The change within

When seventeen-year-old Hannah said she was drug free, her parents were skeptical. Having participated in a rehab program and given all the support she could expect from friends and family, Hannah was able to declare that she was finding success in weaning herself off a destructive opioid dependence.

But her father was not convinced. When pressed, he simply confessed, “I don’t believe people can change. Once a drug addict, always a drug addict.”

Though fictional, Hannah and her parents’ situation poses a common predicament for many today. Not just of the real struggle with addiction. But also the struggle with belief: Do we change? And if so, how? And maybe more to the point: Do we recognize the change that happens in our lives? Do we want to?

There’s the story of the Zen Monk who was visiting Time’s Square in New York. And he wanted to buy a hotdog. The vendor asked him, “What would you like on your hotdog?”

The monk replied with a smile, “Make me one with everything.” So the vendor made the hotdog with ketchup, onions and lettuce and mustard and all these other nice things. And he gave it to the monk, and the monk gave the vendor a twenty-dollar bill.

And the vendor didn’t give him anything back. So the monk said, “What about my change?” And the vendor said, “The change is all within.”[1]

An underlying belief in Christianity is that people do change. The resurrection of Christ presents the ultimate pattern for life. We die. We live. We grow. We evolve. We are given new beginnings, to live again. Death. Resurrection. Life is dynamic, not static.

On this Transfiguration of our Lord Sunday, we encounter people who change. First and foremost, Jesus. He is bathed in uncreated light and to the onlookers his face radiates a changed appearance. His countenance is transformed before their very eyes. Here the gospel writers want to emphasize Jesus’ divine nature, his unique revelation as God’s own. The witnesses to this holy and amazing encounter receive the most wonderful gift of experiencing God’s greatness in Christ.[2]

At the same time, the transfigured Lord encounters us. In the scriptures for this Sunday we witness change in the characters of the bible, specifically Moses, Elijah and Paul.[3]They, and others in the bible, are not static beings, one-dimensional characters. We witness in them, rather, incredible change over the course of their lives and throughout history.

In other words, Jesus is not the only one who shows a divine-like appearance. Throughout scripture, there are others who experience within themselves a transfiguration.

Jesus is the first and foremost. But God’s divinity, though fully expressed in Jesus, is not confined to Jesus. God’s true presence is not limited to Jesus for Jesus’ sake alone. God’s fullness in all of creation is not locked in one specific time of history, two thousand years ago.

Martin Luther called it, the great, wonderful, holy “exchange”[4]. On the cross God experienced the fullness of our human sin in all its humiliating nakedness and vulnerability in order that all for whom Christ loved and died may eventually experience and grow into the fullness of divine life and union with God. This divine-human holy exchange is exemplified and mediated through Jesus.

We may balk at the notion that in our very lives, in each one of us, God is present in the living consciousness of Jesus. How can we be that good, eh? We are so used to imagining a separation there—that God is ‘out there’ reserved exclusively to doctrinal debate alone or in some other person upon whom we project all our hopes and dreams. But within me? In my heart? So that I can live differently, better, a changed person?

St. Paul, elsewhere in his first century writings expresses this truth from the start: In his letter to the Galatians, he says, “God revealed his Son in me”[5]. On the road to Damascus the living, post-resurrected Christ encountered Paul. Over one hundred times in all of his New Testament writings he writes this phrase: en Christo meaning ‘in Christ’. And to the Colossians, he confesses: “There is only Christ. He is everything and he is in everything.”[6]

The vendor’s response to the monk carries metaphoric weight. The change is within. A holy encounter with Jesus first changes us within. The change for the better can happen because God is in us. God works on our hearts. God is relentless. Sometimes it hurts. God is the refiner’s fire, creating and re-creating us from the inside-out.

So that, eventually, the light of Christ’s love may shine forth from our lives, and our union with God will be complete, in this world and the next.

Thanks be to God!

 

[1]Laurence Freeman, “Change is part of the Journey, like it or not”; talk 1 in Mount Oliveto Retreat, Maggiore Siena, Italy, June 18-25, 2016: Change (wccm.org, audio resources, album)

[2]Luke 9:28-43

[3]Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2

[4]“That is the mystery which is rich in divine grace to sinners: wherein by a wonderful exchange our sins are no longer ours but Christ’s and the righteousness of Christ not Christ’s but ours. He has emptied Himself of His righteousness that He might clothe us with it, and fill us with it.

And He has taken our evils upon Himself that He might deliver us from them… in the same manner as He grieved and suffered in our sins, and was confounded, in the same manner we rejoice and glory in His righteousness.”

