Because it all matters to God

Last weekend, my family visited the Biodome in Montreal. Situated right beside the Olympic Stadium, it used to house the cycling competitions during the 1976 Summer Olympics. But in recent years it was converted into four distinct and self-contained eco-systems from diverse regions in North and South America.

My favourite was the eco-system from South America, for its lush, tropical environment: humid, warm, pungent air; broad leaf palm trees; and, a host of diverse animals – crocodiles, capybaras and scarlet ibis birds.

Our nine-year-old daughter’s favourite animal is the turtle. She spent a lot of time gazing down onto the mossy ground of the rainforest where the yellow-spotted turtle made its home.

When the guide asked us if we had any questions, my daughter wondered where the baby turtles were. The guide said that it was getting more and more difficult for them to obtain babies since they were very vulnerable in that stage of life; indeed it seems that natural selection is making the turtle an extinct species.

Without their fully developed shell in which the adult turtle could retreat to hide and keep safe from predators, the infant turtles are getting far too susceptible to a premature death and more difficult to protect. Who knows? Maybe the turtle with its shelled existence is going the way of the dodo bird.

The religious people in Jesus’ day felt they were up against a formidable predator in the Roman occupation of Palestine. The Gospel of Matthew was written about the time when the Roman legions were laying siege to eventually destroy the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and fetter out any Zealots who violently opposed the occupation.

With their temple under attack, the anxious people of God were asking questions of identity and purpose: Who are we and what are we to do? How can it be that God’s holy city and temple are occupied territory? What does this say about God’s relationship with us? How does God want us to respond to this dark and murky reality of life?

This is the social and political context to which Jesus spoke, on the hillside near Capernaum overlooking the Sea of Galilee. This Gospel text (Matthew 5:13-20) forms part of the famous Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus outlined the values and purpose of the kingdom of God “that is near” (4:17).

It is a situation not completely unlike our own. When you consider the history of Christianity over the past two millennia, we find ourselves today in a similar, challenging circumstance: the institution of the church is diminished to the point of demise in many quarters. Christendom, once mighty, powerful and dominant in the western world, is relegated now in our society to the point of obscurity and irrelevance.

Many are asking those same questions: Who are we, and what are we to do? How can it be that God’s nation is “occupied” territory? How does God want us to respond to this dark and uncertain reality of life?

It is a natural instinct for many who, when under stress and pressure and the burden of fear, retreat under the shell – as a turtle does. One response to the perceived threat is to strengthen the walls between sacred and secular. Against the wiles of the crazy, dangerous world ‘out there’ we escape into our private and safe domains of home, property and religious purity. And build a fortress. But is this the right strategy? Or, does it spell, like the turtle, possible extinction?

Amidst the threats against the practice of faith in first century Palestine and twenty-first century Canada, Jesus preaches another way.

Amidst these threats, Jesus challenged Israel to be Israel, just as he challenges us to be ourselves in faith today. Jesus did not say, “You must become salt of the earth by pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” Jesus did not say, “You must one day down the road when everything is perfect in the world again, or when you can somehow make yourself worthy of it, become the light.”

Jesus announced, to remind them and us: “You ARE the salt of the earth.” “You ARE the light of the world, right now, right here, in the world as it is, in your life as it is now with all its uncertainty, and in all its darkness.” We don’t have to hide nor retreat behind fortress walls. The solution is in somehow activating saltiness and brightness within us.

So, how do we do that? If there were to be only one way of doing God’s will; if there were only one way of being a Christian – then I’m not sure Jesus would talk in parables and present metaphors and images like salt and light – images open to a multitude of functions and capabilities. Jesus would just spell it out in the letter of the law.

But no. Salt and Light. It’s as if he is saying: Given all the uses of salt, and the various applications of light – how do you fit in?

When Jesus uses the image of light, he makes the point not to hide it under a bushel, but make sure everyone can see it (Matthew 5:14-16). But if others are to see the light, in what conditions do we let it shine? At the noontime of a bright, sunny day?

We will have to shine it in the darkness. After all, people don’t notice a light – whether a flashlight or candle – in the brightness of day. But at night. When all is dark. When you can’t see everything clearly. When the way is uncertain. Where shadows lengthen.

That’s where we are to go. Into places of darkness, in the world and in our own lives: Where people suffer hunger, homelessness and rejection; Where we harbor unhealthy secrets within our souls. This may not seem very religious. This activity may not be easy or make us feel good. But it is where Jesus calls us “to follow him”.

Annie Dillard writes, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.” (p.43, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, New York: Harper, 1992)

Why do we go into the darkness of the world? Why should we take these risks, and expose even our own weaknesses and vulnerability?

Because this world matters to God. All of it. Not some utopic fantasy of what it could be without all the stains of human sin splattered all over the place. But this world in all its complexities, challenges, difficulties, problems.

Just like the weeds and the wheat – what did Jesus instruct his disciples in telling that parable? (Matthew 13:24-30) – To leave the wheat and weeds together, and God will take care of separating out the two when the time comes.

