behold, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me … “ (Malachi 3:1).

It was the day after my birthday at the end of October, that the tree arrived. Much earlier than I expected all the way from Idaho. But I wanted to make sure this artificial tree, which was billed as the most realistic Balsam Fir on the market, would get all the way to Canada during a postal strike in time to decorate. The end of October was much too early for me, but at least you might say I was preparing well. Or, so I thought.

Meaning, I was getting things done early. I was on top of all the planning and busy preparations. In so doing, I was convincing myself that I was doing the preparation that Advent calls for.

Well, it’s the 2nd Sunday in Advent and the tree is still not decorated. In fact half of it does not light up. For all of November and almost half of December, I have sat in my chair in our living room, looking at an empty tree waiting for the replacement part to arrive. According to tracking, it’s supposed to arrive tomorrow. Pray for me.

It hasn’t been easy sitting there throughout this time looking at a tree that was supposed to be perfect but wasn’t. It was broken. It hasn’t been easy looking every day at that tree that was supposed to be decorated and functioning perfectly already but wasn’t. It hasn’t been easy talking on the phone umpteen times with the company about what was wrong with the wiring. It hasn’t been easy waiting for things to happen that should already have. It hasn’t been easy looking at what has become a symbol not of my good intentions, my industrious, conscientious hard work paid off; but, instead, a symbol of imperfection, failure and frustration.

One of the messages of Advent is that we must prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts and in this world. How, then, are we to prepare for the Lord’s coming? How are we to prepare, if not just upping our efforts at getting stuff done—the more efficient the better, the faster the better?

In several scriptures assigned for Advent, we encounter a unique word: “Behold!” Today, the command is to behold, my messenger comes to prepare the way. I prefer this old English translation in the King James Version which preserves an important nuance of this biblical command to behold. This is very similar to the behold from last week, from the prophet Jeremiah, commanding us to behold that the days are coming when God will fulfill God’s promises. (1) In other words, God is about to do something.

At least in today’s reading from the Hebrew scripture, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) opens with the more common, “See!” But we can work with that! In fact, that is not bad. When Philip asks Jesus, “Show us the Father”, Jesus responds, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” (2) Throughout the Gospels, the message is that in Jesus, we see God.

But, really see. That’s why ‘behold’ is better. Not just ‘look at.’ Not just a sidelong glance. Not just looking at someone askance, in passing. Not just the surface of how he looks. But to perceive Jesus, to look into the heart of the Lord. To ‘behold’ God. To be in and contemplate the presence of the One who comes to us. The One we cannot fully understand.

God is about to do something. When? Where? How? So, behold God—the One we cannot fully understand who comes nevertheless. Behold the mystery.

The story shared with me was of a lonely widower who was told by his friends that he ought to get a dog. So he goes to a pet shop to see what’s available.

“Have you ever owned a dog before?” the saleswoman asks.

“No.”

“Are you prepared to take it out for a walk two or three times a day?”

“I hadn’t really thought of that. I just wanted a little companionship.”

“That companionship requires something from you, no?” the saleswoman mused out loud.

“Listen,” she broke the awkward silence between them, “if you really want companionship, I’ll show you a talking centipede for about the same price.”

“You must be joking.”

“No, I’m serious, and what’s more, this little guy can even sing.” She leads the customer to a miniature house, and in front of it, in a barely visible lawn chair, is the centipede. Turning to the tiny creature, she says, “Would you say something for this man so he’ll know you can talk?”

“Okay,” says the centipede in a very soft voice. “What would you like me to say?”

“That’s fine,” says the saleswoman. “And can you show him your singing voice?”

“Of course,” says the centipede, who breaks into a barely audible rendition of “Sweet Caroline.”

The man can’t believe it. He buys the centipede and the tiny house and brings them home.

Later that day, he calls out, “I’m going for a coffee and I’d love to introduce you to my friends at Tim Hortons. Would you like to come along?”

The centipede does not answer. He repeats the questions, and again there’s no answer.

He decides to ask one more time. He goes right up to the little house and says in a loud voice, “For the last time, I’m going out for a coffee. Would you like to come along?”

“I heard you the first time,” quietly says the centipede. “I’m just putting on my boots.”

Beholding God requires something of us. It calls us to get in sync with where God likely is and how God tends to work. We are called to interface with the presence of God. Admittedly, this is challenging for us because, as one Japanese theologian remarked, God, like the centipede, is going three miles an hour. (3)  How fast are we going?

The refining fire of growth and change is not waiting for us to feel good about it. This Advent, we are simply called to behold the mystery of God’s ways and respond from the heart to the truth of how God is revealed to us. And trust, that in God’s time and ways, all that’s good will come to pass in our lives and in this world.

