There’s a wild-ness to God’s mercy

“Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths …

All your paths, O Lord, are steadfast, love and faithfulness

To those who hold on to your promise …”

(Psalm 25:4,10)

When I walked fifty kilometers on the sand last summer on Long Beach Peninsula on the coast of the Pacific Ocean in Washington State, I was obviously forging my own path.

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Even though the beach was not busy any time I walked it, it was also obvious to me that many had travelled this route – by foot and vehicle, since cars are allowed to drive portions on this way.

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I couldn’t trust these other paths, however, since I was by myself I had no idea how long the footprints or car tracks had been there. And with the dramatic shift of tides on the beach every twelve-or-so-hours, I could easily lose a path someone else made.

And, you might presume that my 130-kilometer hike on the Camino in Spain  a month earlier would have been harder on my feet. While I did not get one blister in Spain – no problems there whatsoever with my feet – walking on Long Beach Peninsula was brutal by comparison.

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Often, we make assumptions about our faith journeys. We presume things about following the way of Jesus that are, simply, untrue. And only experience can verify. The first myth is that this path is easy – a walk along the Rideau Canal among the tulips on a sunny, quiet Sunday in May.

I’m watching  Mark Burnett’s TV production of “The Bible” this Lent. And I was impressed by the actor playing Moses, who when he parts the Red Sea with water spraying all around in the tumult, mayhem and stress of the moment – when the Egyptian army is bearing down on the Israelites – he calls to them, “Follow Me!”

It’s like an invitation to a roller coaster ride. Or worse! A part of me wants to say, “Thank you. But, no thank you. I’ll take that walk by the canal.”

These short verses from Mark’s Gospel focus on Jesus’ personal experience of change, leading to a simple message to his listeners to follow in his way. And his way leads through disruptive changes in one’s life. True growth is a wild journey, to say the least, to follow the path of Jesus by making our own through the desert of our lives.

Jesus’ baptism by John is something which Jesus experiences by himself. Mark gives no indication whatsoever that Jesus’ baptism is some public event witnessed by many. It is intended for Jesus alone. Jesus is set apart to experience a deeply personal, largely private, and divine event in his life.

“And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”[1]

This personally divine experience is not a pleasant, comforting event for Jesus. The word “torn apart” in Greek is used only at one other time in Mark’s short Gospel – at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, when the curtain in the temple was “torn apart.”[2] When Jesus experiences the blessing and call of his life, it’s not about gentle doves cooing from heaven. God does the ripping apart in both cases.

There’s a wild-ness and a danger in God’s grace. This is a disrupting affair. This is life and death stuff. You can only wonder whether Jesus didn’t see in a moment of churning clouds his own death – the end of the journey he was about to begin.

After Jesus’ baptism, the text takes a rapid shift, as Jesus is “immediately” driven into the desert. Mark does not go into the details of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. He does not reveal what it meant for Jesus to be with the “wild beasts”. His temptations are not described in detail, only that he was tempted by Satan. And, by the end of the time in the desert, the angels waited on him.

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Mark preserves these truths about anyone’s wilderness journeys: It is wild, for sure; and, no one else can make that human journey for us.

As Jesus was privy to his own struggle with the wild beasts, so is it with our journeys in the wilderness. Whenever we go through challenging times and transitions in our lives, whenever we experience the severity of life’s choices and consequences of our misdeeds, whenever we receive the blunt end of life’s punches in the death of loved ones, in the loss of any security, the pain of ill health – these are intensely personal demons we struggle with.

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No one else, really, can fully presume to understand this journey of ours. They are unique to us alone. Our temptations are unique to us as spiritual individuals on a human journey. We need, as individuals, to take ownership of our own wilderness journey.

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Some of you may have been surprised in the Ash Wednesday liturgy this year when I asked you to impose the ashes on your own forehead as I said the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

For those of you who were here last Wednesday, I hope you reflected on the subtle change’s significance. If you are entering this forty-day journey, embracing the path of Jesus in some way, through the desert of your life – however you define your wilderness journey – then you need to own it yourself. No one else can do for you. At the start of this interior and life-changing journey, you will own your own ‘ash’, you will enter the desert of your own heart.

This journey is a journey of repentance. Repentance means, “a change of mind.” This is the original, basic meaning of the word – more than a renewing of the mind as Paul puts it,[3] repentance entails a radical turn around in thinking. This is largely an interior journey, in your mind and heart. “Rend not your garments,” the prophet Joel preached, “Rend your hearts.”[4] Will you go there, this Lent?

Martin Luther defined repentance as a returning to your baptismal waters. Returning to God’s grace, God’s love, God’s unconditional forgiveness and mercy upon your heart.

The Lenten journey can be taken by holding on to the promise of your baptism.  The path we make is only possible by the waters of faith. In the end, the waters of grace, of eternal presence of God, will wash away our delusions and give us sustenance for the journey. If we must forge our own path, we are not alone nonetheless. For, another has gone before us. One who loves us.

In his description of the journey of the Lenten season, American theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, “After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.”

He, then, outlines several questions for Christians to ponder during Lent. Among them:

  1. When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?
  2. If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be – in twenty-five words or less?
  3. Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo?
  4. Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
  5. If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn’t, which side would get your money and why?
  6. Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?
  7. If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?

“To hear yourself try to answer questions like these,” Buechner goes on, “is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all. But if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”[5]

[1] Mark 1:10

[2] Mark 15:38; Stanley P. Saunders in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.47.