–Martin Luther, Werke (Weimar, 1883), 5: 608.

[5]Chapter one, verse sixteen, as translated by the NIV and JB.

[6]Chapter three, verse 11. In the NRSV, the Greek is translated, “He is all and in all.”

Lent begins again: Why?

We begin a journey of some forty days, which mirrors Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). We continue to observe the season of Lent, year after year, as we approach the most holy of Christian days — Easter, the resurrection of our Lord.

But why do we do this? Why do we continue to do this, it seems, against the flow of society and the dominant culture today? As a child, I remember when it was more popular to ‘give up’ something for Lent; people actually did give something up, like dessert or TV. Some still do, I know.

And yet, it seems from the perspective of our economy and lifestyle today, that planning for March break, and sun-shine, escapist getaways get more attention and energy than any spiritual discipline might.

So, let’s begin our Lenten journey with a close look at why we need to go on this trip in the first place. Speaking of journeys, then, here’s a fascinating one from the history books:

“Early in the twentieth century, the English adventurer Ernest Shackleton set out to explore the Antarctic …. The land part of the expedition would start at the frigid Weddell Sea, below New Zealand …

“‘The crossing of the south polar continent will be the biggest polar journey ever attempted,’ Shackleton told a reporter for the New York Times on December 29, 1913.’

“On December 5, 1914, Shackleton and a crew of twenty-seven men set out for the Weddell Sea on the Endurance, a 350-ton ship that had been constructed with funds from private donors, the British government and the Royal Geographical Society. By then, World War 1 was raging in Europe, and money was growing more scarce. Donations from English schoolchildren paid for the dog teams.

“But the crew of the Endurance would never reach the continent of Antarctica.

“Just a few days out of South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic, the ship encountered mile after mile of pack ice, and was soon trapped as winter moved in early and with fury. Ice closed in around the ship ‘like an almond in a piece of toffee,’ a crew member wrote.

“Shackleton and his crew were stranded in the Antarctic for ten months as the Endurance drifted slowly north, until the pressure of the ice floes finally crushed the ship. On November 21, 1915, the crew watched as she sank in the frigid waters of the Weddell Sea.

“Stranded on the ice, the crew of the Endurance boarded their three lifeboats and landed on Elephant Island. There Shackleton left behind all but five of his men and embarked on a hazardous journey across 800 miles of rough seas to find help. Which, eventually, they did.

“What makes the story of the Endurance so remarkable, however, is not the expedition. It’s that throughout the whole ordeal no one died. There were no stories of people eating others and no mutiny [to speak of …. Some have argued that ] “This was not luck. This was because Shackleton hired good fits. He found the right men for the job ….

“Shackleton’s ad for crew members was different [from the norm]. His did not say WHAT he was looking for. His did not say: ‘Men needed for expedition. Minimum five year’s experience. Must know how to hoist mainsail. Come work for a fantastic captain.’ Rather, Shackleton was looking for those with something more. He was looking for a crew that belonged on such an expedition. His actual ad ran like this:

“‘Men wanted for Hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.’

“The only people who applied for the job were those who read the ad and thought it sounded great. They loved insurmountable odds. The only people who applied for the job were survivors. Shackleton hired only people who believed what he believed. Their ability to survive was guaranteed.” (1)

Year after year, the Gospel text from Matthew 6 is read on Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the Lenten journey. It is a journey, a pilgrimage, you might say. For those willing to embark on the sometimes harrowing yet intentional path, Jesus points to the authentic quality and honesty of community life.

Being the church in the world is not to give a false impression, to show how exceptional we are in the religious marketplace. Being the church to the world is to be authentic and true to what we believe and who we are, whether or not we measure up to some cultural standards of behaviour.

Maybe that explains why Lent is no longer popular in our day. Society has already been for a while losing ourselves in distractions. In 1985 Neil Postman claimed that we were “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” (2) Over a decade earlier, Ernest Becker wrote a book I read in seminary, entitled, “The Denial of Death” (3) which is a theological reflection on how we live in ‘modern’ North America.

Indeed, we in the West continue on a course of distracting ourselves to death — with stimulating toys, technological advance and even more addictive ways to keep the truth at bay. This strategy, with often tragic consequences, only serves to drive a deeper wedge and division from our true selves.

