God loves us uniquely, not exclusively

Some things Jesus says offend our most sacred held values.

In today’s Gospel Jesus basically turns against family. As one who drove 6000 kilometers this summer in a car with my family and then spent four intense but good days with extended family in Poland, I recoil at these words of Jesus. If we take Jesus’ demand literally, he is telling us outright to ‘hate’ our father, mother, wife and children and give up all our possessions.[1]How’s that for ‘family values’?

We cannot ignore this statement of Jesus, as much as we may want to. When we see the other places Jesus comments on family we begin to notice a theme emerge. Jesus redefines ‘family’ who shares not bloodlines but a common awareness of following Jesus and God’s mission.[2]

How do we pick up our cross and be faithful in following Jesus? How do we deal with this word ‘hate’ which brings up un-gospel-like connotations of division, conflict, anger and even violence?

In a historical fiction by Ken Follet entitled A Column of Fire he describes the early, raw conflict between Protestants and Catholics. Set in 1558, just some forty years after Martin Luther inaugurated the Reformation, Follet portrays through his characters the mindset of religious combatants in England and France.

In small towns where this religious war was waged in families and churches, to be caught with prohibited books from the ‘other side’ meant certain and immediate death. Underground Protestants were indiscriminately persecuted with the full force of the law when outed in Catholic regions. And vice versa. I had forgotten to appreciate the depth of the hatred that existed between coreligionists in the decades following the spread of Protestantism in Europe.

Early in the book we are introduced to Rollo. Rollo hates Protestants who are inflicting his English town. He bemoans the subversive, rule-breaking Protestants who are trying to alter Christian doctrines that had been taught in the old town cathedral unchanged for centuries. “The truth was for eternity,”[3]he pronounces. This truth is like the huge foundation stones of cathedral building which cannot be moved.

Of course, from today’s vantage point five hundred years later, we lay aside these trifling objections. Over the last fifty years especially culminating in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justificationin 1999, Catholics and Protestants together testify to the salvation that is bestowed only in Christ and by grace alone. In that almost incredible agreement, the objections and cause of divisions of the sixteenth century between the Roman Catholic church and reformers were officially removed.

Rollo’s problem was that he equated his interpretation of the truth with the truth itself. He believed his ‘take’ on the truth was the only take to make. And everyone else who didn’t conform to his take was excluded. In other words, his worldview was exclusive. Love of God, grace of God—these were exclusive gifts of God to a select few who conformed.

And damned be the rest.

Today, while the historical differences between Catholics and Protestants melt in the context of a changing cultural reality in the Western world, these troubling tendencies towards conformity, like-mindedness and exclusiveness nevertheless still persist in both Catholic and Lutheran circles worldwide and denominationally.

Think of the eye-glasses we wear. Some, to shield against the sun. Some glasses for short-sightedness, some for far-sightedness. Some glasses are bi-focal. Others are progressive lens. Important questions to ask in any study of scripture or tradition are: What lens do you use—your lens of experience, upbringing, learning, personality, opinion, background—what lens of interpretation do you bring to a reading of holy scripture?

What do you normally see in scripture? What do you first notice? The law? The gospel? Do you regard the bible as a legal book, or a historical book primarily? Or, do you look for promise, hope, forgiveness? Do you presume a punishing God who looks for mistakes and the follies of humanity? Or, do you see a loving God? Why? What are you afraid of? What are you looking for?

These are not easy questions to pose to oneself. But following Jesus is not blind. Obedience in the vision of Jesus is not like flotsam, driftwood, floating hither and yon.

Discipleship is a call to a commitment with focus and intention. Following Jesus calls each of us to a thought-probing, deliberative process in which we grow our ability and confidence to ask of ourselves the tough questions about life and living not only about God but especially of ourselves.

These types of questions are important to get some handle on before you can claim any part of the truth. In short, an honest self-awareness is necessary for healthy relating—whether relating to scripture or to someone else.

In families, relationships and organizations that are healthy, vital and growing, what do you see? I see people who are respected for their unique contribution to the whole. I see people who may be very different from each other and still value their own contribution because they know they are valued by others. Not because they conform. Not because they wear identical eye-glasses of interpretation. Not because someone else tells them what to do. Not because they ‘tow the party line.’ Not because they are like-minded in all things religious.