[3] Romans 12:2

[4] Joel 2:13

[5] Frederick Buechner, “Wishful Thinking” (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

A wintery spirit

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The winter of 2018 has been record-setting, so far. And we are barely one week into the new year! Did you know it was Ottawa’s coldest New Year’s Day since records began in 1873? At 8am on January 1st, the mercury dipped to a frigid minus 30.2 degrees Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit); New Year’s Day also marked Ottawa’s sixth consecutive day with temperatures below -17 degrees Celsius (1 Fahrenheit), which made it the longest run in exactly one hundred years.[1]

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A full onslaught of winter can help us appreciate the meaning of Christianity. Though much of the bible’s stories and lessons were wrought out of the harsh desert climate surrounding the Mediterranean and Arabian seas, the winter realities we face in Canada are not that much different. I suggest, then, let’s take desert and winter as synonymous – meaning, essentially, the same things.

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American Lutheran theologian, Martin Marty, describes the importance of what he calls a “wintery spirituality”, defined by the shrill cry of absence, frost, and death. In contrast to a summer spirituality, winter is more given to being emptied than being filled. Winter is harsh and lean in imagery, beggarly in its gifts of grace and love.[2]

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Of course, Jesus goes into the Judean wilderness to be baptized in the Jordan River. And right after his baptism, he spends forty days and nights in the desert.[3] The desert is not a comfortable place to be. For one thing, it makes scarce and even denies the basic need for our survival – water. A desert is an arid region where annual rainfall remains miniscule. Some deserts average only one centimetre a year, with parts of the Sahara not receiving a drop of rain for more than twenty years.[4]

The word and image of water appears in each of the Hebrew readings assigned for this festival day in the church calendar, and is tied to baptism in the readings from the New Testament.[5] More to the point, water is given out of the chaotic void in the creation story, and in the arid wilderness as a gift and a grace. Water is thus a sign of God’s love amid the harsh winter or desert realities of our lives.

The prophets of old affirm that it is precisely in the desert where God expresses God’s love to the people. The grace of God cannot be received outside of winter. “Thus says the Lord: The people who found grace in the wilderness … I have loved you with an everlasting love …. I remember your love, how you followed me in the wilderness.”[6]

How, then, can we appreciate and even thrive, living out of this truth? How can we follow Jesus in his way? After all, the Baptism of our Lord is about Jesus beginning the journey to fulfill his God-given purpose in life. How he does it is of particular importance to us, if we are interested in following Jesus in our life-style.

Listen to a story first told by a nineteenth-century teacher, Awad Afifi the Tunisian, who drew his wisdom from the wide expanse of the North African desert:

A gentle rain fell on a high mountain in a distant land. The rain was at first hushed and quiet, trickling down granite slopes. Gradually it increased in strength, as rivulets of water rolled over rocks and down gnarled, twisted trees that grew there. The rain fell, as water must, without calculation. After all, water never has time to practice falling.

Soon, it was pouring, as swift currents of dark water flowed together into the beginnings of a stream. The brook made its way down the mountainside, through small stands of cypress trees and fields of lavender, and down cascading falls. It moved without effort, splashing over stones – learning that the stream interrupted by rocks is the one that sings most nobly. Finally, having left its heights in the distant mountain, the stream made its way to the edge of a great desert. Sand and rock stretched beyond seeing.

Having crossed every other barrier in its way, the stream fully expected to cross this as well. But as fast as its waves splashed into the desert, that fast did they disappear into the sand. Before long, the stream heard a voice whispering, as if coming from the desert itself, saying, “The wind crosses the desert, so can the stream.”

“Yes, but the wind can fly!” cried out the stream, still dashing itself into the desert sand.

“You’ll never get across that way,” the desert whispered. “You have to let the wind carry you.”

“But, how?” shouted the stream.

“You have to let the wind absorb you.”

The stream could not accept this, however. It didn’t want to lose its identity or abandon its own individuality. After all, if it gave itself to the winds, could it ever be sure of becoming a stream again?

The desert replied that the stream could continue its flowing, perhaps one day even producing a swamp there at the desert’s edge. But it would never cross the desert so long as it remained a stream.

The stream was silent for a long time, listening to distant echoes of memory, knowing parts of itself having been held before in the arms of the wind. From that long-forgotten place, it gradually recalled how water conquers only by yielding, by turning to steam in a natural cycle. From the depths of that silence, slowly the stream raised its vapours to the welcoming arms of the wind and was borne upward, carried easily on great white clouds over the wide desert waste.

Approaching distant mountains on the desert’s far side, the stream then began once again to fall as a light rain. At first it was hushed and quiet, trickling down granite slopes. Gradually it increased in strength, as rivulets rolled over the rocks and down the gnarled, twisted trees that grew there. The rain fell, as water must, without calculation. And soon it was pouring, as swift currents of dark water flowed together – yet again – into the headwaters of a new stream. [7]

Jesus instructs his followers to become the people they are called to be.[8] God is aware that our lives are like a journey through the desert. Or, as Canadians, we can say that our faith journey is not dissimilar from living through an Ottawa record-setting winter.

To thrive in this life is to see that this journey of becoming is not static. We are not called by Jesus to become mere swamp lands at the edge of the desert. Rather, the journey calls us to be vulnerable, to recognize what we may initially want to resist in us – like the stream that first struggled against yielding to the wind.

