Perseverance – the Beatitudes in a word

Downstairs in the church kitchen just above the sink, hangs this sign with the words: “Blessed are they who clean up.” An encouragement this is, no doubt, to wash up dirty dishes with soap and place in the cupboards when finished.

But are these words more than encouragement?

Indeed, the Beatitudes which form the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel[1]are often treated as commandments. We read them as rules for living. And rules demonstrate a reality that we have not yet achieved, a desired reality that is beyond our present circumstances. And a reality that we must work towards by following the rules.

Dirty dishes left in the sink is not the desired reality. A clean kitchen is. So, get to work!

Last week, after Jesus called his first disciples, he went throughout Galilee teaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.[2]In these Beatitudes, now, we encounter precisely what constitutes the kingdom of heaven on earth. And it isn’t about following rules.  

For one thing, the bible isn’t a rule book with lists of commandments and directives for living. Its original writers were not products of our 21st century bias towards a rational logic based on a cause-effect, either-or, legalism. For the most part they didn’t write in order to tell people what to do, but rather to describe the kind of relationship we might have with the God of truth and love.

Besides the laws we read, especially in the Hebrew scriptures, we have to acknowledge the Bible contains other forms of writing: For example, there is rich narrative. There are stories and parables. There is history and sermon. In the bible’s pages we also read beautiful, image-rich poetry and incredible visions of the future.

The Beatitudes fall under the latter categories of the poetic variety. These are not expressed as rules; rather, as a vision of God’s faithfulness to the people of God. They describe what faithfulness between God and human looks like.

In order to understand what these Beatitudes mean, I suggest we consider other images—of the poetic variety—that could convey the meaning of the Beatitudes. In this way, we remain true to the original spirit and style of Jesus’ preaching in the introduction to his lengthy sermon on the mount.

Thomas Merton, born 104 years ago yesterday, and whom many consider the father of contemplative Christianity in the modern era, wrote: “Nothing has ever been said about God that hasn’t already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.” Like Merton, let’s use the metaphor of a tree to describe something that is true about our walk with God.

Twentieth Century African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, in his Meditations on the Heart, describes his journey to the tree line near the arctic circle. There he makes a startling discovery about the trees:

“It was above the timber line. The steady march of the forest had stopped as if some invisible barrier had been erected beyond which no trees dared move in a single file. Beyond was barrenness, sheer rocks, snow patches and strong untrammeled winds. Here and there were short tufts of evergreen bushes that had somehow managed to survive despite the severe pressures under which they had to live. They were not lush, they lacked the kind of grace of the vegetation below the timber line, but they were alive and hardy. 

“Upon close investigation, however, it was found that these were not ordinary shrubs. The formation of the needles, etc., was identical with that of the trees further down. As a matter of fact, they looked like branches of the other trees. When one actually examined them, the astounding revelation was that they were  branches.

“For, hugging the ground, following the shape of the terrain, were trees that could not grow upright, following the pattern of their kind. Instead, they were growing as vines grow along the ground, and what seemed to be patches of stunted shrubs were rows of branches of growing, developing trees. What must have been the torturous frustration and the stubborn battle that had finally resulted in this strange phenomenon! 

“It is as if the tree had said, ‘I will not give up. I will use to the full every resource in me and about me to answer life with life. In so doing I shall affirm that this is the kind of universe that sustains, upon demand, the life that is in it.’”[3]

Thurman’s description captures for me the essence, the feel, of what Jesus’ beatitudes represent. And, one very strong feel about these Beatitudes is the quality of perseverance that marks our relationship with God, and God’s relationship with us.

Our life with God is anything but passive. To stay the course with God requires perseverance, dedication and faithfulness. It is not to give up when the going gets tough. It is not to throw in the towel when the stress of living bears down.

“Blessed are you when people revile you…” Walking the path of Christ will invite scorn and judgement from a culture disinclined to Christ-like living. Yet, we are called to persevere on this simple but difficult path.

Whenever I watch footage of hurricanes slamming Caribbean island coast-lines, I am amazed at the resiliency of those palm trees on the beach. Storm surges wash away and erode shorelines. Untrammelled winds assail and play havoc with anything not bolted down and boarded up. Destruction follows the wake of these tempests.

And yet, the palm tree remains. How? Its capacity to be flexible, to bend, even so the branches on its crown may touch the ground. The strongest of these palms, the ones that have encountered and survived many storms over decades, have learned this art of living well: not to be so rigid so as to snap when the storms first hit; not to be so unyielding when the environment changes. To be able to move when necessary. And, therefore, to live.

