Prayer as Silence – Advent sermon series 4

In this concluding sermon in a series on prayer this Advent, I invite you to consider prayer as silence. In the first, we acknowledged prayer as growth – that there come times in our lives when God invites us into a deeper communion of prayer; and so, a different way of praying. In the second sermon, we considered that the fundamental work of prayer was to listen – listen to the other and listen to God. Last week, we reflected upon an important type of prayer that often is missed especially during times of the year we are called to be happy; the lament makes our relationship with God real and our ultimate joy authentic.

The eagle changes its flying posture depending on the state of the air around it.  When in flight it encounters noisy, turbulent air, the eagle folds its wings straight down and underneath, riding the agitated, unstable winds in as compact a body mass as possible.

But when the air is calm high above the earth, the eagle will spread its massive wingspan to its farthest limits. It will expand its body mass to its fullest potential as it coasts and glides on the silent, peaceful air.

Silence gets a bad rap in the Protestant church especially. Since the Reformation and Enlightenment, we are suspicious of anything that is interior or to do with experience. When we still our minds, we are afraid that we will let the devil in! 

And, we will straight away point to bad silence – like the violence percolating beneath the surface of giving someone ‘the silent treatment’. Or, we rightly condemn the complacent, fearful silence in face of injustice. In both cases, words must be spoken. And better loudly at that!

Yet, there is a silence that is healing, transformational. We find it in nature. We find it in the stillness of predawn dew resting on flowers and blades of grass. We experience it the first night in the bush after driving all day away from the loud, noisy city. 

We also find silence in the bold action born of convicted hearts, action that happens behind-the-scenes. Not in the spectacular, the sensational. Not in attention-grabbing largess of personality shock-and-awe. But in the quiet, dedicated, barely perceptible giving of those who know themselves and respond to the still, small voice speaking in their hearts.

This is Joseph. He appears, indeed, to be the strong, silent type. But not because he is afraid to say or do anything. But because he has the courage to respond. He begins his risky venture with Mary “after waking from sleep.” Even though he went to bed “considering in his mind” all the problematic aspects of his relationship with Mary, “resolving” to leave her, his course of action changed dramatically after he stopped the busy-ness of his mind, the activity of his consciousness – as good and righteous as it was – and went to sleep. And dreamt.[1]

There is a difference between the absence of noise and silence. Something is already happening in this holy silence. Something we’ve been too busy, too rushed, too loud, too distracted to notice. Where God already is, in between the words, in between the spaces defined by our cerebral, ego-driven impulses and imaginations.

This is good, Lutheran theology! The grace of God already exists in our lives. We don’t have to make it happen. Really, we don’t! God is in the world, already. It is given. God is present. God is waiting for us, in the silence of our hearts. God is waiting, already, in the circumstances and situations of the world. God is always listening to us. 

But are we always listening to God? Are we willing to step into the river of God’s action and Spirit? Will we immerse ourselves into the prayer already flowing in our lives, a prayer flowing into the ocean of God’s presence and love? The late Thomas Keating was known to have said, “Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.”[2]

It is in silence where we can be fully and truly who we are. We don’t have to hide anything. We don’t have to meet anyone’s expectations, put on a good impression or please anyone. We can let go and let all that is there come to the surface in the confidence that all of it is held in God’s love – the good, the bad and the ugly. We can stretch to our fullest without judgement. We may be, in truth, letting the devil out, not in.

May we step into the spaciousness of God’s mercy, peace and joy just waiting for us in the silence of God’s ever-present love. May we learn to pray in the gift of silence, especially when we may so desperately need it.


[1]Matthew 1:18-25

[2]Cited in Theresa Blythe, Fifty Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006) p.32

God in the lowlands

These last moments of Jesus’ life stand in stark contrast to what is valued in the world.

I find it ironic that we read today a text that is normally read on Good Friday – the day Christians worldwide pause to recall and remember the brutal death of Jesus on the cross. It is the day Christians confront the God who is deeply humiliated, a man who suffers injustice to the extent of his gruesome and painful suffering and torturous, drawn-out dying.

It’s ironic because a text that is normally read on Good Friday comes just days before what North Americans call Black Friday. Despite the various reasons why that day has come to be called Black Friday – it is commonly known to be the day the malls and commercial districts are crowded, busy and congested bustling with deal seekers and shoppers. It is the day the consumer in us is stoked. Big time.

Indeed, these last moments of Jesus’ earthly, humanity all seem to be in vivid contrast to what is valued as great in our world – this world presented to us in colourful, catalogue-thick inserts and pop-up internet ads promoting incredible sales and savings.

It is not poor, but a world of glamour and glitz.

It is not selfless, but a me-first world of acquisition and accumulation.