Our journey through life are journeys of vulnerability. Of taking little. Of trusting God. Of appreciating the value of small things. Of letting go into the Spirit wind of God. Then, we can, with the Psalmist see that, even in the wilderness, the Lord fulfills God’s promises and does indeed give strength to us and bless us with peace.[9]

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[1] Ottawa weather records, Twitter @YOW_Weather

[2] cited in Belden C. Lane, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.37

[3] Mark 1:12-13

[4] Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.38

[5] The Baptism of our Lord, Revised Common Lectionary Year B: Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

[6] Jeremiah 31:3; 2:2

[7] as written by Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.20-21

[8] read the entire section from Matthew 10:5-42

[9] Psalm 29:11, NRSV

Pizza, sushi, pigs-in-a-blanket: It all matters

It’s an odd beginning.[1] You’d wonder why, if Matthew and Luke – and to some extent even John – begin with stories of Jesus’ birth, Mark starts his Gospel rather abruptly. And by reference to the Hebrew prophets of old.

During this Advent season as we prepare for and wait for God’s coming at Christmas, the Gospel text for today feels out of place. It shakes us out of our sentimental leanings and Hallmark expectations of pleasant Christmassy stories.

One of my favourite children’s exercises is finding the pattern in a row of numbers, words, pictures – and identifying which part doesn’t fit. Preparing a way in the dusty heat of the Judean desert by referring to Isaiah is a no-brainer for finding what doesn’t fit if we would line up and compare the first chapters of each of the four Gospels.

Compared to wordy John, for example, Mark is the master of brevity. The earliest of all four Gospels in the New Testament, Mark tells the story of Jesus by getting to the point. He appeals to our contemporary need to summarize concisely. Mark is short – only 16 chapters compared to Matthew’s 28, Luke’s 24 and John’s 21. In our digital video age where sound and video bytes must capture our attention in less than 15 second ads, Mark is the go-to Gospel. If you’ve got the time.

He opens by simply getting to the point: Jesus is the Son of God. And it’s good news. Amen. We’d go hear his sermons.

Unlike Matthew, Mark leaves out the juicy, vitriolic speech John the Baptist gives slicing up the Pharisees calling them a brood of vipers.[2] Instead, in a few short verses, Mark simply tells his audience that John the Baptist comes to herald Jesus’ coming. That’s John the Baptist’s only role: To announce and prepare the way of the Lord. Period. Next question.

Our three confirmands this year and their families have decided to meet in each other’s home once a month. Taking turns to host, each decides then what we will eat for supper. The first month it was pizza, perhaps no surprise there. The second month was sushi. And the third month we met this Fall, it was crescent pigs in a blanket. Pizza, sushi and pigs in a blanket.

Same group of kids and parents. Different culinary expressions. And I wondered how well this group found unity despite our differences. The detailed differences mark important aspects of our identity and perspectives on life. And yet, there we were, eating together and talking about God.

Which is why we must stop, pause and ponder Mark’s inclusion of certain details. If Mark wants to be brief and just tell the basic point, then why does he include what John the Baptist is wearing and what his diet is? There must be something very important about locusts, wild honey and camel’s hair.

I find a few good reasons for including only those details. First, Mark makes the connection between John the Baptist and prophets of old. We see, through these details that John the Baptist stands in line with Isaiah by citing his work.[3] John the Baptist is also mistaken for Elijah because of their similar attire,[4] and because he, like it is recorded in the other Gospels, foretells of the coming Messiah.[5]

Mark wants to be brief, but he also wants to add just enough detail to make those connections. Not only is this good writing, he conveys that it all matters. Not just the principles, the higher meanings, the abstract thoughts, the arguments, the beliefs. Material matters too. The locusts and wild honey that he eats, the camel hair that he wears – these all mediate God’s intent and message.

We can learn from Mark that “spiritual talk is always, in the Gospel, tied to material — real water, real bread, real time, inexpensive wine, locusts, honey, sand, camel’s hair, wind, birds and the clouds being rent asunder. This is the nitty-gritty of life, and it can never be separated from matters of the Spirit.”[6]

Because there is “nothing in all of creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus”[7], then everything can mediate that love. There is nothing in all of creation that cannot communicate God’s goodness. All perspectives, all things, everyone – it all matters!

Those that created this library that we call “the Bible” in the fourth century could have tried to summarize the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – into one definitive, authoritative account. No variations. No differences. No discrepancies.

No need to ask questions like: Was it the feeding of the 5000 or 4000? Were there two or was there just one angel in the empty tomb to speak to the disciples? Why does the Gospel of John contain stories not recorded in Matthew and Luke? One compilation would be enough, one that gets right the chronology of all the events, teaching and parables of Jesus. It would have made life easier!

But the wisdom of our forebears in the faith would keep the variations intact. Four similar yet different accounts were included in the New Testament. The diverse expressions and witnesses of Jesus Christ and his birth, life, teaching, healing, death, resurrection and ascension emerge as a critical element of faith.

In reflecting on the unitive diversity of Christian faith in the Bible, Richard Rohr wrote earlier this week in his daily meditation: “Scripture gathers together cumulative visions of the divine.”[8] Diversity is essential to who we are. It all matters.

It all matters because there is something good in everything. Everything in creation is just that: Created by God. And if everything was and is created by God, then despite the consequences of human misdeeds and the stain of sin in creation, despite all the religious and political differences in the world, there is still something redeemable and inherently good in this brokenness of creation. Including in us. This is the hope of Christian faith.

The Christmas season is a time when traditional gatherings occur in families, communities, friendship groups, and workplace teams. It would be too easy, and lazy on our part, to be dismissive and rush to make judgements of family members and co-workers with whom we differ. Some hesitate and complain about attending these gatherings because we can’t stand “grumpy uncle Stan” or “flakey aunty Molly”.