The symbolic destination of the Lenten journey is the Cross, on Good Friday. And so, right off the start, we know this can’t be an easy journey, when we have to face and bear our own cross. But this is what life is about, is it not? Whenever hardship comes our way in whatever form it does — illness, loss, tragedy, disappointment, conflict and confrontation, failure, guilt, pain. We don’t have to seek it out; Suffering comes to us all. This is a reality we are called to accept.

We are called not to deny that our message is for people who are honest about their brokenness, who in their vulnerability do not want to pretend their weaknesses away. Our suffering can be a great teacher, an opportunity for growth and wholeness.

Suffering, in the words of Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall, “belongs to an order of creation insofar as struggle … is necessary to evoke the human potential for nobility, for love, for wisdom, and for depth of authenticity of being. A pain-free life would be a life-less life.” (4)

Lent is not a path to ultimate self-annihilation. Ultimately, Lent is not a downer. Because suffering can point to a new beginning. Followers of Jesus are not a people who suffer the pains of life without faith and hope. We can face what life brings, with a conviction that together, we can do more than merely survive.

On this journey we can experience that the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. In accompanying each other through the difficult times, we can experience something greater than ourselves. Together we will realize more than we could ever have imagined on our own; transformation, resurection, a new beginning. Together, because God in Jesus goes with us. We are not alone on this journey.

God blesses this journey.

1 – Simon Sinek, “Start With Why” (New York: Penguin, 2009), p.90-93
2 – Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985)
3 – Ernest Becker, “The Denial of Death” (New York: Free Press, 1973)
2 – Douglas John Hall, “God and Human Suffering: An exercise in the Theology of the Cross” (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), p.62-63

Rooted in the earth, rising to the sun

Recently I have been reading about people’s experiences on the Camino de Santiago — the eight hundred kilometre walking pilgrimage through northern Spain. This walk has become more and more popular among Christians of all stripes over the past couple of decades. It seems Christians around the globe are finding the pilgrimage a good place to work through personal issues, find focus in life again and seek re-connection with God, the world and themselves.

This past week I met with one such pilgrim from Ottawa who goes at least once a year to walk some part of the Camino; in fact he is leaving today for Barcelona. I sought his experienced advice for some practical considerations for the trek. His first rule of thumb: Pack only ten percent of your body weight. For me, that would mean no more that 20 pounds in my back pack — of all that I would need for the thirty to forty day hike. Twenty pounds is not a lot!

His second rule of thumb: What you wear on your back, put only one in your pack. That’s all. For example, if you are wearing a t-shirt, pack only one other t-shirt in your back-pack. If you are wearing a pair of shorts, pack only one other pair of shorts. And so on.

He laughed when he told me that about four days in — some one hundred kilometres into the journey — you find bins and bins full of personal items people left behind. These pilgrims had realized, thankfully sooner than later, that they were simply carrying too much — stuff they didn’t really need (extra shirts, pants, sweaters, books, jackets, bed mats, blankets, etc.). A final rule of thumb from my friend: If you do take something extra, then you need to have a good reason for it besides, “I might need it.”

This discipline reflects the quality of being able to let go. It can be described as a total self-surrendering, a giving up. The term “Kenosis” has been used among Christians throughout the ages to connote this sense of releasing that which we normally feel we need to hold onto tightly.

Fourteenth century German theologian Meister Eckhart said, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.” (1) In our consumer culture, religion and spirituality have very often become a matter of addition: earning points with God, attaining enlightenment, producing moral behaviour. In the ‘prosperity gospel’ so popular in North America, we often hear the message that Jesus approves of you when your material and financial wealth increases; the more you have, the more in favour you are in God’s eyes.

Yet authentic, Christian faith is not about getting, attaining, achieving, performing or succeeding. The solution is not just “work harder” or “get more” of something. Our culture and economy, indeed, is based on more and more. Whereas true faith suggests: less is more. Martin Luther’s theology of Justification by Grace through Faith suggests the very same: We cannot by our own efforts achieve anything worthy of God.

So, stop trying. In fact, start doing the opposite: Let go of your pretence to manage your life according to the creed: Bigger and More is Better. Let go of a paralyzing negative body image. Let go of the inner talk that is putting yourself down, that tells you you are no good. Let go of attitudes of hatred against people who are different from you. Let go of those material aspirations that tease you into a false sense of security. Let go of being paralyzed by fear.

Instead, focus on what is essential. Appreciate that you already have enough, all that you need. When Jesus gives instruction in the Gospel text for today (Luke 14:25-33) he is travelling out on a public road, on his pilgrimage to the Cross. Remember, ever since Luke 9:51, he is already on the way to Jerusalem, his final destination. When Jesus is walking towards his death and resurrection in Jerusalem, he offers what sounds rather harsh to our ears. What is called-for here is a ‘single-mindedness’ that is needed when you travel with Jesus.