Why the Beatitudes present such a challenge for us, is because they suggest a different kind of ‘knowing’ when it comes to God and our relationship with Jesus. In truth, we cannot know God. Ever. No matter how hard we try. Regardless of the number of books we’ve read, the number of bible verses we’ve memorized, the arguments we’ve won, even the number of times we’ve ‘gone to church’. While we walk this earthly path, we can only learn how to love God and one another in Christ. 

To know God this way has already given us all that we need for this path: not rules for living but gifts for the journey. Despite all the suffering, pain and challenge we encounter on the path, the grace of God provides a rich blessedness filled with gladness and joy for all we need.


[1]Matthew 5:1-12

[2]Matthew 4:23

[3]Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart (Beacon Press: 1999), 123-124.

Prayer: “Help”

When I heard this prayer I thought it related well and in a humorous way to how well we follow the ‘rules’ of our faith:

“Dear Lord, I am happy to report, so far this day has gone well: I haven’t coveted anyone their belongings; I haven’t harboured ill-will to my neighbours; I haven’t spoken hateful words or done anything out of spite to harm anyone; I want to help out in the church food-bank this week; I’m even praying to you now! I am thankful that this day has been going so well, Lord. But I think I’m going to need some help, once I get out of bed. Amen.”

Indeed, how well do we follow the commandments of God? The very act of getting out of bed almost guarantees we will make mistakes no matter our good intentions. It is our common humanity.

One of the functions of the Law, from a Lutheran point of view, is to make us realize that we totally depend on the grace of God. Let’s be honest. We need help, and we can’t do it on our own. No matter how hard we try, we will always miss the mark and mess up in some way. If there is anything good that comes out of our work, it is a gift and a grace.

This morning’s Gospel (John 13:31-35) was also read at the Maundy Thursday liturgy last month. Maundy means the commandment to love. It is fair to say that these words of Jesus capture the essence of who we are called to be and what we are called to do: In all we are called to be and do, is to personify love.

In this love, we see the glory of God. Glory. A statement attributed to Saint Ireneus of the early church comes to mind: “The glory of God is a human fully realized”. 

I take that to mean that God’s glory is not something other-worldly so much as something discovered in the ordinary, real, weak, broken life of a person who is able to receive with open heart the gifts of another, the gifts of grace and love. That is the glory of God. So intertwined with Jesus’ suffering as a human on the night of his betrayal (v.31-32), when Jesus needed to depend on his Father.

Faith is not just about believing and thinking doctrines and dogma, it’s more than that; it’s not just about believing, it’s about behaving. We have to pay attention to the behaving part. We must remember something I have heard our bishops say for many years now: Those who claim the greatest truth must demonstrate the greatest love.

Peter Steinke, who has given much thought, books and workshops about healthy churches and leadership today, told the true story of mega-church pastor whose congregation in the southern U.S. was doing really well. By all counts, Pastor Chase was enjoying unprecedented success in his vocation. 

And yet, he had confessed to Steinke, he was suffering from a malaise of the spirit. You could call it, a crisis of faith. Chase was losing a sense of personal direction in his work. 

Hearing about his struggle, a brother-in-law who was a member of a Franciscan order invited Chase to visit him in Italy. And so, Chase took his leave and spent that time resting, reading and visiting his extended family. 

Nearing the end of his time away, the brother-in-law invited him to come for a day to the AIDS hospice which the Franciscans managed and served the several men who were terminally ill. After working in the kitchen a couple of hours, a care-giver invited Chase upstairs to help with one of the residents. The man he looked upon was emaciated. His skin looked like it would fall off the bone. He couldn’t have been more than 90 pounds.

The care-giver greeted the man with a kiss on the forehead, and then looked at Chase: “Could you please lift him into the bath for me?” Chase carried the man and laid him into the bath water. The care-giver then asked, “Would you please wash him?” At first hesitant, Chase understood that this man needed a thorough wash. And so he did.

When they were finished and walking down the stairs the care-giver thanked Chase for his help. She indicated they were short-staffed that day and Chase had provided a real service to the hospice. “I can tell you have a Christian background,” she said. Chase responded: “It is I who need to thank you, Sister, because today I became a Christian.” (1)

“They will know we are Christians by our love,” goes the song. We have a choice to make. We need to be intentional as Christians. We cannot afford not to be, in this day and age. We can choose whether or not to love. 