But even “grumpy uncle Stan” and “flakey aunty Molly” are beloved of God. There is something good about them. Will we take the time and effort to help make a safe place for them to express their true selves created in the image of God?

Richard Rohr has made many enemies in the Christian church for his provocative and progressive views. He has been a voice crying out in the wilderness for several decades now. And over all this time, he maintains that in conversation with those who differ from him, he follows a simple rule:

There is always at least ten percent of what he hears in their point of view that he can agree with. And it’s from that common ten percent that he begins his response to them.[9]

That calls for some work. And persistence. Because building relationships with those from whom we differ is not accomplished in one meeting, overnight, or after one phone conversation. It’s not easy work. It can take a life time.

It’s easier to give up and walk away. It’s easier to justify some narrative that paints them as evil or not worth spending any time with. The sad consequence of following this easy way we see in the world today.

We pray for peace on earth this Christmas season, as with the angels of old. The way of peace is to have hope. To have hope is to live into that which God calls us into being. And that hope requires us to take the narrow path.[10] To have hope is to work hard at practicing good listening skills. Hope requires us to work hard at not speaking first, but first asking questions and hearing the other. That hope requires us to work hard at listening with the aim of seeking understanding, to try to see things from the perspective of the other.

This doesn’t mean we will agree with the other. This doesn’t mean we will lose our integrity or that which defines us as Christians and as individuals. But it does lead us to a way of being with the other that honours them and respects them as beloved creatures of God.

We will continue eating together as a confirmation class into the new year. I look forward to the different culinary tastes that await. And what is better, I know the young women in the confirmation class are looking forward to this as well.

Hope.

[1] The Gospel for Advent 2B – Mark 1:1-8

[2] Matthew 3:7

[3] Isaiah 40:3

[4] 2 Kings 1:8

[5] John 1:21-23

[6] I wrote in my post from January 2015, “Borderland Spirituality”

[7] Romans 8:38-39

[8] December 4, 2017

[9] Richard Rohr, “The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis” (Boulder Colorado: Sounds True Audio CD Learning Course, 2010).

[10] Matthew 7:13-14; Luke 13:24

Faith in the dark

Sixteenth century Reformer Martin Luther claimed we are “justified by faith”. That means, we are in a right relationship with God because of the gift of faith in us.

Anyone and everyone, therefore, can live in faith. And there is nothing anyone of us can do to earn good favor with God.

Faith, to Luther, was to trust in God and God’s promises, despite your circumstance or any evidence to the contrary. What validates faith in you is not your external situation or material well-being, but God’s purposes, intentions, and promises for your life and the life of others.

Nevertheless, faith is not something you have. It is still something you do, but not to save ourselves. How do we deal with this paradox?

A brother once asked an older monk in a desert community, “Which is holier, someone who leads a solitary life for six days a week, giving himself much pain; or, another who simply takes care of the sick?”

The old man smiled and replied, “Even if the one who withdraws for six days were to hang himself up by his nostrils, he could not equal the one who serves the sick.”[1]

Self-denial and isolation never substitute for an active faith born out of love for our neighbour.

“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” Jesus answers the trick question posed to him by the Pharisees, “And give to God what belongs to God.”[2] The giving-to-God part, we get. But giving to Caesar?

Giving to Caesar ties us to this earth – to its politics, to its confusion, despair and hardship. Giving to Caesar, after all, was not popular among the Jews resisting Roman occupation in 2nd century Palestine. Giving to Caesar was fraught with political controversy – as it is today in the parlance of paying taxes. Giving to Caesar is not something we would normally associate with being faithful, being Christian.

But it is. Why? It certainly is not a perfect activity free from blemish and beyond reproach. But we do it anyway.

It is not a perfect thing to do faith. But when has it ever been? We give, in faith. We act, in faith. We love, in faith. Even though our response in faith is never perfect.

In faith, we always walk in the darkness. We see, using Paul’s language, “a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Medieval Spanish theologian, John of the Cross, called it “luminous darkness”. Because the darkness is also part of God’s creation. We need darkness in order to see the light.

Classical literature and art suggests the spiritual significance of darkness in one’s journey of life and faith. Parsifal’s quest for the Holy Grail begins by entering the forest at “the darkest place.” Dante begins his paradise journey “alone in a dark wood,” and it continues through purgatory and hell. Darkness is often the language of faithful, committed, spiritual people, a language and reality that cannot really be separated from light.[3]

Even in the beginning, as recorded in Genesis, the Bible brings the two together. In the first verses of Genesis, God names every day of creation “good”.[4] Except the first two days – the days when darkness is separated from light and when heaven is separated from earth. Darkness and light must not be separated. The real world, as Jesus teaches, is always a field of weeds and wheat and we can never presume to eliminate the weeds.[5] Light and dark belong together. You can’t have one without the other, to do faith.

In the Hebrew reading for today, the prophet Isaiah renders God’s words: “I create darkness”. God says that God will “give you the treasures of darkness … hidden in secret places.”[6]

This is the way of living without all the answers, living with ambiguity, living without denying or pretending away or even avoiding the contradictions of your life.

This is the way through the desert.

When King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon around 539 B.C.E. he let the exiled Israelites living there go back home to re-build Jerusalem. After living by the rivers of Babylon for decades, the people of Israel had a decision to make in response to their newfound freedom: Would they stay? Some did. But many – a remnant, we call them – decided to make the long trek through the desert back home.