I know it’s not time to think of snow, yet. But I came across this past week an image of the snowflake. Of all the billions of people on this planet, no two are exactly alike. Even, as I am, an identical twin—I am not exactly like my brother. Of all the snowflakes that fall from the sky, no two are exactly alike.  Not one is a duplicate. Each is unique.

I don’t take the word ‘hate’ in the Gospel reading to mean we have license from God now to say and do violence to those we love most. That would constitute a false interpretation of scripture.

I do take this to mean we cannot, dare not, make any claim on another’s life. We do not own another person. We do not claim ownership and control them emotionally, psychologically, even spiritually. We are not responsible for another person.

Our growth with those we love means we release our claim over their lives, if we’ve ever had one or thought we had. I believe that is what Jesus is getting at here. Parents, even, are advised to remember that their role in raising children is to prepare those children for the world, and then release them to the world. In any relationship, blood-lined or missional—we do not control, own, or claim anything over another person.

And this is not easy with regards to letting go of our emotional attachments. But not claiming anything over another doesn’t mean we cut ourselves off from them, cutting all ties and never seeing them again. Releasing our emotional grip on another doesn’t mean we do not love them anymore. Letting go our claim over their lives doesn’t mean we do not care for them anymore. It just means we are not ultimately in charge of their lives. God is.

This can be a freeing prospect.

In reflecting on the cost of discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The call to discipleship is a gift of grace.”[4]It’s a call to freedom and transformation which is what Jesus nurtures in us: to grow, to move, to change for the better as persons created in the image of God.

And, what is more, when all those unique snowflakes fall to the ground what accumulates is a blanket of snow—that has its recuperative and restorative purpose upon the earth. Unique, yet each contributes to the whole.

God doesn’t love us exclusively. As if we ought to be better than ‘them’. God loves uniquely. Being faithful is not about comparison, competition, being better than someone else. God loves us uniquely not exclusively. That means, our take on the truth is partial. Someone else’s take on the truth is also partial. Each of us in God’s family brings something unique to the whole of the truth.

To follow Jesus is to practice the letting go of the ego’s compulsions, and embrace God’s unconditional love and grace for you. So, following Jesus is not about being perfect, or copying someone else’s ‘saintliness’. It is, quite simply, being authentically you and affirming the stranger, in God’s love for all.

 

[1]Luke 14:25-33

[2]See Luke 12:51-53, 14:12, 18:29-30

[3]Ken Follet, A Column of Fire (New York: Viking Books/Penguin Random House, 2017) p.76.

[4]Cited by Emilie M. Townes 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.48.

Kitchen vision

During Mika’s confirmation last weekend, I was grateful to reconnect with folks from her past and present, and hopefully future. At Mika’s confirmation party on the Saturday, we had just over thirty people in our house. It was raining, so all of them were, physically, in our house. It was crowded. Loud. Noisy.

You know I am an introvert. And they say that if you want to starve an introvert to death, put a stranger right in the middle of their kitchen. Far from being strangers, these were all friends and family. And yet, to have someone ‘in your space’ who is not normally there, was challenging for me. Add to that stress, organizing food for all these people and making sure everyone had somewhere to sit …

I remember first meeting Mika’s godparents in rural southern Ontario in my first parish. In century old houses, the kitchen can be the largest room. The kitchen is also where most people enter the house—not the front entrance facing the road. But ‘out back’ where friends, family and neighbours know to go in, right into the kitchen.

The kitchen in our first home there even had an Elmira wood stove in it. It was flanked by arm chairs and a small settee right beside the long counter and ample room for the kitchen table. Lots of people could fit in there!

Times have changed, indeed. Today, in average-sized homes there isn’t a whole lot of room to manoeuvre about. And for introverts such as myself, when I’m cooking or washing up the dishes, it’s a real struggle for me to share the space. I have to work at that.

I suspect I am not alone on this! We guard our spaces, covet our ground. We justify our beliefs and behaviour by appealing to social norms: Of course, everyone feels this way! Right? Let’s just say, having so many people crammed into ‘my space’ was a growth opportunity for me!