It is not vulnerable and generous, but a miserly, defensive and self-preservationist world.

Today is also what the church calls, “Christ the King”, on the last Sunday in the church year. At the end of time, we assert in faith that Jesus is King and his reign lasts forever. But, what kind of king are we talking about here? Certainly not a kind of king the world knows.

In response to Pilate’s question “Are you the King of the Jews?”[1], Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

That Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world is proved in what this ruler wants to happen and makes happen that other powerful rulers are not willing or able to do.

Let’s face it: Part of our inability to believe and trust the forgiving power of God’s grace and mercy is our inability to believe that other people deserve mercy. We want to judge whom God lets into heaven. Many of us are more comfortable not knowing what happened to the thief who scoffed at Jesus than knowing that an undeserving thief was let into paradise.

Would we not rather have had Jesus say that  God loves the people we like that God does not love the people we do not like? Would we not prefer it if God did not love the crackheads, the homeless, the refugee and Muslim immigrant? Would we not prefer it if God did not love the addicts, the adulterers, the thieves, the gays, the prostitutes, the rebellious and the disgruntled? Would we not prefer it if paradise were exclusively for the nice people, the clean people, the polite people, the well-behaved people, the right people?

How different is Jesus? There was a very strange novel published in England in the late 19th century called Flatlands. It is a story about a world that is flat, everything is two-dimensional. The chief character in the novel is Mr. Square, who is, of course, only in two dimensions.

One day, Mr. Square is visited by a Mr. Sphere who is, of necessity, in three dimensions. Square regards Sphere quite apprehensively. Sphere speaks to Square about a world of three dimensions, a world that is not flat. But Square is unconvinced. Living in a two-dimensional world, it is impossible for him to imagine another dimension. Eventually, Sphere is persecuted and driven out by the outraged flatlanders.

I propose to you that that is how different Jesus is from us. We are flatlanders. We live in a world of two dimensions, unable to grasp the possibility of a reality beyond that which we have experienced. We have been unable to believe, for instance, that love and forgiveness is a better response to evil than brute force. God’s power of love is three-dimensional to our two-dimensional thinking.

Notice with the second thief hanging beside Jesus on his cross, the thief does not ask to be saved, to be rescued. He only asks once, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Perhaps his plea is meant to echo these words from the Psalm: “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!”[2]– which is to say: Do not remember me according to my faults, but remember me according to your goodness.

We have faith not because we are weak but because God is strong and God is love. There is grace for us and for the people we do not like. Our salvation is dependent on a loving, grace-filled God.

So why can we hope in this goodness when we look around us at all the evil? Because Mr. Sphere did come among all of us Squares and we did persecute him and drive him out.

But he wouldn’t and couldn’t stay away. No, his three-dimensional existence couldn’t be flattened out by us. He is alive! And he comes to us again today in this meal we are about to share.

Again, it’s so hard for us to understand because he is like three-dimensions to our two. But he comes again with a word of love and forgiveness that promises the power that will finally take care of all that’s troubling in this world. It won’t be easy. He predicted that, too. But it is the only way. He comes to us again today to lead the way. “I have seen the future,” he says to us. “The future is not some cold grave, some hard, lifeless tomb. The future is the glorious triumph of God’s love.”

This man whom we follow is the king not of the flatlands, but in the lowlands. Spheres always roll to the bottom of things. Christ is king in the lowlands because God does not want us to die and suffer in that dark and sad region. Maybe you are today in a sort of darkness. The darkness of grief, loss, physical pain or emotional pain.

But the Holy One is with you today and for you today in that darkness. And, therefore, you will be with him today, and forevermore, in paradise. Thank God! Amen.[3]

[1]John 18:36

[2]Psalm 25:7

[3]Thank you to the writers for ‘Proper 29 (Reign of Christ) Luke 23:33-43’ in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.332-337 for many of the words and ideas expressed here.

The God who forgets

The prophet Jeremiah describes a remarkable characteristic of God. He says God will “remember no more”[1]Israel’s sins. In other words, God forgets things. Now, I’m not sure we are accustomed to perceiving God in this way. In fact, I would wager many of us will be unsettled, even disturbed, by this notion.

If God is God Almighty, all-knowing, all-everything – then how is it God will intentionally forget something about us? It’s hard to believe that God is telling the truth, here. In fact, I’m not sure we would get excited by believing in a God who isn’t all-powerful and all-knowing.

The other night was a good sports night for me. On the same night Toronto FC won their do-or-die game against New York to advance to the Eastern Conference Final in Major League Soccer. The same night, the Ottawa Senators won their second hockey game of the year! Winning is not easy for that team these days, so that win was huge. It’s a good feeling to win!

It’s invigorating and stimulating to compete, especially when you win. Indeed, we live in a world of winners and losers. And all the hype on the fields of play mirrors the values with which we live day to day.