What is more, King Cyrus of Persia did not even know God.[7] And yet, he was chosen by God to fulfill God’s purposes. God would even “go ahead”[8] of Cyrus to clear the way for God’s mission.

The way through the desert is not the way of certainty, security and safety, to be sure. The way through the desert is not an easy way. But the dark way, often in biblical times encountered in the harsh climate of the desert, is the way home. It is the way of healing, transformation and the new, good thing God is doing for us and in us and the world.

The Israelites could not avoid the desert even though they were freed from exile. They had to trust not only the dark way, they had to trust the foreigner and pagan King Cyrus to believe what he was doing for them, to believe he was in truth an instrument of God.

Talk about contradiction and ambiguity in faith! Would we, today, confer such a trust in someone outside the traditional community of faith? Would we, for example, take to heart Gord Downie’s medium of pop rock to advocate for better relationships with Indigenous People? Would we trust the revelation of God’s purposes in people of other religions, newcomers to Canada who bring with them different cultures from ours? Could these people and others also be instruments of God and God’s purposes, for us today?

The Israelites were faced with such a conundrum. And we know what they decided to do. They had to walk home in the desert, in the darkness, and trust that even through Cyrus, God’s unknowing servant, the mighty God of Israel was moving behind the scenes of everything that was transpiring.[9]

The way to healing and resolution of whatever troubles you today is a desert way of darkness. Yet, as someone once said, “In every cross we bear, therein lies a great treasure.”

A group of white settlers learned the hard way in the fall of 1849 as they set out from the Utah Territory toward gold fields in the San Joaquin Valley of California.

Taking a shortcut recommended to them by the leader of a passing pack train, they headed into a 140-mile long stretch of desert waste known to us today as Death Valley. It was a tragic mistake.

Twenty-seven wagons started into that long desert valley east of the Sierra Nevada. Only one of them came out. A survivor of that misguided party spoke of the dreadful sameness of the terrain, the awfulness of the Panamint Mountains, remembering only hunger and thirst and an awful silence.

Two months later, as the only surviving wagon topped the westernmost crest of the distant mountains, one of the settlers looked back on the place that had nearly claimed them all, and said: “Goodbye, Death Valley.” That’s how the site received its name.

But there’s another name the Spanish used to describe this God-forsaken land. They referred to it as ‘la Palma de la Mano de Dios’, the very palm of God’s hand.[10]

Could it be that even in the midst of the most dangerous climate and terrain on earth, where it’s 134 degrees (57 degrees Celsius) in the shade exposed to winds in excess of one hundred miles (160 kilometers) an hour, wanderers have found God? It is God, actually, who finds us, in the darkest most arid times and places of our own lives.

It is during these times and places where people become accustomed to risk, vulnerability and brokenness that they build an unshakable trust in the other? It is during these dark times and places where you confront your inevitable loss of control and the specter of your own eventual demise head on. It is in these moments where we have to wait for God, ask God for help, and learn to trust God over and above anything we may be able to accomplish by the might of our own hand.

In the dark, desert journeys of our lives especially, we remain inscribed in palms of God’s hands.[11] La Palma de la Mano de Dios. You may not understand all the contradictions and ambiguities of your life, right now. You may not be able to figure out all the inconsistencies and paradoxes of life. You may not be able to resolve the problems of your life or in the world.

But, believe this: There is Someone who does. As you wander in the darkness of faith, never forget that God is bringing to resolution and completion all the confusion and contradiction of your life and the life of the world.

And, it is all good.

 

[1] Belden C. Lane, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality” (.202

[2] Matthew 22:21

[3] Richard Rohr, “Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation” (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2016), p.39.

[4] Genesis 1:3-8

[5] Matthew 13:24-30

[6] Isaiah 45:3,7

[7] Isaiah 45:4-5

[8] Isaiah 45:2

[9] Carolyn J. Sharp in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year A Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.175

[10] Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.231-232.

[11] Isaiah 49:16

No easy way up those stairs


Perhaps you know someone like Sue.

Sue had Multiple Sclerosis (MS). As the disease progressed in her relatively young life, she nevertheless wanted to stay at home as long as possible. Her house, unfortunately, was not outfitted appropriately for someone in her debilitating condition.

And yet, she battled. For example, it took her twenty minutes to crawl upstairs to her bedroom. Sue called the stairs “Mount Sinai”. Because it was by struggling on those stairs, moving limb for limb through each laboured breath through gritted teeth; it was through determination for each step gained, that she learned so much (1).

The prophet Isaiah does this to us again — gives us an ideal vision of a world where no one suffers any longer, a utopia where everyone is joyful. What is perhaps even more astounding is that this vision of hope and promise is proclaimed in the midst of everything that was not:

These verses speak to Babylonian exiles (2). They are the captives of war, and as such have been wounded maimed, even intentionally blinded as was King Zedekiah (2 Kings 25:7). It is to this failed community now subjugated and marginalized in an oppressive regime far away from Jerusalem that Isaiah paints this picture of a highway leading back home through the desert (Isaiah 35:1-10).

The cynic in us alights, as it must have in many of the exiles in the sixth century B.C.E. For, when do we see the eyes of the blind opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the disabled leaping like a deer, the tongues of the speechless sing for joy? (vs.5-6). Words that Jesus later repeats almost verbatim (Matthew 11:5; Luke 4:18) surprise because he seems to validate the promise of a vision, hundreds of years after Isaiah, that has yet to be fulfilled.