It might be counterintuitive but a better way to prepare during this season might very well be to slow down and be silent more. To listen for what God is already whispering into your own soul. And to see what God is already doing all around you.

I’m not saying that preparing is not a good thing to do. But, inevitably, times come in life when no amount of preparation can prepare you for what you must endure. So, you wait.

And, in the waiting, you may find some time to acknowledge what is missing in your soul—“your longing desires, your deepest needs, the questions where you don’t, yet, have answers.” (4)

And, then, pray in the awareness that God knows. And, in the end, it is not my or your preparation that is the most important during this time of Advent, but God’s. God is already preparing your soul for its healing and wholeness once again.

“Behold! I am about to do a new thing,” God says. “Do you not see it?” (5)

  1. Jeremiah 33:14-16
  2. John 14:8-9
  3. Kosuke Koyama, “Three Mile An Hour God” (SCM Press, 2015)
  4. Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) “Longing – Brother, Give Us A Word” (3 December 2018), http://www.ssje.org
  5. Isaiah 43:19

Postscript: On December 13, the part finally arrived! And, it seems to work. Well worth the wait!

Lent

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All we need to do during this season of Lent, is just slow down a bit.

Displaying a delightful play on words, this photo of Dorchester Ave in Ottawa suggests in the French language what drivers must do in the bilingual city of Ottawa when navigating narrow streets: “Slow down!”

A meaning of the word Lent, is slow. It is a season when we slow down to aerate the lawn of our lives, so to speak. In so doing, we create bigger and longer spaces amidst the hurly-burly of living. We take stock of our lives, reflect on the purpose of our living and contemplate our lives as part of a bigger picture.

During Lent, we (re) connect and correct. We connect with others in an organized fashion to focus on others in meeting their needs And, we connect with the Other that is the destination and goal of life — the living Christ.

In community and in relation to the other, we also experience a correction. We say the market makes occasional corrections to re-establish a sustainable pattern for growth in the value of stocks over the long term. So, our lives must experience regularly a season of correction, for the long term.

We make this Lenten pilgrimage both for connection and correction, in the hope that by the time Easter arrives we can experience renewed balance and a pattern for sustainable growth and joy in living.

But, it starts by slowing down the pace. Evening stopping, pausing, for a moment or two. Take a deep breath.

Lentement, s’il vous plait.

Langsam, bitte.

Slowly, please.

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

Lifting up

Imagine the path slick with rainfall and mud. I took this photo at the end of a beautiful, clear day, on the Camino de Santiago (del Norte). But just as often as there were dry, sunny days on the way, I encountered trails that were treacherous in rain.

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It was at the end of my longest hiking day in northern Spain that I met with such a descent – almost a full kilometre straight down on uneven cobblestone into the coastal town of Deba. The rain had started moments before. And I had just walked thirty-three kilometres in the hilly Basque country, all the way from Orio, near Zarautz.

I was exhausted. My mind was obsessed with getting to the pilgrims’ hostel as soon as possible. I was ready to collapse in a heap on my bed. Negotiating a tricky, slippery path was the last thing on my mind.

I had read and heard from fellow pilgrims these horror stories of unsuspecting pilgrims breaking their ankles on these kinds of descents. It was all too easy to cut short a pilgrimage after such an unfortunate accident. The practiced and seasoned hikers would know that one had to be very mindful of each step made. Even when they were tired. Even when being mindful of placing one foot in front of the other was the last thing they wanted to do.

On the last couple of Sundays we’ve encountered stories from the Gospel of Mark about Jesus’ healing ministry.[1] Indeed, during Ordinary (“green”) time in the church – both during the relatively shorter season after Epiphany in January and early February, and during the longer summer months in the season after Pentecost – the Gospel focus is the ministry of Jesus which includes healing.

In Lutheran circles we tend to look only at his proclamation; that is, we focus on what he said and taught the disciples about the kingdom of God. From this, we emphasize that Christian ministry is primarily about the proclamation of the good news. Mission, then, becomes more about ‘telling’ others about God, thus spreading the Word.

We miss an essential aspect of work-in-the-name-of-Christ with this limited vision of mission. Because, as elsewhere in the Gospels, we find that healing has equal prominence in Jesus’ ministry. Not only do we read about the miracles of Jesus curing disease, but more an inner healing for people battling their demons, so to speak. Healing has just as much to do about a renewed mind, a refreshed heart, a changed spirit. A reconstituted identity.

Healing is emphasized in the Gospel story today. Not just through words. But changed lives. Jesus came not only so that we might ‘believe’ with our minds in the good news, but that we might be healed in our earthen bodies and spirits.