To be better than the other. To be more beautiful than the other. To be more skilled, have more luck, be more privileged than the other. And life becomes this rat-race to establish yourself ‘over and against’ the other – to beat out your biggest competition for a position on the team, to nail that audition and get that role in the play instead of someone else.

Often climbing to the top means climbing over someone else. It’s the zero-sum game of life. We say, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, where it’s survival of the fittest. Whether or not we like it, we take it as normative even defensible. We shrug our shoulders and say, “that’s the way it is.”

God, however, does not compete. This is the remarkable thing about the biblical witness of God in light of the Gospel. God does not fight for space in this world. God does not need it. There is this self-withdrawing feel to God’s presence. Here, we would affirm the central paradox in Christianity: In God’s absence we find God’s presence; or, in death there is life.

God will remember their sins no more. Because if God was to remember their sins, God would still be in the game. The game of tit-for-tat, the game of revenge, retribution and punishment for sin. The game of reward for good works. The game of earning and deserving God’s favour.

But no. There is a new game in town. And it’s not really a game anymore – at least not one with winners and losers. It’s a new covenant and a new promise from God. Where everyone and everything in creation is a winner.

God will make us all winners. How? Almighty God will release a grip on the tug-of-war rope. God will let go of the imposing forces of the battle ground. God will forget. God will not compete for space in our lives. God will not compete for space in this world. God will forgive. God will ease our anxiety about all the harsh lines in our world.

The dividing walls between people, nations and teams will no longer carry weight. In God’s giving-up, they become largely irrelevant. The dividing walls in our hearts collapse into the total-immersion love of God. These dividing walls dissolve in the self-giving of a God who ‘emptied himself’ of all pretense to glory. And, taking the form of absolute humility – ‘being born in human likeness’ and ‘obedient’ even to the point of ‘death on a cross’[2]– God gives us abundant life.

In this vision, austerity is not the path because nothing is scarce. Self-denial is no longer needed. We don’t operate in a transactional reality where God is concerned. Because God is in all of life – even in the places we thought God could not be. There is so much to see. There is so much abundance everywhere!

Therefore God is in the glories of physical and mental achievement just as much as God is in the depression and defeat of Alzheimer’s disease. God is in the accomplishment and success of youthful enterprise as much as God is in the tears of failure. God in the beauty of creation as much as in the ugly storms. God is in the cyberworld of Tik Tok and Snap Chat as much as God is in the dusty pages of books long left on a shelf. God is in the nicest neighbourhoods and ivory towers as much as in the ghettos of poverty.

In the world of faith, too! God is among the Roman Catholics as much as God is among the Lutherans. God is among the Muslims and the Hindus as much as God is among Jews and Christians. Lutherans have a prayer schedule where we pray for a different Anglican congregation in the area every Sunday. Did you know that on their prayer list, today – Reformation Sunday—Anglican parishes in Ottawa are praying for Lutherans?

Will we see God everywhere in our lives? Will we rejoice and be glad because God is the God of the Cross and Empty Tomb? Will we seek to work towards a world in which all people can see the face of God in each other?

Today is Reformation Sunday. In the Lutheran tradition a big deal. One of the hallmark sayings of Reformation is that we are a church ‘ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda’ – the church reformed, always reforming. We have seen how, since 1517 when Luther nailed those 95 arguments for reform on the Wittenberg Church door, the church has changed over five hundred years. Always reforming, always growing, always deepening in the love of God for all people.

Let’s continue in that tradition. Let’s continue in God’s word!

 

[1]Jeremiah 31:34

[2]Philippians 2:5-11

Give God a chance

A year ago last summer we bought a potted Hibiscus plant already in full, glorious bloom. The local nursery encouraged us to plant it right away and let it take root in our garden. When winter came, we snipped the stem down to a few inches above the ground.

Last Spring, the sprig showed no signs of life. At all. And it was late June already when I was tempted to pull up the seemingly lifeless root ball from the garden to make room for something else. Visiting the same nursery at the time I complained to them about the Hibiscus plant they sold to us, that obviously did not winter-well. To say the least.

“Don’t pull it up, yet!” they entreated me. “Wait a little longer, for it has been a late Spring. Give it a chance.”

At first, I didn’t believe them. But I left the dead thing alone trying not to think about my disappointment too much. Was I in for a surprise! In early July a tiny, green shoot pushed up the earth around the base. But then, not just one, but two, three and four shoots of new life erupted out of the ground. Seven weeks later, we were enjoying a multitude of magnificent blooms. The plant had more than doubled its growth from last year!

How critical it was for me to heed the gardener at the nursery when she told me “Don’t pull it up!” and “Wait a little longer” and “Give it a chance!”