Jesus’ last prayer before his death and resurrection was for the disciples to be “one”—one in each other, one in Christ, one in God—bound together in the love of God.[1]The vision of God is an ever-expanding community brought together in love. The vision of God is that everyone can come to the table, everyone who is thirty, hungry, yearning for deeper connection with God and the world. The vision of God is that the dividing lines be erased—the lines that divide, exclude, deny, keep away.

The problem is, Jesus’ prayer and vision has come on hard times. We cannot deny it: the church has been fractured and divided more than anything—especially after the Reformation which brought some good things nonetheless. History in the last five hundred years has taught us, if nothing else, that fighting about who believes the right things about God can keep faithful people entangled with words about God rather than walking in the ways of God.

When followers of Christ draw lines in the sand, exclude and divide, when we quarrel and argue about dogmas and creeds and doctrines, the world will not witness the peace and love of God in us. So, the challenge of living faithfully is not only a call to private goodness or a superficial ‘everyone likes each other’.

It is a call to let our lives invite others to follow Jesus. Our lives ought not solely be preoccupied with right or wrong, guilty or not, in or out but whether or not our actions and behaviour contribute to the good of the world. Whether or not our actions contribute to a loving witness of what God’s vision is all about.

And we discover this path by experiencing the living presence of God in our lives. Not just talking about faith, but living it. And so, we are called to grow. And even when good growth happens, there will be growing pains as we stretch and flex our spiritual muscles.

There are two things ‘growing pains’ are not: First, when we are invited to do something differently, it is not an indictment against your history. It is not saying what happened in the past was all wrong. It is not dismissing the way you did things were bad.

When we are invited to do something new, something differently, let me suggest it is a challenge. A challenge to grow. Growth means change. When a plant or flower grows from its place in the ground, it changes. It’s ok to change our minds, as we grow. We are adults. We gain new life experiences. We learn new things, consider fresh perspectives. We have to integrate those experiences as we try new things.

Second, this discomfort is also not persecution. Please don’t confuse growing pains with ‘being persecuted’. We often hear that. When Christians, especially, are not interested in growth, some will conveniently use that interpretation: ‘We are being persecuted’.

When all along this discomfort is more likely about giving up privilege. It is giving up some of our privilege. Being comfortable at all costs—even the cost of avoiding difficult, vulnerable conversations, even at the cost of staying comfortable—is the very definition of privilege.

Growth will make us feel uncomfortable. But following Jesus is not about our degree of comfort. There is always a cost.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran theologian in the last century, spent the last year of his life in a Nazi prison. And he was executed by the Nazis just before the end of the Second World War.

But in those last days of his life he reflected deeply on the meaning of Christianity in the world and Christian discipleship. One of his great books was called, “The Cost of Discipleship.” And in it he warns us in the modern world to beware of what he called ‘cheap grace’. He wrote that cheap grace was the mortal enemy of our church. What we need in the church today is a costly grace, a grace that costs us something.

What is ‘cheap grace’? It is the kind of grace we give ourselves. It is the kind we get when we use the church to satisfy ourselves. It is grace without really following, without really being a disciple. It is the kind of grace reflected by the Christian who says, “I like to stay as I am.” “I’m ok” “Leave me alone.” “Don’t ask me to grow.” “I am happy where I am.”

To grow. To go deeper. To expand. To overcome the divisions that separate, isolate, exclude—within ourselves, with others and the world around us. The twelve apostles each gave their lives for their discipleship. Theirs was indeed a costly discipleship.[2]

The cross stands at the centre of this process of growth and change. We are called, and we are challenged to grow. And to grow means to give things up: attitudes, attachments, ways of seeing things, our resources, whatever keeps us the same. This is the way of the cross.

“Lay down your life if you want to find it,” Jesus said. “Leave yourself behind if you want to find your true self.”[3]

John’s visionary writing in the Book of Revelation concludes the bible. It ends with a prayer that the grace of the Lord Jesus be with “all”.[4]The original Greek does not add the words “the saints” which some English translations do. Indeed, the grace, love and mercy of God is meant for all people. Everyone.

The Spirit of God says, “Come!” to everyone:

And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’

And let everyone who is thirsty come.