This world matters to God. Our human condition matters to God. Otherwise, Jesus would not have come the way he did:

  1. Jesus appeared in the dust of first century Palestine. Often throughout the Gospels, the writers take pains to indicate the time and place of the event they are recording. For example, the Gospel of Matthew opens with a detailed account, name for name, of the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:1ff). The Word became flesh. God entered humanity, in a specific time and place in history. Jesus fully embodied both human and divine. The incarnation was, and is, not some abstract notion removed from life on earth. Jesus was born into this world.
  2. When Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the temple ripped in half (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38), symbolically abolishing the distinction between sacred and secular for all time. No longer would religious life be divided into neat categories that separated the faithful from real life, from engagement with the world as it is.
  3. In the ancient (Apostles’) creed of the church we say we believe in the “resurrection of the body”; by placing value on our own bodies in following Jesus we claim continuity between this world and the next. That means that laughing, grieving, crying, caring, walking, working, making love – doing all those things that are part of regular living in our own skin – these are all sacramental activities. These activities, Jesus preaches, are the building blocks of the kingdom of God.

The stuff of earth matters to God. And that’s why we reflect the light of Christ in the darkness of it.

By going the way of Jesus to reflect his light in a dark world, we discover a great grace: that we already have and are all that we need and God needs, to fulfill God’s purposes for us and for the world, in this time and in this place.

Enneagram Soccer

The U12 boys soccer season came to an end yesterday. As a parent watching all four games of the concluding tournament, I couldn’t help but notice how varying personalities engaged one another on the pitch — consistently.

It wasn’t a matter of ‘one shoe size fits all’ personalities. It wasn’t even true to say that each player behaved in a variety of ways in response to changing circumstances. No.

It became clear to me that each player demonstrated a consistent, dominant, style of play throughout the tournament regardless of the character of the opponent.

Below is a summary of the three main styles of personality evident in the play of these young boys. Of course, the names are fictional.

First, there is Derek. Derek has ‘presence’ on the field. His body language communicates a relaxed confidence. When you look at him, you know you behold someone who feels good in their skin. He moves well in his larger-than-life body. It doesn’t hurt that he’s rather tall.

Derek is not afraid to go places many of his team mates don’t want to go. In fact, Derek gets positioned all over the field — from defensive ‘sweeper’ to front line striker — depending on the team being played. Opposition can be intimated by Derek. That’s why we like him so much.

Derek is a true leader. His team mates admire him. And his swagger is the envy of all. His power can turn the momentum of a game around. Derek’s initiating energy can make all the difference in a close game.

Derek can take physical punishment in a game. He walks-off any injury in no time, without drawing attention to his discomfort.

In recovering from a foul he will not try to break his fall prematurely, which might lead to injury. Instead, he will allow his body to move in whatever direction the momentum of the hit takes him — sometimes doing cartwheels and stunning the spectators and parents alike with his on-field acrobatics.

Derek can dish out punishment as well. And this sometimes will get him into trouble. Always offering a hand to the immobilized opposing player lying on the field after a hit — thus revealing his soft heart — referees will often card him for unnecessary roughness.

Then there is Barry. He usually gets picked to play on the front line, at center. He wears the colorful cleats and stands out despite the uniform. In fact, some unique quality distinguishes him from the rest of the pack.

Barry is not the tallest boy on the team. But his speed is most noted. He can run very fast. Which also often gets him into trouble since he forgets the off-side rule and thereby oversteps his bounds.

He is all heart. A likeable guy, Barry often goes the distance with his team mates socially. He’s right there after the tournament in the ice cream shop, sitting at the table surrounded by all the rest of the guys. He asks his Dad if he can go and represent the team at the awards ceremony at the end of the day when everyone else has already gone home. When taking leadership, it’s the social game Barry’s really good at.

And there isn’t a game day that goes by without both teams ‘taking a knee’ for him as he writhes on the soccer pitch in pain form an injury (not usually serious) sustained in a passionate play at the top of the box. Attention, no matter how it’s won, is the name of the game.

Finally there is Kyle. He is literally light on his feet. He almost dances around and with the ball. His primary interest is in technique. And in the heat of the moment when surrounded by oncoming opponents, he can get off a good strike – fast. Threading the needle with an impossible pass is his bailiwick.

For Kyle, most of the game gets played in his head. He imagines the play unfolding and can anticipate reasonably well. When taking leadership, he directs his team mates on the field during set plays as he envisions the play unfold.

On the downside, Kyle can hesitate. When setting up a play, he sometimes waits too long to make that pass. He also avoids getting down and dirty in digging out the ball from the feet of an opposing player. Despite Kyle’s formidable mental game and technical prowess, he holds back fearfully from being assertive and even aggressive — sought after qualities from any position on the field.

Three types of players. Three centers of intelligence: body (Derek), heart (Barry) and mind (Kyle). With which one do you most naturally and easily relate?

God gave you a special gift — an indelible imprint on your life. Your unique personality is an aspect of the divine character reflected in you (Genesis 1:27). Knowing what that gift is would help a lot as you make a positive mark on the world.