“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart”[1]

In Jesus’ story, the theme is ‘not giving up.’ Not giving up is what it looks like to pray always. Elsewhere in the bible, Paul, the writer to the early church, instructed the faithful “pray without ceasing”[2]. It’s about being persistent in waiting, in not reacting, in staying the course when it starts feeling like it’s no use any longer to keep going.

“If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”[3]

The prophet was waiting for a vision from God, a word that would give new life to those who were discouraged, defeated and ready to give up on God, on themselves and on the world.

For what do you wait? After what justice do you persist? What is it you seek after that seems elusive, just beyond your grasp? Whatever that is, the scriptures describe an inner quality of the heart that will not give up, that will wait for it, that is patient and true in enduring and persisting.

That sees the present moment as holding value in and of itself.

The goal, the destination, the vision – this may seem to tarry. Perhaps in those impatient moments it’s important again to look around at what is happening. Infant baptism, for one thing, is a visible sign of this challenge and truth.

For an infant does not express knowledge of God in the way we adults do. An infant cannot give us a rational accounting of their faith. They cannot, surely, deserve blessing by pointing to a long list of their good deeds and giving an impassioned testimony.

It confounds us sophisticated grown-ups crazy, as we are influenced so much by a success-mindset culture of instant gratification. The world we live in has little patience for this kind of long-view approach. We’d sooner just give up on someone or something for which we hope. When it seems we are in futility grasping at something not yet.

Here, we are asked to commit to quite the opposite. Infant baptism invites us all to dedicate ourselves to long journey. We are challenged to persist in our waiting for it, not to give up, to have faith and stay the course.

And, in the meantime, walk with the baptized as he grows over time into the person God has created him to be. The flowering will happen, yet quite beyond our claim to control it. The green shoots poking out of the ground are occasion to rejoice. Here is evidence enough for now, for this moment. Those tiny shoots hold the fullness of the gift of faith and life in him.

Dear family and friends of the baptized, and Faith community, I hope you stick with it. This journey of faith, together. Trust in the vision, the promise. And celebrate the wondrous gift of this moment.

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[1]Luke 18:1-8

[2]1 Thessalonians 5:17

[3]Habakkuk 2:3, the first reading from a couple of weeks ago, Pentecost 17C (RCL)

Grace first

Over the past six weeks I’ve transited through nine different airports on two different continents. One of the expectations of travellers is that when you are in an airport waiting for your flight, you can access free Wi-Fi.

But, more often than not, it isn’t really free. When your device locates the airport network, and before you can access the internet, you are directed to a page that requires you to give your email. And, be careful to click that box that says you do not wish to receive promotional material.

Even if you are not an airplane traveller, this marketing strategy infests so many of our common life activities. I had my car at the service department this summer a couple of times, and each time I received a ticket to enter into a draw: first prize, a new car! But first I have to go to a website to register the number on my ticket. And, of course, give my email. And, remember to check that box declining promotional material!

In any case, companies are finding ways of expanding their reach into our lives and pocket books. Restaurants, as well, if you want to use their ‘free’ Wi-Fi. What may on the surface appear ‘free’ is merely a way to hook you in. This culture of doing business so infects our way of thinking.

The internet access is merely a modern day example. And yet, it is built on the way human beings have always tended to relate with one another at a more base level. A way of life and inter-relating that screams loudly: “Nothing in life is free!”

What is alarming, from a Christian point of view, is that we seem to be ok with that, and go about living in this tit-for-tat culture we have largely created.

Yet, I continue believing that it is in giving grace that describes best our journey as (Lutheran) Christians. I place ‘Lutheran’ in parenthesis because I believe all Christians today need to put grace first and foremost in our practice of faith and life.

Stories are a great way of conveying the deepest truths. This story is about a rooster in a chicken farm. And I heard it told at the National Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, in Regina, last month, by the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, Martin Junge. Here is my adaptation:

Every morning when it was still dark the rooster went out to crow. He did so with amazing commitment, crowing from the depth of his heart and making use of all available resources and art. Actually, he was convinced that it was because of his crowing that the sun rose every morning. When he had finished his daily job and went back to the farm he used to look around with a sense of paternalistic pride at the hens. “There you go, darlings, I’ve made the sun rise for you”, he even said once. “I am the chosen one.”

One morning the sunrise was really wonderful. The rooster got so enthusiastic that he couldn’t stop crowing. The sun had long risen, but he continued crowing, just wanting to make the whole scenery even more perfect.

When he went back to the chicken farm he noticed that he had crowed too long. His throat was aching. Laryngitis. He was only able to produce a weak croaking noise. The rooster panicked. “What will happen tomorrow, if I can’t crow anymore? What will happen to the chicken farm and to all these chickens and hens, which depend so much on my power to make the sun rise…?” He went to sleep very early, just hoping that next morning he would be in good health again.