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift …[5]

Divisions do not matter when people come to the table of good food aplenty. When people come forward to receive the gifts of God, differences do not really matter, do they? The bible’s climax is a marvelous image of countless people of all nationalities, ages, languages, sexes, classes—you name it!—drawing out water that is freely given as a gift to all.[6]

Differences do not matter in this climactic vision. What was of importance is the coming to the sacred waters, to the table. We come, to wash ourselves of prejudice and fear. We come to be challenged to grow. We come to receive grace. For everyone. Everyone is allowed in the kitchen. It’s not just mine, ours.

Come to the Table. It is for everyone.

 

[1]John 17:20-26; the Gospel for the 7thSunday of Easter, Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary.

[2]Laurence Freeman, “Christian Life in the Light of Christian Meditation: Discipleship” (Meditatio Talks Series 2019 A Jan-Mar), Discipleship 3, wccm.org/resources/audio/albums.

[3]Matthew 10:39; 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; 17:33; John 12:25

[4]Revelation 22:21

[5]Revelation 22:17

[6]Paul ‘Skip’ Johnson in Feasting in the Word Year C Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.534-538.

A New Way to Pray: Tracking the Trajectory of the Reformation

What follows are the lecture notes for Week Three in the course I am giving at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality (www.osts.ca) this Fall. Reformation Sunday is on the last Sunday in October, October 28, 2018. It is a time for Lutherans and all Christians to reflect on the legacy of Reformation, commemorate its contributions, and to pray for unity among all who try to follow in the Way of Christ Jesus today.

Lucas Cranach was a Renaissance painter and printmaker in woodcut and engraving. He was a friend of Martin Luther and his wife Katharine von Bora. In one of his paintings (1547) focusing on the Cross of Christ, Cranach depicts Martin Luther preaching to the congregation. I remember this particular painting vividly as it hung above the bookshelf in my house growing up.

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It shows Martin Luther standing in a pulpit perched high on the wall of the chancel at the front of the medieval church. One of Martin Luther’s hands rests on the bible. And he points with his other hand to a cross with Jesus hanging bloodied bruised planted in the floor space between Luther and the crowd gathered in the church. Jesus hanging on the cross forms the center of this work of art.

Today this painting comprises one of the plates surrounding the altar in the Wittenberg church where Luther preached. As such, we often recognize and associate this painting with the ‘Reformation altar’.

Its prominence in Lutheran history suggests how poignantly this painting describes Luther’s theological bias: The Cross stands at the center. And Christ crucified informs everything in the church and even our reading of the bible.

Before we can embrace deeper understanding of Martin Luther’s theological claim that we find salvation by God’s grace—which finds us— through faith, we must first encounter the centrality of the Cross in Luther’s thinking and prayer.

In the seminary that I attended[1], we used the term, “Theology of the Cross”. Martin Luther first coined the phrase in his Heidelberg Disputation written in 1518. A theology of the cross is a way of understanding and imagining God. Fundamentally, in addressing God, we need to ask the questions: What is my image of God? Where is God primarily revealed? How is God best known?

Luther provided an answer: God was, and is, being revealed to us in all truth most clearly and unequivocally in suffering. In the vulnerability and pain of death on the cross, Jesus revealed—and continues to—the God who suffers alongside us wherever there is pain and suffering in the world. It is no wonder, then, that the longest sections in each of the four Gospels in the New Testament are dedicated to the various passion narratives[2]of Jesus.

Therefore, the Cross is theologically vital not just to Luther but to the Apostle Paul (the central figure of the Acts of the Apostles and some of the earliest Christian writings and Epistles) who central theme is: “God’s power is shown in human weakness.”[3]

The Theology of the Cross is contrasted to a Theology of Glory. Especially today among spiritually materialistic cultures in the West, what has been coined ‘a prosperity gospel’ has grown in popularity. This theology of glory presumes God validates faith, and is only validated by, success, measures of progress and triumphal conquering over any weakness or adversary.

A prosperity gospel fueled by unbridled optimism avoids places of defeat, failure, vulnerability and weakness as having anything to do with divine identity or purpose. A theology of glory undermines real people and a God who is known in the darkest times and places of life. It compromises and even derides a common humanity and the losses we all endure.