How does this happen? What does Jesus do? From the text given to us today, Jesus’ took the hand of Simon’s mother-in-law, and “lifted her up.”[2] Jesus touches the person, physically. Taking someone by their hand is a sign of accompaniment. God is not remote from our human struggles. God is with us, Emanuel, in the person of Jesus. God takes our hand, and then lifts us up.

Faith can be described as movement. Last week we looked at the movement of ‘leaning into’ what we are afraid of, as a step in the direction of our healing – and finding Jesus is there. This week, the focus on the movement of ‘lifting up’, being ‘lifted up’, by God. As Jesus took the woman by the hand and lifted her up to be healed.

The Psalmist knew intimately this uplifting aspect of faith. “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”[3] Many of the Psalm writer’s verses are called “psalms of ascent” because they were sung on the way ‘up’ to Jerusalem. The ancient pilgrim faithful needed to ‘look up’ as they made their way up the mount to the gates of the holy city. You know the hymn: “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.”

Faith is a ‘look beyond and upwards’ movement. In other words, the life of faith is not characterized by remaining stuck in the valley of our own suffering and misery. A faithful life, of course, does not deny our suffering nor is it pretending or distracting ourselves away from accepting its harsh reality.

Despite life’s imperfections, and struggles, however, to be faithful is to remain focused on others, on the promise of God, and on the hope we have. God takes our hand and is with us, and God sees it all. As Paul wrote, “we only see dimly now”.[4] Because we cannot understand all of life’s complexities, we need to trust in life, trust in good, trust in God’s time, in God’s way, that “all things work together for good for those who love and trust in God.”[5]

We are not just lifted up for our sake alone. We are called to lift others up, especially the downtrodden. Ours is the calling to lift others up – physically, emotionally, spiritually and materially.

We all know people who are ‘the lifters’. In their presence you feel lighter, lifted up. Whether it be their life story, their non-judgemental presence, their desire to show mercy and compassion, their interest in listening to you – they are an inspiration to us. They inspire us by their discipline, their focus in life.

The Gospel message is: We don’t need to be continually burdened by our suffering and narrow focus. We can be lifted up and transformed to be a reflection of God’s light to the world. In being truly ourselves, we can be ‘lifters’ too.

Remember: Resurrection is the end game of our faith. I mean not only of Jesus’ resurrection over two thousand years ago. I mean not only of our resurrection after we die our physical, earthly death. Because of Jesus’ healing ministry, we know that God also wants us to experience ‘resurrections’ in our own lives – on our earthly pilgrimage of living.

We can change, yes. It won’t be easy. It will take work. It will challenge us. We will need to move outside of our comfort zones. We will need to endure our momentary afflictions. On this journey of transformation, it will get harder before it gets easier. The truth will set us free, but it will first make us miserable. This is Christian truth. There is a cost. It is first the Cross of Christ; it is then the empty tomb of Easter.

There’s a woman from Tennessee whose name is Margaret Stevenson. She was in her nineties when I first read about her passion for hiking. You see, Margaret Stevenson used to hike ten or fifteen miles every day. She was a legend in the Smoky Mountains. She knew every trail and every plant and tree by its Latin and colloquial name.

Bill was much younger than Margaret when he hiked with her one day up Mt. LeConte. Now, Mt. LeConte is the third highest mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park peaking at just over 6500 feet.

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Bill’s first trip up Mt. LeConte was Margaret’s seventy-fifth. When she finally stopped hiking she had climbed Mt. LeConte more than 700 times. Her husband rarely went, even before he got cancer.

When Bill and Margaret set out, they came upon what Margaret described as the most unrelenting two-mile ridge in the whole area – two miles up with no break. And this after a hard six miles on a very hot day.

Bill liked to hike in spurts, so he said, “See you later, Margaret,” and took off in his usual fashion and got way ahead of her. At some point, he found himself lying flat on his back in half delirium. A blurred Margaret passed him by at her steady pace. Bill can still hear the click-click of her cane and with no pity at all in her voice, she said, “One more mile to go, Bill. I’ll see you at the top!” And so, she did, arriving well ahead of Bill without stopping once.

Not long after that, Margaret’s husband finally died of cancer. But because of her daily walk with God, their last few hours were spent not in sadness or remorse, but in joy and celebration. For when Margaret says, “I’ll see you at the top!” she means it. For her face is fixed on Christ. Her step is steady and sure. And she knows the meaning of Isaiah’s words:

Even youth’s will faint and be weary,

And the young will fall exhausted;

But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

They shall mount up with wings as eagles,

They shall run and not be weary,

They shall walk and not faint.[6]

[1] Mark 1:21-28, Mark 1:29-39

[2] Mark 1:31

[3] Psalm 121:1-2, NRSV

[4] 1 Corinthians 13:12

[5] Romans 8:28

[6] William J. Carl III in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B, Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.318-319.