Discipleship is about being single-minded about the purpose, the goal and the mission of Jesus in the world. It is about prioritizing what is important to life in the public realm where culture, consumerism and a whole host of other distractions can keep us from this focus.

This single-mindedness demands that we think ahead, and anticipate the cost of our journey. Setting out on the road to follow Jesus requires at least a little forethought and reflection. This journey is not a light matter. Sit down and think about it a bit. Reflect.

There is not only the blessing of the assets promised, but there are the liabilities, too. Discipleship is not just one more hobby or extra-curricular activity to add to a well-rounded, prosperous life. It is not merely “a matter of pure passion and abandon” (2).

Followers of Jesus should count the cost, but also realize this is not just about counting the cost of a church building renovation or a church fund-raising project. The cost of discipleship, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer first coined the term, is about prioritizing our whole lives, not just our “church” or “Sunday morning” lives.

If someone told me a year ago that I would spend four days cut off from civilization, in the bush without cell-phone service, hauling all my food and everything I need to survive in a canoe that I would have to navigate through rapids and rocky, snake-infested portage routes — I would say they were dreaming … or talking about someone else.

Well, that’s precisely what I did last week, along the French River Provincial Park between North Bay and Sudbury. Fortunately I was not alone; I journeyed with a more experienced wilderness survivalist. 

We ended up taking more than we needed. We could have packed less food, and less clothing. The exercise, nevertheless, was confident-building for me in realizing I really don’t need that much stuff.

Jesus says, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

To live life well, and faithfully, is to recognize one’s place in the world, and not to over-reach, over-extend, to be someone you are not — all on the basis of wanting more and more, bigger and better. To live faithfully, we are called to examine our dependencies, count the cost of it all, focus on what is important, and then make room in our lives for what is important by letting go.

A sojourn into the wilderness may indeed by the antidote to visions of self-aggrandizement embedded in the prosperity gospel message. Try doing without, for some time, what you may have taken for granted for too long. Try doing without what you always have believed you needed in order to live. Try Letting go. Releasing. Forgiving. 

This is not about doing away with personal boundaries. Letting go is not about condoning injustice or cruelty. Kenosis/letting go is not about being blind optimists, repressing or denying or not caring, or ‘giving up’ in frustration.

Forgiveness is a good example of letting go of the misery caused by holding on to the pain of resentment or holding a grudge. This kind of letting go brings a positivity that is based in honest struggle and prayer born out of compassion and love for self, the other, and God. The end result is a freedom and peace that cannot ever be realized through a program of simply working harder or getting more.

The German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote about the contrast between the law of gravity and the rising of the trees. He writes about the gift of letting go into a place of trust: Trusting that the gift in you is enough. So that you can rise up, rooted like trees: 

How surely gravity’s law,

strong as an ocean current,

takes hold of even the smallest thing

and pulls it toward the heart of the world.


Each thing —

each stone, blossom, child —

is held in place.

Only we, in our arrogance,

push out beyond what we each belong to

for some empty freedom.

If we surrendered

to earth’s intelligence

we could rise up rooted, like trees


Instead we entangle ourselves

in knots of our own making

and struggle, lonely and confused.

So, like children, we begin again

to learn from the things,

because they are in God’s heart;

they have never left God.

This is what the things can teach us:

to fall,

patiently to trust our heaviness.

Even a bird has to do that

before he can fly. (3)

In the poetry of scripture, the Psalmist describes beautifully the blessing we are, created in the image of God — so “wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). God would know intimately each part of our lives only if we were valuable to God and to the rest of creation. Otherwise, why would God care?

In other words, we are and have everything we need to enjoy and live to our fullest potential. We are beautiful. We don’t have to strive and strive to become someone we are not. We don’t have to ‘add’ anything to our lives to be well. In fact, when we have the courage to risk letting go, and “fall”, as Rilke poetically expresses, trusting in our “heaviness”, we will find a freedom and peace that will be the joy of all creation, and the glory of God.

We will live our lives at the same time rooted in the earth, and rising to the sun.