The vision, the promise, operates like a bouncing ball through history. Indeed, our world to this day — two thousand years later — is still rife with human brokenness, both visible and hidden from sight. Many have given up on God precisely because they can’t see how a God of love can be represented in a world of suffering, disease, violence and disability.

What if this promise is given, is meant, for us today? Can we believe it? Yet, perhaps human beings will always struggle with the God who came, and is coming again and again, in Jesus. We have to be careful with Isaiah’s vision, for it can pander to our perfectionism, which denies the reality of a life lived in the graces of God: That what is of God is exclusively the purview of the rich and famous, successful, beautiful and handsome — only for the perfect ones.

Perfectionism pretends that we have to achieve that vision of wholeness and restoration by our own herculean efforts and responsibilities. A denial of the suffering in life leads us to attempt a path around all that is difficult, challenging and transformative.

“A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way, and the unclean shall not pass it by, but it shall be for them.” (Isaiah 35:8)

When John the Baptist shouts that the coming Jesus will make a way through the aridity and desolation of the desert (Matthew 3:3), it bears reason to pause and reflect on the place of John’s prophetic work. Not in the public square in downtown Jerusalem nor on the steps of the Temple.

He stands on the banks of the Jordan River — which separated two worlds. On the one side, the desert which represents the long journey, the pilgrimage, that the people of God made from slavery in Egypt. On the other side of the Jordan lies the Promised Land, the place of arrival, destination, highlighted by the holy city of Jerusalem.

John the Baptist stands preaching words of challenge and hope in the in-between place — the River Jordan. Baptismal in its imagery, this in-between space is the place where something happens. A change occurs in our lives. The space in-between is often a place of disruption as the mental furniture of long-held beliefs, assumptions and values are re-arranged. In this in-between place of discomfort and turbulence we experience, nevertheless, a transformation to be people ‘on the way’ to our destination with God.

We must be willing to go there. And not deny this path through the wilderness. A holy highway does not circumvent the desert places of our lives. What ails us, what disturbs us, what challenges us — these are often valuable clues, yes even invitations, to a deeper engagement with our lives and with God. The disruption is actually God calling us into a transformative experience of life.

Do we accept this? Advent is a time to be honest. Advent is a time of reckoning. Will we stay the same, stuck in our inhibitions and motivated by fear? Or, are we willing to take the risk and go through this in-between place that does not deny our suffering and discomfort, but which actually holds redemptive power?

It is no accident that God chose to be revealed in a broken body. A bloody and pierced body hanging on a Cross. God showed us the way, in Jesus’ death and resurrection. God opened to us the way of salvation.

We know God saves. The names of Isaiah, and Joshua — important in the Hebrew Scriptures — echo the same meaning of Jesus’ name: God saves. No dispute there. But what is the way, the how, of God’s saving? How does God save?

The path through the desert. Before there is a re-ordering of our lives, there must first be a dis-order or sorts. There is no direct-flight from ‘order to re-order’ as much as we might wish there were. In God’s realm, according to the way of Jesus, we must go from ‘order to dis-order before arriving at re-order’ (3).

Julian of Norwich wrote: “First the fall, and then the recovery from the fall. And both are the mercy of God” (4).

We can’t have Easter without Good Friday. Both are held in tandem. Even today in popular Christianity, people avoid worshiping on Good Friday; most experience the ‘hosananas’ of Palm Sunday only to return the following Easter Sunday to sing ‘halleluia’. No wonder we get seduced by culture’s ‘glory’ theology that pretends we can somehow deny suffering in order to validate our faith.

But without somehow acknowledging the Passion and suffering of Holy Week culminating in death on the Cross of Good Friday, we miss the point of Easter. We miss the point of Christianity:

The body of Christ is broken in love for us. God loves us not despite our brokenness as human beings but precisely because we are broken.

Lutherans talk a lot about grace, and unconditional love of God for us ‘while we were yet sinners’ (Romans 5:6-8). This is good talk. But — being a diehard, lifelong Lutheran myself and so I can say this — it is not easy living, behaving and inter-relating according to that unconditional-love-‘way’ with others. It may be a simple concept for the mind to turn over and accept, but it certainly is not easy for our egos to put into practice.

Climbing the steps of “Mount Sinai” as Sue was want to do was a feat of incredible endurance. Whether it took her twenty minutes or two hours is not the point, really. It’s the journey: Learning to love, forgive and accept our lives not because everything is ‘just right’ but precisely because God is there in the ‘not alright’ — is a discipline that may indeed take a lifetime to learn.

Enduring whatever suffering comes your way. Grieving whatever loss or mourning a loved one. Carrying on in the midst of the in-between places of our lives. Being present to all the feelings and thoughts and sensations of life — good and bad. Accepting our own imperfection and disability — and still enjoying moments of grace with one another on the way.

So as we learn on the way, may our journeys be inspired by moments when we do experience the presence of a God who understands and walks with us, when the vision appears no longer a mirage on the horizon of reality. But is truth incarnate. An inexplicable gift of joyous wonder.

When, “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10).

 

(1) Charles Foster, “The Sacred Journey” (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2010), p. xxiii
(2) Bruce C. Birch in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1” (WJK Press, Kentucky, 2010), p.51-55
(3) Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditation”, Tuesday, December 6, 2016 (Center for Action and Contemplation), http://www.cac.org
(4) Julian of Norwich, “Revelations of Divine Love”, 61, ed. Grace Warrack, R.Rohr paraphrase (London: Methuen & Company, 1901), p.153

Laetere!