But he was not! The pain had worsened overnight, and he could not even croak but make only a ridiculously weak squeak. Yet, he went out, like every morning, just pushed by the awareness of his plight and the panic that otherwise the sun wouldn’t rise, and they would all perish. He tried his best, he tried hard… yet there was nothing resembling real crowing coming out of his throat.

Great was his surprise when he suddenly realized that the sun seemed to be rising anyway! Slowly but surely it came up behind the hills, like every morning. Actually, it was again one of those wonderful mornings. But this time, it came without his doing! He turned slowly and looked back to the chicken farm. He couldn’t believe what he saw there: the chickens and hens had come out like every morning as well!

Terribly depressed he went back to the chicken farm. What could be his place there? Didn’t he lose his role and reason to be? And why should he go out the next morning, if the sun rose anyway, without his help? Oh, and he felt so embarrassed and ashamed. He didn’t even dare to look into the hens’ eyes.

“Hey, don’t worry”, said one of the hens. “You can continue crowing”, she said. “Just go out tomorrow as usual. But don’t crow in order to make the sun rise. Just crow because the sun rises!”

This story explains how we understand grace. Grace is like the rising sun. It is there, just because God wants grace to be there. As nobody can prevent the sun from rising, nobody can stop God from being gracious either. That was – in a nutshell – what Jesus revealed about God. That is in all its powerful simplicity the Good News of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

Good works are an expression of faith, to be sure. Yet, good works are a response to God’s grace. This is how we understand the relationship between justification by grace and sanctification of our lives. Sanctification arises from hearts overflowing with joy and love because of God’s wonderful gifts. It is out of the gift of freedom, which God has acquired for us that we respond with good works.

God’s relationship to us is not conditional on anything we say or do. We don’t first become Christian in order to go to church. We come to church in order to become Christian—over time, even a life time! God doesn’t love us because we are ‘good’. God loves us because God is good. Do you hear the difference between those statements? I hope you do. A subtle difference, maybe yes. But huge implications for how we live our lives. It doesn’t hinge on us.

Because of the culture in the world that operates NOT according to grace, it is a huge challenge for Christians to live out of grace-first principles—such as forgiveness, mercy, and showing compassion unconditionally. It is a huge challenge for us not to put conditions on others before we deem them worthy. It is a huge challenge not to place any expectations on others and ourselves before we can justify helping them or loving them.

No wonder many young people today are cynical about the message that comes from ‘The Church’. “Your mercy is great,” we Sunday Christians pray to God. “But,” they ask, “Is it, really? What’s the catch? What do you want from me?” This cynicism is rampant. We have been infused with, and grown into, a transactional culture: I do something for you (in order that) you do something for me; I do something for God (in order that) God does something for me.

In this world, so anti-grace, we are called to become more fluent in the language and lifestyle of grace-first. We are challenged to give grace, first. Grace first, not judgement. Grace first, not fear. Grace first, not condemnation:

In our relationships with family members whose behaviour or lifestyle we may not be inclined to approve. In our relationships with others outside our circles who represent politics and opinions we are not inclined towards. In our relationships with those marginalized and the poor, Indigenous people and their plight. In our relationship with the land, water and air. Even, in our relationship with God and religion. Maybe most importantly.

The Gospel stories abound with examples of the way Jesus embodies this grace-first approach of God. In the story today (Luke 13:10-17), it’s not about deserving God’s grace first. It’s not about the woman earning Jesus’ favour first, before she is healed. We really know nothing about her — whether she deserves Jesus’ attention. But, you see, that’s not the point. It’s not even about following the rules of religion, which the Pharisees defend at all costs.

Jesus simply ‘sees’ her, and heals her. Jesus exposes the sin of a culture that places rules before grace, a culture which values conformity over the truth of what the sabbath represents: A holy day when the best of what God offers to us is actually demonstrated and given. No matter the rules. Grace first.

Images of water permeate the scriptures. These verses from Isaiah about water stand out. Water, like the sun, is like grace. Water gives sustenance: “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:11).

A last-minute addition to the itinerary of my family’s western Canada road trip this summer was a visit to Radium Hot Springs in British Columbia. There, visitors can sink into a natural hot water soaking pool, then slip into a cool water pool. This is hydrotherapy, like the Scandinavian tradition of hot and cold water-immersion cycles. People come here for healing.

We know the stats: 71% of the earth’s surface covered by water. The human body is composed of over 60% water. Water provides a place for renewal, reconnection and rejuvenation. Water is essential for life. We all need it to live.