We can’t save ourselves, or do anything to garner points for heaven, for we will always fall short no matter how heroic, self-giving or impressive our good deeds of faith appear. This is not about doing these things in order to make ourselves right with God. It is not about not doing anything at all. It is, however, about choosing actions that demonstrate care, compassion and love for the sake of others, and so, for God. 

It won’t ever be perfect. But that’s not the point. It is about behaviour that flows genuinely from a heart of love. And understands that all is a gift: The gift of faith, the gift of each other, the gift of community, the gift of Jesus Christ who is alive and lives in the Body of Christ, the church, and in the world he so loves.

(1) – adpated from a video entitled, “To Make a Difference”, presented in an upcoming workshop called “Apple Tree” by the Eastern Synod-ELCIC. Apple Tree is a workshop to help stimulate conversations about purpose and mission

Rules of the Gate

“I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out, and find pasture” (John 10:9).

It would seem to me that the “gate” that is Jesus, ought to channel my thinking, my values and my directions in life.

Admittedly, there is a very strict etiquette to gates; a rule book that you must follow because not to do so may cost dearly, or lead to death, or destroy a family’s livelihood. What are the ‘rules of the gate’?

Well, the first that comes to my mind is, ‘shut the gate after you.’ It’s okay to open the gate to let yourself through but you must make sure it’s closed and fastened just the way you found it, once you’re the other side.

Other rules perhaps aren’t so obvious – if the gate’s held open, under no circumstances must you shut it, especially if you live on an farm with herds of cattle, sheep, horses, etc.. After all, the herd’s access to water is through that open gateway; if you close it disaster may follow: Animals may force themselves through hedges or fences onto a railway line or highway in their search for water with consequences too horrible to dwell on.

Rules also apply to climbing over the gate rather than opening it. Always climb near the hinges so that your weight doesn’t put a levered strain on those very hinges and potentially bend or even break them. The same applies to where you aim yourself if you’re going to vault the gate.

And if you’re tempted (and supple enough) to crawl under a gate – don’t – you’ll wear away the ground and encourage others to do the same until eventually animals will also do likewise. And, of course, always use the gate no matter how much extra effort it involves because to avoid it by scrambling over a wall, pushing through a hedge, or scaling a fence has potential for damage that animals will seek out and follow.

With gates there are rules. With gates there are principles of which to be aware. With gates come obligations that every person should follow. These are things to think on when Jesus calls himself the gate.

Whatever else the metaphor means, it’s clear that it’s about Jesus as the single entrance to the community of the faithful. We can only be part of this flock by going through this one gateway – and in that is our security and our protection. There is no other way in. Jesus is the very gate itself. The strength and clarity of that image is, I think, obvious.

But that isn’t the only thing this images means.

Jesus, the master of parables, uses metaphor in a rich and involving way that encourages his hearers to think long and hard about the images he uses. He requires of us that thinking because it makes us part of his people. We are involved in using his thoughts; musing on his meanings; and engaging with the pictures he himself has given us.

His story-telling style is one that asks effort on our part so that we can live within the images and symbols that he thought important. He speaks in a way that deliberately draws us closer to him. He makes us active participants in his telling, his living, of salvation. We are never just the audience.

An English lad got himself a summer job working on one of the Canadian Great Lakes – it was a real adventure for him. Of course on the application form he had to answer certain questions about his suitability for the job. When it came to the vital one about whether he was able to swim, he wrote: ‘Yes, I learnt the motions of swimming at my secondary school.’

Inevitably the day came when he fell off his employer’s motor boat. There followed wild splashing and shouting. He was clearly in trouble and had to be rescued. When on the lakeshore he had recovered from his ordeal he was asked about his answer on the form. ‘Yes,’ he said, I learnt the motions of swimming at school but I found them hard to put into practice.’ (Thank you to Christopher Burkett for many of the words and illustrations here come from his sermon, “Finding the Gate” in the online resource: Preacher Rhetorica, 2014)

And indeed they are! You can only learn swimming by swimming. Knowing the motions helps, but that’s no substitute for getting wet! It’s the difference between ‘knowing about’ and ‘knowing.’ This is why the Jesus method of teaching requires of us practice. He doesn’t tell us about living faithfully; instead he asks us to know faithful living from the inside. It’s not ‘You might compare my place in our community to something like a gate,’ but ‘I am the gate.’ It is as easy, but also as engagingly complex, as that. ‘Work out your living with me as the gate,’ says Jesus. Take this image and make it part of your living.