Prayer, as I have said, is the act of letting go. If prayer begins with God, and our address of God, we must presume before all else who this God is, and how this God is revealed—in scripture, in tradition and in our own experience.

One of the first creeds that circulated among the earliest Christians is from a hymn imbedded in Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2:5-11. The poetry first describes the descent of God. This is the primary movement of God, and of faith: downward. The Almighty chose to enter the lower and lowest regions of human birth, life and death. Only after this primary downward movement can the rising out of the depths happen.

Theologians over the centuries have used the term kenosis, from this text in Philippians, to capture the primary movement of faith. It starts with Christ’s self-emptying and letting go of God’s pure, divine nature. In God’s humility, Jesus compromised a perfect divinity in order to take on the fullness of a human existence.

Our God is a God who lets go, releases, self-empties what has become part of the God-self. This calls for a descent of the soul which in the words of St John of the Cross entails, indeed, a ‘dark night’ of the soul. Prayer is not easy, in so much as it may very well be simple.

Prayer, in the words of Laurence Freeman, “… always involves us in the paradoxes of growth, the cycle of losing so that we can find and then of having to let go of what we have found.”[4]

Prayer is a continual process of detaching and dislodging from places of comfort, stability and strength. Prayer is a deconstructive process. It is disruptive. In prayer we begin first to detach our self from all that we are attached to, all that has defined our identity and lives, all our constructs—mental and material—that constitute the construction and containment of our ego. All of this, in prayer, is placed on the precipice of loss.

All is not lost, however. Because in action and contemplation prayer’s aim and understanding is the prayer of God and for the sake of the God of the Cross. “Prayer calls the active person to a life of interiority and soul discovery … by detaching from all the fruits of action and doing everything purely for the love of God.”[5]In letting go, we discover our true self in God which includes and transcends all that we have been and are becoming.

By kenosis we resolve the Lutheran paradox. Some complain that the grace of God is cheap, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer last century who sacrificed his life for a greater cause of justice in the Nazi regime. He wrote a book entitled, “The Cost of Discipleship”. Bonhoeffer argued that the theology of the cross ought not lead the Christian to rest on their laurels and not do anything. Just because we are saved by grace and since Christ lost everything for everyone once and for all doesn’t mean there isn’t a point doing anything. There is a cost of discipleship.

In prayer, we move into response because prayer is not for our sake. When we pray, it is not my prayer or our prayer. Praying is like walking along a path on the banks of a fast-flowing river and frequently stepping into the water. The current is strong. It is moving in one direction. We immerse ourselves into presence, the presence of Christ. We fall into the river of prayer that continues, the prayer of the living, resurrected Jesus, whose destination is union with God.

It is in Christ’s name we pray, and for the sake of our God who chose to be revealed in the humility and defeat of the Cross, in the most desperate human condition possible: death. We step maybe timidly yet faithfully into the water, fast flowing towards the great hope of new love and life in God. 

Questions for reflection and discussion:

  1. When you pray, after considering your image of God, what is God doing? What is God’s purpose—a purpose that is consistent with that image of God? Construct your prayer by strengthening the connection between image and function. If God is revealed in human suffering, where does that suffering lead? If God is compassionate, why? If God is patient, for what purpose? If God forgives and heals, to what end? Practice making this relationship between image and function as clear as possible before you make any petition to God. And write down some examples of the connection you make between image and function of God, to share with others next time (See copies of “Prayers of the Day” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship for good examples of how short prayers can be constructed).
  2. What is one non-negotiable spiritual practice and/or belief you would hold onto, if everything else had to be take away? (Ask yourself this, after visiting a place of worship other than your own)
  3. If time was short, what is most important to you in the end? Have you had this crucial conversation with those closest to you? If not, why not?

[1]Martin Luther University College (formerly, Waterloo Lutheran Seminary)

[2]The last several chapters of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John describe in detail the last days of Jesus leading to his arrest, torture and death on the cross. These passion narratives form nearly half the total lengths of the Gospels.

[3]1 Corinthians 1-2

[4]Laurence Freeman, Christian Meditation Newsletter, June 2005.

[5]Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, 17 August 2018

The hide-and-seek God

There is enough in the world today and in our own lives to seriously doubt the presence of a God, let alone a God who cares about what happens on earth.