It is there before we do anything. Whether or not we choose to step into the healing waters of God’s presence and love and mercy—it’s still there for us. Ever present, despite us. The prophet Isaiah in the same text expresses this truth: “You shall cry for help, and God will say: ‘Here I am’” (v.9). I hear in these words the sense that God is saying, “If you want help, I am here. I’ve always been here right beside you! Hello!”

Christians of old have written about life as a journey of becoming more aware of how we block the flow of God’s love and grace. Blockages, such as fear, greed, selfishness. And then, doing what we can to ‘unblock’ and ‘allow’ divine love to flow more freely through us. Of letting go and allowing the current of divine energy, creativity and love to carry us downstream through life.

Whether or not we respond to the sunrise, as the rooster had to learn, whether or not we choose to participate in the action of God’s grace, the ever-flowing stream of God’s love is already there. It has been flowing from the beginning of time, continues to be the most powerful force in the universe, and is an ever-present reality in the world today.

Whether we know it or not, we’re continually immersed and surrounded by Divine Love, by Sacred, Holy Presence. This is our ultimate confidence and security. “Here I am,” God says to us. “Come to me. I am always by your side to show you mercy, forgiveness, and love.”

And that is why we pray and affirm repeatedly this summer in the petitionary prayers: “Your mercy is great!”

Because it is.

From spiritual childhood to adulthood

It was in the 1980s and 1990s when the phrase “kids of all ages” came into vogue. When its usage skyrocketed. People attending circuses, entertainment and other public events would often hear the invitation and address to “kids of all ages!”

It was also during the 1980s and 90s when baby boomers became adults. And when these adults—like no adults before them but all who followed—started acting like children:

Half the buyers of comic books and tickets to superhero movies were adults. The majority of video game consoles, cartridges and discs at the end of the last century were bought by people in their 30s. Video games, originally sold to boys to pretend they were grown up action heroes were soon bought mainly by grown men who wanted to play like kids.[1]

This was the time when it became acceptable for adults to play video games and fantasy sports. This was the time when it became ok for the likes of me to dress like teens, to groom themselves and even get surgery to look thirty years younger. The “kids of all ages” phenomenon has had negative repercussions on men and women alike, especially around issues of self-esteem and body image.

Emotional immaturity, narcissism, co-dependency and not taking responsibility for one’s actions tend to be the psychological effects of the kids-of-all-ages era. And we live with these effects to this day.

You can understand, then, why some contemporary theologians have expressed concern over an uncritical and indiscriminate use of the term, “children of God”[2], which appears prominently in the short text from Romans today.[3]

It is popular in the church to identify with being “a child of God.” We gravitate to images of Jesus rocking children on his knee, telling his disciples that they are to become like children to enter the kingdom of God. At baptisms and confirmations, we remind the candidate and ourselves that each of us is a child of God.

We are held in the arms of God, close to the bosom of Jesus. Yes. Such comforting images can be helpful during times of trial and suffering, for sure. Yes. Our following Jesus and our endurance and resilience in the spiritual does not depend alone on cognitive, intellectual knowledge—usually the purview of adults—but on a simple childlike trust. Yes.

I also agree with Stuart Brown who, in his book, promoted the value of play. That, what might seem like a frivolous or even childish pursuit can be beneficial to our mental health. That, paradoxically, purpose-less, unproductive activity from time to time can make one enormously more productive and invigorated in other aspects of life.[4]These pursuits normally belong to children but are of benefit our whole life long. Yes.

At the same time, when Paul uses the term ‘children of God’ he associates our identity in Christ with anything but childish states of being. He talks about not being enslaved in fear. He talks about living with suffering. These are realities, not fantasies, born of a life lived and experienced and embraced with the good and the bad.

Being a child of God doesn’t give us license to behave childishly. Being a child of God doesn’t give us license to behave irresponsibly, shifting authority and blame for one’s actions to someone else.

Two aspects of being an adult in Christ I want to underscore. First, it is to pay attention to our own desires, not denying them. Paul writes that the Spirit of God speaks to our own spirit. “It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” We have a human spirit. And God speaks through the deep desires and longings of our hearts. Unfortunately, whether we realize it or not, we use the identity of ‘child of God’ to deny our very human needs and desires. When we do so, are we not blocking God’s way of speaking to our hearts?

Saint Irenaeus, second century bishop of Lyons,  France, said that the ‘glory of God is a human being fully alive.’ God speaks through our very humanity. What gives us joy. What causes us pain. What is good and right. Our small ‘s’ spirit within us is the very thing God’s big ‘S’ Spirit connects with. The Psalmist paints an image of how God communicates with creation: “Deep calls to deep”.[5]We are part of, and participate in, the divine equation.