“This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (Psalm 118:24)

Lent is a journey through the desert. It is dry. And there’s little for comfort. Let alone luxury. It is a time of self-reflection, of letting go, of pacing ourselves through disciplines that humble us and peel back the layers of our habits and beliefs.

The famine provides a turning point in the parable of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). His wasteful, dissolute, squandering of money — his lifestyle — is brought to an end by a famine, probably caused by drought.

Up to this point the Prodigal continued down the course of his delusion, believing he could be happy by pursuing this lifestyle, even when he runs out of money. His mistaken and self-indulgent strategy for fulfillment is derailed and heightened by the onset of famine.

After the famine grips the land and its people, he has to work among the pigs. He might have had to do this anyway. But because of the famine, nobody can even spare change to throw at his feet when he begs. This famine-ridden reality leads him to a place of brutal honesty. And he falls on his knees in confession.

This is not the only time a famine in the land affects the course of the history of the relationship between God and God’s people. The famine illustrates a pervasive motif in the bible: The famine acts as a significant motivator for people to move in their lives, physically and in their hearts as well (1).

Famine is the reason that Abraham and Sarah leave Ur for Canaan. Once they are there, famine is also the reason they leave again for Egypt (Genesis 12). Famine appears twenty times just in Genesis (eg, Genesis 26). The story of Joseph and Jacob revolve around the reality of the famine.

Famines represent those times in life when forces beyond our control dictate the course of our lives. Famines remind us that we are not the masters of our own destiny. Famines expose the truth of our own poverty. Famines make us honest for our own need. Famines cause us to reach out for help, and let go of our pretence of self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

Famines will lead us to confession – honesty about what we need, what we lack, what limits us. Famines will move us to depend on something/someone beyond our capabilities and industry. Famines will bring us to our knees at the throne of God’s grace (Hebrews 4:16).

Maybe that’s why famines happened a lot in scripture.

The famine, otherwise not usually considered an important part of the parable of the Prodigal Son, serves to underscore the central message of Scripture: It’s not about us, it’s about God. We can act irresponsibly like the Prodigal, or we can follow all the rules of life and be good citizens and good people like the resentful elder son — this has no bearing on the freedom of God to dispense grace as God will.

It almost doesn’t feel fair, what happens. We can sympathize with the elder son, I suspect. Yet, whenever we feel the pangs of ‘It’s not fair’ — how much of that objection, when we are honest, is based on the presumption of our own righteousness, our own ability, our own deserving, our own industry to earn our rightful place?

There’s this delightful short book by Francois Lelord, which was translated into English and adapted for the big screen starring Simon Pegg, called “Hector and the Search for Happiness.” Simon Pegg’s character, Hector, goes on a journey around the world to observe what makes people happy. As he travels to distant places and meets different people, he writes down in his little notebook a short list of what makes people happy.

His very first observation — the first lesson he learns about what makes people happy — is: “Making comparisons can spoil your happiness” (2). Is that not what the elder son does — compare his righteousness to the wayward squandering of his younger brother? He is justifying himself, based on the less-than-stellar behaviour of another.

“Making comparisons can spoil your happiness.” This is Gospel truth, in fact. Remember the other parable Jesus tells of the workers in the vineyard? The ones who work the shortest amount of time earn the same wage as the ones who worked from early morning (Matthew 20:1-16). The ones who worked all day grumble that they made the same wage as those who only worked a short time, even though the early workers had already agreed on the rate they would receive.

Another characteristic of people who are not grateful for what they have, and who continually make comparisons: Resentful people do not feel like a party. People who are continually comparing themselves to others who have more, keep themselves from enjoying life and having fun from time to time. People who are judging others and pointing fingers, will not easily relax and accept the good in them and others.

The Father begs the resentful elder son to join the party he has thrown for the Prodigal. What the Father reminds the elder son are words from God to us and the church today: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” In other words, rather than incessantly compare our lot with others, focus on the gifts, the resources, the passions, the energy, the interests we have already been given to you. And we have been given much, indeed!

We have musical gifts in this congregation, and talented singers and instrumentalists. We have people passionate about social justice, and caring for the poor nearby. We are well-read, educated and earnest in our pursuit of truth. We are warm-hearted and dedicated to one another.

Moreover, we have an abundance of material resources. Yes, we do! A building assessment was done last year. And the replacement cost of this small building alone was valued at $1 million. With the property around the building, the value is much higher.

We have been given so much in this community alone. Imagine the potential human and material resource we have here for the purpose of God’s mission in the world today!

Accept with thanksgiving what we have been given. And, when it comes to what others have received, rejoice in God’s generosity and grace towards them. After all, God is free to do what God will.

And we are free, to do what we must do. Whether we make mistakes, or do good. Whether we are led astray for a time in our lives, or we keep the faith through thick and thin — God says, “You count! You are beloved! I am with you always. I will go the distance for you. I will wait for you — no matter what you have done, good or bad. You count!” So much so, it’s worth throwing a party — an extravagant party.

There is cause to celebrate. And be happy! For God is good, and God’s love endures forever.


(1) Lutherans Connect, Lenten devotional, Day 6 — found at lc2016lentdevotional.blogspot.ca
(2)Francois Lelord, “Hector and the Search for Happiness”, Penguin Books, Toronto, 2010, p.19

There’s no place on earth

People of faith, since the beginning, have been on the move. Even when they settled down for a while, they created ways of practising the journey — of moving from Point A to Point B.