Don’t only know about the motions – like the lad and his swimming. Don’t dwell on the theory, as essential as that might be sometimes. But rather let the image, the symbol, the story become the lens through which you see your living of the faithful life. You can’t get faith ready to wear, off the peg. It’s not a system you can be drilled, or forced, or argued into. No, faith is an adventure of heart and mind where you write the script that utilizes the ideas, the images, the symbols that Jesus provides. Jesus, the master story-teller, gives us enough material for a lifetime and more.

A way through the gate is what is needed. Helping each other to a way through – to the way through, is our witness as people of faith. How do we do that?

When Bishop Michael Pryse (Eastern Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) met with the Christian Council of the (Ottawa) Capital Area last week, he addressed some good questions about what keeps us from actively pursuing and growing relationships with people of differing faiths from ours. Bishop Pryse said that what motivates him to engage people who are different from him is that doing so always “brings out the best Christian” in him.

Contrary to what we might first think — that hanging out with Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, Baptists, United Church members or Anglicans could ‘water down’ our faith as Lutherans or Christians — engaging the diverse community of faith in truth enhances our loyalty to and conviction in our Lutheran-Christian identity. If anything we should seek out, not avoid, building relationships with those who are different from us, because it may very well encourage to “bring out the best Christian” in us.

The strategy, or rules of engagement, are threefold: First, be a friend. Second, make a friend. And then, bring a friend to Jesus. In that order! These gate rules are, essentially, about practising compassion, care and grace. That’s the best way to be a friend, then make a friend, then bring a friend to Jesus. NOT by trying to persuade the other they are wrong and we are right. That’s not how you be a friend — by trying to win one over against the stranger — to compete with them, to say, “My way is better than your way.” That’s not how you make a friend or keep a friend, is it?

You would expect me to say that the ways to go through the gate are the routes and rules of religion – faithfulness in prayer, in receiving communion, in working with the scriptures, in the giving of effort, time and cash to godly purposes. And that is certainly the case – these are tried and tested pathways. But the Jesus way of engaging us and the world in his saving life does more.

Remember, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment: to “love another” (John 13:34; 15:12). Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount: “There is no other commandment greater than greatest of these” — to love God and love neighbour (Mark 12:31). Paul writes to the Galatians: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (5:14).

The image of the gate asks of us effort, imagination and personal involvement. Jesus is the life. And we are to live in his way and dwell in his truth, that we may live his risen life. One of the things the resurrection of Christ means is that all the old criteria of judgement no longer apply – the ultimate criterion of death is no more.

We are to be a people who measure things not by the scarcity of death but by the abundant, resurrection life of Jesus. Let there be an end to cynicism and despair. We need each other to keep that measure bright and usable. Knowing each other; sustaining each other; bearing with each other; encouraging other; learning of each other; supporting each other – in joy as well as trouble.

Following these ‘rules of the gate’ will get us to pasture, through the valley of the shadow of death, and into the life, the light, and the love of Christ, eternal.

“There is a place we can find, a good place
like quiet meadows where flowers spread,
like green grasses by gentle streams;
a place where the heart feels nourished,
where the mind is hopeful, unhurried,
where the spirit is glad and at peace.
We’ll name this place fulfillment,
we’ll name it healing and thankfulness,
we’ll name this good place pasture
for there we seek to feed.

And there is a voice we can hear that calls us,
a gentle voice, melodious,
a voice like songbirds and laughter,
like a mother comforting her children,
like a shepherd calling his sheep.
We’ll name this voice acceptance,
we’ll name it mercy and forgiveness,
we’ll name it the voice of God’s love,
inviting us gently to feed.

It invites us to enter pasture
when we think we’re too hurting to listen,
too angry or grieving or fearful
to hear the voice that calls us to peace.

It invites us to enter pasture
when we’re sure we’re too busy to listen,
too burdened or worried or pressured
to hear the voice that calls us to peace.

It says: Come in and go out and find pasture.
It says: We are safe with the shepherd of all sheep.
It says: Meadows await us, in this moment.
It says: Rest in love. Where you are. Joyfully feed.”

“Pasture”, from Andrew King’s web blog, A Poetic Kind Of Place