This divine relationship, from deep to deep, needs containment nonetheless. This is the second aspect of being an adult in Christ. Here, we turn to the words of Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopalian Church in America. You might remember his famous sermon he preached at the royal wedding just over a year ago. In it, he talks about fire—the primary symbol of Pentecost—harnessing the incredible power of love.

He said that the harnessing of fire was one of the great scientific and technological discoveries in all of human history.

‘Fire to a great extent made human civilization possible. Fire made it possible to cook food and to provide sanitary ways of eating which reduced the spread of disease in its time.

‘Fire made it possible to heat environments and thereby made human migration around the world a possibility, even into colder climates.Fire made it possible—there was no Bronze Age without fire, no Iron Age without fire, no Industrial Revolution without fire.

‘The advances of fire and technology are greatly dependent on the human ability and capacity to take fire and use it for human good.

‘Anybody get here in a car today? Fire—the controlled, harnessed fire—made that possible.Controlled fire in a plane gets us across this world. Fire makes it possible for us to text and tweet and email and Instagram and Facebook, and socially be dysfunctional with each other’ and act like children!

Fire makes all of that possible. Indeed, fire was one of the greatest discoveries in all of human history. And then Bishop Curry concluded that if humanity ever harnesses the energy of fire again, if humanity ever captures the energy of love—it will be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.

The passion, the spirit, the fire of love coming from within us needs to be contained. For it to have effect it must work within limits. The damage of forest fires and bombs we have witnessed both literally and figuratively throughout history and in our own lives. The passion, the spirit, and the fire of love needs containment. Then when its boundaries are respected, we can discover its true and divine power.

Poet and spiritual writer Anne Lamott says it best in describing the maturing Christian, as we grow from child to adult: “Grace meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.” In the implication there to ‘Grow up!’, we are challenged to continue to learn how to harness the energy, joy and passion of the Spirit within us, to use for the good of all.

The message of God’s love, the sending of the Spirit of God upon the church ever since that day long ago in Jerusalem, grows us into the adults that we are created and loved to be.

 

[1]Kurt Andersen, “Forever Young: Why Are Adults Acting Like Children?” The Saturday Evening Post (June 12, 2018).

[2]“As someone concerned with Christian moral practice, I lament the infantilizing of Christians as children, without the responsibilities of adult members of the household of God,” Jane Lancaster Patterson, Commentary on Romans 8:14-17 in www.workingpreacher.org

[3]Romans 8:14-17; a reading assigned for the Day of Pentecost, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary; in four short verses, Paul uses the term ‘children’ three times.

[4]Stuart M. Brown Jr. & Christopher Vaughan, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (New York: Avery Press, 2009), p.11

[5]Psalm 42:7

Super-hero busted

With Marvel and DC the biggest box office attractions in recent years, the popular culture exposes our desires and fantasies. These super-heroes are really just projections of our own wants and longings. We put ourselves in these roles, vicariously living out the super-hero life.

What from the super-hero culture inform and influence our real lives, you ask? What does it mean to be a hero, living day-to-day?

Last week, we concluded our Lent book study about our medical culture. When the stakes are high and decisions have to be made about treatment of serious illness, what do we want? How do we respond? In the book aptly entitled, “Being Mortal”, author Atul Gawande writes:

“The pressure remains all in one direction, toward doing more, because the only mistake clinicians seem to fear is doing too little. Most have no appreciation that equally terrible mistakes are possible in the other direction—that doing too much could be no less devastating to a person’s life.”[1]

Being heroic means doing more, not less. More power. More strength. Super-human capacity. Fighting evil means counter punch for punch—just harder, faster. Solving problems means finding more resources, generating more capacity to meet the demands. Doing things better. This is the culture of heroism in our day. We want to be heroes.

Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, is our biblical hero. We like him. We get him. He always wanted to be Jesus’ hero, protecting him from the suffering of which he spoke, jumping into the water not once but twice to be the first of the disciples to get to Jesus.[2]Jesus, at one point, even had to say to Peter: “Get behind me Satan” when Peter said he would not allow the suffering and death of Jesus.[3]

Even in the Passion narrative Peter is still delusional, believing he will follow Jesus, heroically, to the end. “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!”[4]Peter is the consummate hero.

The part from the Passion narrative where he then ‘denies the Lord three times when the rooster crows’ is a turning point for him.[5]And for us.

In the Passion of our Lord, the Cross is the central image and destination. And against the Cross our truth is exposed, and we are caught in the headlights. Our true motivations are squared against the values of the kingdom of God to which Jesus bore witness in his last days and trial.

Normally, I have understood Peter’s denial of Jesus merely as self-preservation. He doesn’t want to expose his vulnerability in that situation. He doesn’t want to be considered a threat, and be arrested himself. He wants to conserve and protect himself. And so he is caught off-guard, and quickly denies his involvement with Jesus.