(1) Translated by J. Clark & J. Skinner, “Meister Eckhart: Selected Treatises & Sermons Translated from Latin and German with an Introduction and Notes”, Faber & Faber: 1958, p.194

(2) David Schnasa Jacobsen, Commentary on Luke 14:25-33 in “WorkingPreacher.org”, 2016

(3) Rainer Maria Rilke, “Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God” translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, Riverhead Books: 1996, p.116-117; cited with permission in Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation for August 28, 2016

Turning into the wind

We were just down the street from Pearson International Airport in Toronto. Late in the evening after the first day’s sessions at the Synod Assembly last week, I walked along Dixon Road which goes right to the airport. 

At one point on a bridge you can stand directly underneath the path and roar of landing planes. You look west in the direction of the landing, and you see the long runway lighted brilliantly for the descending jets touching down. You look in the opposite direction towards the east, and you can see a long line of planes taking their turn in the landing rotation, the dots of their lights extending in a straight line far into the distant sky.

It was a windy day, the gusts reaching over 50 km/h from the south. What impressed me was how each plane’s nose was turned slightly to the left, towards the south, as they made their final approach. The planes were coming in on a straight line, yes, but turned towards the wind in order to keep their landing true. At the last second before touching down, the jet would straighten out.

Wind, like currents in the water, is a significant if not main factor in affecting the flight or sail of the airborne or water craft. In order to land safely and soundly, the planes had to face the challenging issue head on. In the words of Paul in his letter to the Galatians, the problem must be “detected” (Galatians 6:1) and exposed. 

You will get nowhere in a plane or boat unless you ‘dance with the devil’ so to speak. Unless you look your problem square on, face it and name it, and change your position accordingly. If the landing planes insisted on keeping their plane aligned straight on their approach, they would not have made their landing on the runway, but somewhere to the north of it!

Our guest at the Synod Assembly, Bishop Munib Younan (president of the Lutheran World Federation) spoke of Lutheranism. He warned us, that in these Reformation Anniversary years, we do not celebrate ourselves. We do not pretend that God couldn’t have done anything good without us. We are not the perfect church, but always reforming.

Being Lutheran, he said, is a call to humility, not a spirit of triumphalism. We dare not make an idol out of Martin Luther or his legacy in us.

Paul strongly exhorts the Galatian church to proceed with one another in humility and gentleness, not lording it over others who are ‘sinners’. Because we ourselves are no better. We must learn to face our own demons. This is what is meant by his words: “All must test their own work … for all must carry their own loads (v.4-5).” We dare not point fingers without first acknowledging our own stuff.

This is then, how we bear one another’s burdens. Amidst the conflict wreaking havoc in the early church in Galatia, Paul encourages the people to persist in not losing heart, to have courage and not give up.

As the Gospel text for today describes (Luke 10:1-11), the work of the church doing God’s mission in the world will result in friction and struggle. You cannot follow Christ and not encounter conflict and adversity in your life. 

The famous Psalm 23 so often associated with bringing comfort and evoking peaceful, calming images includes this disturbing verse: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies” (Psalm 23:5). It feels like this verse doesn’t belong beside still waters and green pastures along paths of righteousness. But it does belong! It means that God gives us the gift of grace in the presence of all that challenges us, all our demons internal and external, everything that we may not like in our lives — not apart from it.

Paul concludes his letter to the Galatians by focusing our attention on the cross of Christ (6:12,14) — the symbol of death and suffering of a God who goes the distance to love us. This is the only reality about which to “boast”. Why?

There is a treasure in the midst of the suffering. We may not see it right away. Yet, our struggle does yield something good, something meaningful, something liberating. Yes, we are liberated by God’s grace. 

Liberated however not by ‘nicey-nicey, goody-goody’ — a phrase our Bishop Michael Pryse used at Synod to describe an approach to church life that just keeps us stuck. Liberated not pretending to live a charmed life. Not by everything working out perfectly. But liberated through what may be a terrible suffering, a loss, the very pain that would otherwise destroy a person altogether. There is a treasure therein.

That is why we boast of the cross, and nothing else. How can God be found in the painful letting go that marks the various stages of life? How can we even sense or feel God’s presence in the midst of a grief too heavy to bear? How can we move on through the turbulence of change and transformation?

In his short book, “Rules for a Knight”, actor-writer Ethan Hawke recounts the last words of instruction by a renowned knight, Thomas, to his children:

“There is a memory that won’t let me go,” Thomas begins. “Last summer all you children were playing by the ocean. We were with your mother and her sister’s family, do you remember? The weather was sublime, streaks of sun and a deep blue sky. You four and all your cousins were building castles with the warm, muddy sand. Each of you kept your castle separate, announcing, ‘This one is mine!’ ‘That’s yours!’ ‘Stay away from mine!’