Impossible demands Incredible love

Mark Wahlberg is known for his acting prowess in films like “The Perfect Storm”, “Italian Job”, “The Fighter” and will star in next year’s “Transformers” sequel. He recently gave an interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan about the transformation in his life – from being a brawler and coke addict as a teenager to being a faithful Christian who now starts each day going into a church to pray.

Piers asks Mark Wahlberg, “What do you pray for?” He basically answers by saying he wants to be the best person he can be – responsible, a good neighbor, father, son, and servant to God.

On one level, I appreciate very much when popular, culture icons like Mark Wahlberg give public testimony to the Christian faith. His example gives a positive impression to the power of prayer, especially among younger people. “What do you pray for?” seems to strike a chord, since it is fashionable for skeptics who question God’s loving existence to point to unanswered prayer. Have they considered the very goal of prayer?

In the Gospel of John, one of the first words recorded out of the mouth of Jesus when he meets up with a couple of his disciples are: “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38). Apparently Jesus, too, recognizes the significance of, first off, identifying what it is we want, or expect, from God.

We may feel like the early disciples of Jesus did, then, when they asked Jesus: “Teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Jesus responds by instructing them to say what has become known as the “Our Father” or “The Lord’s Prayer” – the paramount prayer of Christianity.

So, what does Jesus tell us to ask for? In Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:1-4), the first thing we ask for is “Thy Kingdom Come”. Perhaps this can give us a clue to the aim and nature of our Christian prayer.

In the interview, Mark Wahlberg says that he would rather give favours than receive favours. It is natural, is it not, to want to believe that our redemption and transformation will happen as a result of our good efforts? Even prayer becomes about telling God what we want and desire, about actualizing our dreams for a better world and life by our energy and efforts and eloquence.

There is much in this Gospel text to suggest that our growth and maturity rests with our initiative: “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (v.9-10). We resonate with those words, don’t we? They roll off our tongues easily enough! And we tell ourselves to buck up!

Yet, how many times have we given up on prayer because what we asked for so diligently hasn’t come to pass? We may have prayed and prayed and prayed for release from some kind of bondage or for someone else’s well being. And whatever it is continues to burden our lives. The issue remains unresolved.

This conundrum might be best described with forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask God for forgiveness. But this forgiveness, it seems, is conditional upon our ability to forgive ‘everyone’ indebted to us! “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

That’s a tall order! Yikes! Have I forgiven – truly forgiven – others who have hurt me? And not only the one person that first comes to mind – but everyone who has ever hurt me? If not, will God forgive me?

Right after the Lord’s Prayer Jesus tells a rather weird story about going to a friend in the middle of the night to ask for three loaves of bread. Notwithstanding the awkward position in which you would be putting your friend in the middle of the night, why on earth wouldn’t you have something as basic as bread in your house at any given time?

Why would you be all out of bread in the first place? In a culture devoid of corner stores and open-all-night Seven-Elevens, you would think folks in Jesus’ day would plan ahead and have food stored up. Obviously a subtext of Jesus’ story here is the irresponsibility, laziness, short-sightedness, and sinfulness causing you to go to your friend in the first place.

How many times have I withheld grace or forgiveness from someone because I have felt they haven’t done their part enough to deserve my help?

On one hand I admire the person going shamelessly and boldly to the friend. It takes guts to interrupt someone, especially at night. Perhaps we can learn from this the trust and confidence you have in your friend to help you. Similar to the trust and confidence we are called upon to place in God.

Elsewhere in the New Testament the writer John expresses it this way: “I write the truth to you because you already know the truth” (1 John 2:21). We receive these words of Scripture and the word of God in Jesus Christ not because we don’t know it or don’t have it. We receive the words telling the truth of Jesus today because the truth and presence of Jesus already resides within us – at that deep level, in our hearts. The bible’s message is given to us to remind us, to help us re-member, what is already living within us.

And so with confidence, boldness, and shamelessness, we approach the “throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:13) with our pleas for help – even when those requests are misguided, selfish and born from our own weaknesses.

And this is the point, I believe, of the Gospel. Ultimately it is not about our efforts to make something of prayer and our relationship with God. Rather, it is about a God who will help us, no matter what. Jesus reminds us that God is always willing to offer us the help we need in order to live out the truth of Christ within us for the sake of the world which God so loved (John 3:16). Such is the incredible love of God even in the face of impossible demands.

While God receives all our prayers, however tainted with our ego compulsions, fears and neediness, the power of prayer resides in ‘thy kingdom come’ – which some ancient transcripts translated as “Your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us.” Such a rendition is worth considering, because it is consistent with the last verse (13) of the text: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

I wonder about the positive changes we desire for our lives. I wonder about how we shall pray for the good things we seek for ourselves, those we love, the church, and the world around us. What do you pray for? – the Holy Spirit? – the deep yearning for an experience of God’s love and grace and forgiveness? – that our lives be transformed according to love of God for us and for the world?

Will we pray for, and in, God’s will?

When we pray, “Thy kingdom come” are we willing to let ‘my kingdom’ go? (Richard Rohr).

What do you expect from God?

Good things! Good things, for the sake and love of the world, in Christ Jesus.