Rome, central to the story and expansion of early Christianity, is full of famous steps. The most famous of these are the 135 Spanish steps which visitors traverse daily en masse.

Millions of Christians have walked the Camino el Santiago which spans almost 800 kms from the foothills of the Pyrenees in France all the way to Galicia on the northwest coast of Spain.

The trails to the castle at Lindisfarne in the United Kingdom attract Christians worldwide every Holy Week to walk nearly 200 kilometres.

People of faith have valued movement as integral to their spiritual growth. Because we are not the same at the end of a journey than we were when we started. This innate desire to be better, to change, to grow and mature — is part and parcel of the life of faith.

The culture of Journeying, so important to the Lenten season we now begin, has its roots in the original pilgrimages to Holy Lands. For centuries, Christians sought a deeper connection with Jesus who walked and lived and died in and around Jerusalem and the Judean wilderness. 

When the Crusades prevented pilgrims from traveling to the Holy Lands, Christians ‘back home’ developed prayer walks in Labyrinths — the most famous and oldest in the Chartres Cathedral in France — which symbolized the long journey to meet Jesus.

Indeed, settlers to this country moved here, many of them to exercise and practice their faith in freedom. Mobility, migration, pilgrimage — this is our story, as people of faith.

How we journey is the question. The journey is not only physical, it also describes our understanding of the way things work.

Over the last month, the Ottawa Senators (NHL hockey team) were looking to score more goals. They had lost more games than won. Their star players were not producing. 

One of their younger players, Curtis Lazar, decided to give $50 to a homeless person after dining out one evening. The next night, he scored two goals in a routing of the Toronto Maple Leafs — the Senators won that game 6-1. The following game, the Senators won again, 5-1, against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In an interview afterwards, Lazar confessed that perhaps there was “karma” working here. Meaning, because he had done a good deed, there was a ‘return’ on his righteous investment and he was rewarded with those goals and wins.

I like Lazar and I appreciate his hockey skills and character. At the same time, he reflects a dominant way of thinking. It is really what some have a called a mechanical type of spirituality, with inputs (from us) and outputs (from God). The sequence goes something like:

1. We sin

2. We are punished

3. We confess our sins

4. We change our lives, and do something good

5. Then, we receive forgiveness and grace

Such is the description of a journey towards goodness that hinges entirely on us, and our doing, our initiative. This spiritual journey then cycles back to the beginning and round and round it goes. Essentially, we force God’s hand. Karma is not a belief alien even to Christians, it seems!

The problem with karma is that because it ultimately relies on our good works, we will never achieve the goal. After winning two lop-sided games, the Senators have now lost three in a row. Where does that leave Lazar? Does he have to give $100 next time to poor people he meets?

In recalling the great acts of God in bringing the Israelites to the Promised Land, Moses confesses it is God’s mighty arm that started the ball rolling towards freedom; verses 8-9 of Deuteronomy 26:

8The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Like the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years, Jesus walks with us in a completely opposite direction from karma. His is not the spirituality of addition, but of subtraction. He goes into the desert.

Try to imagine Jesus’ first moments, entering into the wilderness he would occupy for forty days: The sound of any footsteps is absorbed by sand and rock, lost in the wind or in silence. It is in this barren place that Jesus chooses to retreat, far from what he knows.

Christ chose to retrace the path of his ancestors — in the desert: Abraham. Moses. Ruth. Some of them were responding to God’s call. Some were fleeing persecution. Some were simply looking for a place to call home.

There may very well be value, to our growth as Christians, in embarking on spiritual journeys and earth-bound pilgrimages with some expectations at the destination in mind.

At the same time, we can be assured that Jesus not only waits for us at the ‘end of the line’. Jesus is right there with us, each step of the way. His journey into the desert of testing and suffering shows that there is no place of suffering, pain and loss on earth, to which Jesus is unaccustomed. No place of want that Jesus doesn’t know, intimately. This is more the point.

I like one of the sayings, attributed to Albert Camus, on a Valentine’s Day card I saw: It’s a message of love from one to another: “Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow; don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Just walk beside me, and be my friend.”

The message of Christianity is that God is not out there, or back there. God is ‘in our skin’, with us. And goes where we go in our journeys of faith and life, through the good and the bad. Jesus is not only the God of our eternal salvation, Jesus is our friend for life, and no matter what.

Jesus resides in the deepest places of our heart and activates our truest most authentic selves no matter where we are at.

Long before Jesus came, the Psalmist knew this gracious truth in his heart: There is no place on earth where God’s presence of grace, love and mercy cannot reach. In Psalm 139 —

7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? 
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 
9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. 

Contrary to karma, this journey of faith begins with God’s grace and forgiveness, as it always does. It is in the desert of our lives where we experience this grace because life happens regardless of how hard we try. And because we are already forgiven, already blessed, we can live confident, transformed lives, even in the desert of our lives. As we live out of our freedom in Christ, we can then confess, “Jesus is Lord!”

As God is with us in our deepest darkness and light, we look to those on the move today. Refugees. Migrants. More than the places of the journey, it is the people we must engage. 

While the desert wilderness was a time of solitary retreat for Jesus, migrants and refugees live in communities: their solace is in the comfort of companionship and common history and identity with those whom they live alongside. In the Lenten days to come, in our own solitary places, let us pray for those for whom solitude is a luxury. And welcome them into our hearts and minds. (1)

(1) Lutherans Connect, “Welcoming the Stranger” blogpost Lenten devotions, Day 1 (lc2016lentdevotional.blogspot.ca)