But what if we saw Peter’s words of denial more as a confession rather than self-seeking, self-preservation? Peter confesses, at the end of the road, that he does not ‘know’ the kingdom of which Jesus speaks. Peter confesses that he is not a true disciple of Jesus.

Even at this end, nevertheless, Jesus knows Peter better than he knows himself. “Today, you will deny me”. Hours later, Peter stares into the flames of the firepit in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, and warms his hands by the fire. Finally, Peter comes to himself in all honesty and vulnerability. “No, I don’t know him. No, I don’t know this Jesus. No, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He is finally telling the truth, in his ‘denial’. Facing this truth is hard, and that is why he goes out and weeps bitterly at the end. Peter’s ideal image of himself—a heroic disciple of the Lord, a super-hero Jesus freak—has come crashing down. He is not the hero he thought he was. He does not have the courage to follow in the way of Jesus to the cross.

When, in the solitude of our confession, we confront ourselves in all honesty—we find ourselves at ground zero, that turning point, that event-horizon towards transformation and healing. Because further down that path of hero worship we cannot go. And, we wonder, seriously question whether we have what it takes to let go, and follow Jesus to the cross of our lives.

It is unknown territory, on the bottom. We do not know it well, if at all. We shy away from it, understandably. We are uncomfortable, here. “In solitude, we encounter our own poverty, incompleteness and brokenness. We see how petty we can be; how possessive and judgmental; how angry, resentful, and mean-spirited; how self-centered in our thoughts and actions. No wonder we are tempted to flee solitude and to lose ourselves in busyness and distractions. It takes courage to plumb the depths of our soul.”[6]

Peter in the high priest’s courtyard finds his bottom in honest confession, not unlike the Prodigal Son wallowing in the mud of the pig pen when he has his moment of reckoning.

It takes courage to come close to Jesus near the Cross. It takes courage to let go of our heroism and our compulsion to do more, to do better. It takes courage to let go being incessantly active and working harder as a way of avoiding ‘plumbing the depths of our soul’.

Are you willing to give up being a hero for Jesus? Are you still a disciple when Jesus leads you this close to the cross?[7]

Perhaps another story from the Passion narratives of the Gospels usually assigned for Holy Week can be helpful. It’s the Gospel text from last week, actually, when Mary lavishly anoints Jesus’ feet.

How does Mary respond to the reality of human limitation and vulnerability? How does she respond to the ‘ground zero’ reality surrounding her and Jesus? Remember, Mary knows what is going on with Jesus. Anointing was reserved for coronations and burials. Jesus qualifies for both. And his end was nigh. How does she deal with that?

In Luke’s version of the anointing story, Jesus tells Mary: “Your sins are forgiven.”[8]Why were her sins forgiven after anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume?

Not only because of her great sorrow, nor because she remembered all her sins, nor even because of any contrition she might have felt for her human weakness. Why then?

Because she loved, and loved much.[9]So, instead of sorrowing over her sinfulness, she gave abundantly and without reservation of her affection and love for Jesus.

Confronting our truth, as scary as that is, is not license to wallow in passive, self-preoccupation. Rather, this degree of self-honesty and confession leads to extravagant acts of mercy and love towards another. At ground zero, we realize that our lives are not ours, but God’s. At ground zero, we realize that we live for something and someone much greater than our individual problems and shortcomings.

The description of what God does, relating to the suffering servant in Isaiah 50:4-9 is important:

The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word …

The Lord God has opened my ear …

The Lord God helps me …

The Lord God helps me.[10]

When truth-telling can lead to acts of profound love for the sake of ‘the weary’, the Lord God helps us.

When our actions, tarnished even by our humanity, focus on love for the vulnerable and weak, the Lord God helps us.

When our limitations are offered to God in acts of love for others, the Lord God helps us.

And we are still the Lord’s disciples. Even Peter, beyond his moment not of denial, but acceptance. Jesus pronounced him ‘the rock’ upon which God builds the church.

And, we know what lies beyond this momentary tribulation. We have Jesus to thank for that. This is the promise of our journeys, rough though they may be.

And, through it all, we are still the Lord’s disciples.

 

[1]Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters at the End(Toronto: Penguin, 2017), p.220

[2]Matthew 14:28-31; John 21:7-19

[3]Matthew 16:23; Mark 8:33

[4]Luke 22:33

[5]Luke 22:24-34,54-62; John 18:15-27

[6]Br. David Vryhof
Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Brother, Give us a Word” 8 April 2019

 

[7]M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor As Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life  (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009),  p.79.

[8]Luke 7:44-48

[9]The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Ira Progoff (Delta Books: 1957), 100-102.

[10]Isaiah 50:4-9 NRSV, reading assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Passion Sunday.