“When all the castles were finished, your cousin Wallace playfully stepped on Cven’s. Lemuel, you flew into a protective rage. You were only looking out for your sister, I know. Mary-Rose, you thought Lemuel was over-reacting, and you threw him to the ground. Next, everyone was fighting, throwing sand, howling with tears, and pushing one another. Young Wally had to be taken home, sobbing in your aunt’s arms.

“When he was gone, you all went back to playing with your castles for a little while but quickly moved on to swimming. It grew cloudy, and soon it was time for us to begin the journey home. No one cared at all about their castle anymore. Idamay, you stamped on yours. Cven, you toppled yours with both hands. We all went home. And the gentle rain washed all the castles back into the surf.

“Please be kind to one another,” Thomas concludes. (1)

What are the castles in your life? Things or issues that in five to ten years won’t really matter anymore? Things for which you might lay your life down now in heated, compulsive reaction, but really won’t endure — material possessions, opinions that merely shore up a vulnerable ego, beliefs that have outlasted their use? A spirit of judgement and condescension towards people who do not experience life like you do? A reputation to defend at all costs? etc. etc. What are your castles in the sand?

“My friends,” writes Saint Paul, “if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” Around the same time Philo of Alexandria wrote: “Be kind: Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Turning into the wind may be a basic operation for landing a plane. When I face the wind and continue paddling or cycling into it, tears will come to my uncovered eyes. There are tears that come in the face of God’s Spirit, a Spirt that will blow down castles built in the sand.

This wind also has the power, like the Spirit of God, to build endurance, strengthen my inner life and take me where I need to go. If I stay with it, often more rapidly than I would on my own!

May God’s wind blow surely and true in your life this summer. May you receive grace in turning to the wind.

(1) – Ethan Hawke, “Rules for a Knight”, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2015, p.148-149

The life-giving gap

Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?” (James 3:11)

The writer, James, makes a case for integrity and authenticity in the Christian life. For us moderns, living in a day and age where how we look, our reputations, our social standings and our bank accounts seem to speak louder than anything else about who we truly are and what we truly want. Is our joy at living based on these ‘worldly’ values, when we are honest about it? 

It becomes particularly challenging for us Christians, whose value system is acutely counter-cultural. It becomes a real war, actually, to embrace the true source of our lives in a world of celebrity politicians and glory-seeking suburbanites. And I think, for the most part, we live a bifurcated existence. We say one thing — I believe in the God who asks us to bear our cross and follow him (Mark 8:34) — but so easily slip into a lifestyle that is really narcissistic, self-centred and selfish. The easy way.

It’s a rhetorical question. “Does a spring pour forth both fresh and brackish water?” In James’ mind, of course not. A spring will either bring forth, on balance, mostly fresh or mostly dirty water. The meter will lean one way or the other. 

Which way do you lean? In your work? In the way you invest? In how you spend your money? In how you spend your free time? With whom? In what and how you communicate?

In the Gospel for today (Mark 8:27-38), Jesus says some difficult, counter-cultural things about what kind of way Jesus — the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings, God incarnate, Almighty and Everlasting God — will travel the journey of life. And it is this God who beckons us to follow: in order “to undergo great suffering” (Mark 8:31). Really? That doesn’t sound right for a person claiming godly power!

In an upwardly mobile culture we are suddenly and shockingly presented with a downwardly mobile God. Naturally and understandably, through the lens of worldly value, we shudder. Peter rebukes Jesus. And it is in response to Peter’s communication that Jesus accuses Peter of being Satan.

The first lesson from Isaiah, the third chapter in the Epistle James and the Gospel reading for today are a call to discipline our speech — how we talk, and for what purpose. I would broaden this to say: How we communicate. The words we use. The body language we employ. They say that 70% of communication is non-verbal. I believe this truth is what prompted Francis of Assisi to say: “Preach the Gospel; Use words only when necessary!” It’s a cliche, but it’s true: Our actions speak louder than words.

We are called to pay attention not only to the words we use — important though they are, but our actions, our tone, our presence with another. We are called to pay attention to these details in assessing the quality of our relationships. Not to do so, to ignore and dismiss our attention to these aspects of relating, is evil. Not to hold ourselves accountable to what we say and how we say it to another is a satanic time-bomb waiting to happen.

The eighth commandment reads: Do not bear false witness against your neighbour (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5). This means, what we say about them. Of course, first we have to look around and ask: Who is our neighbour? On Meadowlands Drive West, in Nepean, Ottawa, and in Canada. Who are our neighbours today? Do we know their names? Who are they? And then, what do we say about them, to them?

In his explanation of all the Ten Commandments, Martin Luther makes clear these are not simply about ‘not-doing’ — not gossiping, not slandering — but even more important what positive behaviour we do for the sake of the neighbour. He writes that it is imperative that Christians should do all they can to protect the good name and social standing of their neighbours — and he lifts up particularly the “sins of the tongue” in this context. (Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” in the Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb & Timothy Wengert, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p.420)

I can’t help here to think of the millions of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria. I can’t help here but think of the many ways Muslims are disparaged in the media in the West not only in the press, but also in those malicious forwarded emails that circulate “like a hydra with multiple heads: so pernicious and so difficult to stop” (Kristin Johnston Largen, “Inter-religious Learning and Teaching” Fortress Press, 2014, p.57).

James concedes to our human predicament. In the end, no matter how hard we try to do right by this, “no one can tame the tongue” (3:8). It’s as if the narrative of Scripture accepts the impossible capability of us, on our own, to get it all right all of the time. Even though Peter is in one moment ‘Satanic’ he is, in the next, the rock upon which the church will be built against whom “the gates of Hades will not prevail” (Matthew 16:18). Martin Luther’s well-known paradox can help us frame this apparent contradiction: We are simultaneously saints AND sinners (simul justus et pecator). 

This ‘word’ today may make us feel uncomfortable. It does, me. And, probably for good reason. Yet, there is good news. God speaks into this confused darkness of our lives. God speaks the Word of creation into this murky existence (Genesis 1). A Word of forgiveness, mercy and compassion. 

And the Word that God speaks sets up the endless harmonic of sounds in the world. And as we speak, and try to speak truthfully, perhaps what we are doing is far less hanging labels around the necks of the things of the world. And instead we try to find those divine harmonics and speak and act ‘in tune’ with that Word first spoken into silence and darkness.

The image I like of creation is that God first makes a great cave. And then breathes into it. Speaks into it. A Word. And from the cave the echoes come back. Differently pitched. Differently aimed. A world of Word. And we find our place in that world listening to those harmonics, trying to speak and act in tune with them. Not to speak and act from our will or our passion for control. But to speak because we want to join in what an earlier generation would have called the ‘music of the spheres’. (Rowan Williams, “The Spirit in the Desert” Meditatio Talk Series 2015 B Apr-June CD).

Those of us preachers and public speakers, especially need to think more about this. Paul says that the Body of Christ is made up of all parts, each important in their own right (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) — you are a hand, you a leg, you the eyes, you the foot. This morning, I am the mouth! And, like James, Paul also says that greater scrutiny and possible judgement will be brought upon those who speak (2 Peter 2:3;Colossians 2:20;1 Timothy 1:2-4). A timely word, perhaps, in a season of political campaign, mindless rhetoric and questionable election promises.

How do we speak in such a way that is authentic and true? Only by looking for the harmonics that that Word of God sets up. By refusing the mass pressures of culture. By becoming in our speaking as in our living a kind of invitation into the gracious harmonics of God’s world, into the resonances and echoes that are set up by that primordial utterance of God into the cave of creation.

Simone Weil used the concept of ‘hesitation’ to describe how to communicate in a healthy way For her, part of the essence of spiritual maturity was leaving the ‘life-giving gap’ between you, the act, and the other person (quoted in Rowan Williams, ibid.). Learning not so much to project straight away our ego compulsions into the other person; learning not so much to move right away into solving a problem on our own terms. But drawing away momentarily to listen for the sake of the other. And for the sake of the truth.

At the end of the day, we are called to check the compulsion to speak. And move back into a momentary stillness into which God’s draws us, and out of which God calls us to speak and to act with integrity and authenticity.

We would make James proud.

The Falling and the Rising

It is the first Sunday after Christmas. How do you navigate this ‘hangover’ time? Are you wandering now into the proverbial ‘deep valley’ after having experienced the ‘mountaintop’ of festive frivolity?

For some, the reality of the cost of gift giving has begun to sink in. Perhaps for you, your expectations were high coming into the season, only now to discover it was not what you thought it would be. For others still, the toys unwrapped on Christmas morn are already a tiresome bore, left on the shelf somewhere.

There is good reason to suggest that choristers ought to visit the nursing home with joyous carols, not before Christmas Day, but in the dog-days of late December and early January. It is this time that many of us may need a pick-me-up, more than ever. I am grateful some of you thought to organize a congregation meal together for Epiphany rather than when things are crazy in mid-December, when we are at the height of all expectation and activity.

We read in the Gospel text today, “Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many …” (Luke 2:34)

Notice the backward order of the words in the scripture — “falling and rising”. In the world, as it may be how we feel at this time of year, it’s ‘rise and fall’: The rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the rise and fall of the Third Reich, the rise and fall of a business tycoon, the rise and fall of a celebrity.

In Macleans magazine, they evaluate 2014 newsmakers in terms of “winners and losers” — and include the likes of famous Canadian radio host, Jian Ghomeshi, who “fell from grace”, we say, whose stardom rapidly disintegrated this Fall (Dec 8/15, Vol.127, Nos.48/49). This is the way we see the rhythm of history and what the world notices. First, one rises; then, once on top, the only way is the way down.

But with Jesus it’s the other way around. With Jesus, it’s fall and rise. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Anna fasts “night and day”, not ‘day and night’. Jesus did not fly directly up into heaven once danger flared. He suffered and died, and then was raised to glory. The movement is down, then up (Philippians 2:5-11). We fall, and from that lowest point, we rise.

You may just fall. But if you rise, it is because you have first fallen. Rising doesn’t come without falling.

If you have arisen, you would have done so rising from the ashes of defeat, failure, having come through some of the worst time of your life. If you have arisen, you would know what it means to be at ground zero. There is spiritual power and great wisdom in embracing your own vulnerability, your own limitation, your own shame, anger and fear.

There is inherent value in being open and honest about your pain — not denying it, not pretending it away, not hiding it, nor distracting ourselves from it. Because it is in facing our own ‘stuff’, even our own mortality, that we will experience the turn.

Simeon, the elder, can now be hospitable to his impending death after encountering the vulnerable, infant Jesus (Luke 2:22-40). There is no rising without first falling. Ironically, this is also the message of Easter. And this is how Christmas and Easter are indivisible: We can see it from the perspective of Mary …

Mary must have shuddered at Simeon’s words. Mysteriously he speaks of a “sword piercing her soul” (v.35). It is moving to think of Mary, feeling Jesus kick in her womb, hearing his first cry, nursing him, watching his first steps. After all, she will witness thirty years, which is telescoped into a single verse: “The child grew and became strong” (v.40). Jesus leaves home and marshals a following.

But wicked men turn against her son — who is pure, good, all love. Mary has to watch as Simeon’s prophecy is fulfilled. Her heart breaks as she sees the lifeblood she had given him drain out of his beautiful body on the Cross. The fall.

But then the rise, on Easter morn. Who, among all who witnessed Jesus risen from the dead, was more joyful to see him alive than his own mother? (thanks to James C. Howell, “Feasting on the Word” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2008, p.168, for his words and thoughts on ‘falling and rising’).

So, when we are at the bottom, how do we cope when “in the Fall”, and when we still await “the Rise”?

As I reflect about looking back over unhappy times in my own life, as I reflect on dashed expectations, disappointments and unfulfilled ‘wants’ — I wonder. I wonder if crying out for the Lord is a cry of despair, or a cry of hope? (thanks, Rev. Doug Reble, for this insight). For me, I have to confess: I would not give up on hope.

Because of Jesus. Mary and Joseph, in this part of the Christmas story, take Jesus to the temple in order to fulfill the letter of the Jewish law (Luke 2:22-24). Their diligence may raise questions for Christians who feel no obligation to the Old Testament’s laws. What is the purpose of the ‘sacrifice’ for their purification?

From a Christian faith perspective, we would say this child was in no need of any such purification. Jesus did not need to be purified. Karl Barth wonderfully wrote about Jesus’ baptism — which we shall read in a couple of weeks — that Jesus needed to be washed of sin; but not his sin, but our sin: “No one who came to the Jordan was as laden and afflicted as He” (cited in ibid., p.164).

No one ever came to the temple for purification as laden with sin — not his, but our sin. Jesus took it all on him. Jesus was purified, for our sake. Jesus takes it all on him — whatever burden we carry — so that we can have a new start, a fresh beginning. Therefore, we can hope.

In this coming new year, 2015, may you be blessed with hope. A hope which carries you through the weeks, months, or even years of “lonely exile” and into the peace, love, and joy promised in Jesus Christ. May your falling turn into a glorious rising, “soon and very soon”.

The Cross: Not only for us, but involves us

What Jesus did on the cross involves us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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