“Where is God?” is a question that is emerging in our understanding of God in the modern era. It is a question, Diana Butler Bass asserts, that is growing in sad frequency in recent years:

“’Where is God?’” she writes, “arose from the rubble of the World Trade Center; from the inundated villages of tsunami-ravaged Thailand and Indonesia; from New Orleans, as the levees breaking swept all that was familiar out to sea; from African hamlets where the dead mount from Ebola; from the hidden, abused, and lost victims of human trafficking and slavery; from killing fields in any number of nations where war seems endless; and from native peoples watching their homelands sink into the earth or ocean due to melting tundra or rising seas.

“‘Where is God?’ has echoed from every corner of the planet in recent years… ‘Where is God’ is one of the most consequential questions of our times.”[1]

“The Jewish tradition tells a story of a rabbi whose young son once came running to him, crying inconsolably. Between huge sobs, he managed to say, ‘Father, I’ve been playing hide-and-seek with the other children. It came my turn to hide, but after I found a good place, I sat there in the woods for hours waiting for the others to find me. No one ever yelled into the woods to tell me to come out. They just left me there alone.’

“His father put his arms around the child and held him close, rocking him back and forth. ‘Ah, my son,’ he said, ‘that’s how it is with God, too. God is always hiding, hoping that people will come to look for him. But no one wants to play. He’s always left alone, wanting to be found, hoping someone will come. But crying because no one seeks him out.’”[2]

The very first words of God recorded in the Bible to human beings are: “Where are you?”[3] Adam and Eve seem to be looking for God in the wrong places in the Garden of Eden. I hear a tone of exasperated grief in God’s call to Adam and Eve: “Where are you?”

Why does God appear to disappear from our vision, when the going gets tough? Theologians have described God through the centuries as a God who hides.[4] Why is God a hidden God? Not to mention, a God who cries because no one is out looking for this God?

Such a vulnerable vision of God disturbs us to the core. We would rather have a powerful, mighty, superman vision of God. We want a God who will win on the battlefield, stand victorious over all enemies of the faith, triumph over all our adversaries, and solve all our problems in life. Indeed, when we meet with suffering, disappointment and despair in life – as we most surely do and will – our prayer to God resonates with Isaiah’s:

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”[5]

And so, when the Israelites return from exile in Babylon in 586 B.C.E. to a ravaged and desolate Jerusalem, they are at a loss. Ruins and devastation lie where once a mighty temple stood.

Isaiah reflects the mood of the people in his lament to God, a prayer that echoes on our lips today: Why, O God, are you now not visibly nor powerfully present as you once were long ago? Why, O God, do you refuse to act powerfully and dramatically to rescue us from our distress? How can we reconcile the ancient, miraculous stories of your powerful presence with our current experience of your absence?

God hides, so to speak, in order to deconstruct a distorted set of beliefs about who God is. When God enters our humanity as a vulnerable, dependent baby born to teenage parents in a backwater town served by the likes of the low-class shepherds, God declares who God is. The hiddenness of God is not a cloak of humility temporarily covering an awesome powerful glory – a kind of Clark Kent/Superman act.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed more than his wit last month on Parliament Hill when he unbuttoned his shirt in front of reporters exposing his Halloween costume underneath. He suggested a powerful image reflective of our belief and image of God.

So God hides to reveal the true, divine character. God is determined to relate to the world not as a superhero through domination and force. Instead, God is determined, even in our experience of God’s hiddenness, to demonstrate God’s way of non-coercive love and suffering service.

Listen to this rendition of hide-and-seek told reflectively by Belden Lane:

“When my daughter was very young, one of her favorite tricks in playing hide-and-seek was to pretend that she had run away to hide, and then to come sneaking back beside me while I was still counting – my eyes shut tight. She breathed as silently as she could, standing inches away, hoping I couldn’t hear. Then she’d take the greatest delight in reaching out to touch home base as soon as I opened my eyes and began to search for someone who’d never even left.

“She was cheating, of course, and though I don’t know why, I always let her get away with it. Was it because I longed so much for those few moments when we stood close together, pretending not to hear or be heard, caught up in a game that for an instant dissolved the distance between parent and child, that set us free to touch and seek and find each other? It was a simple, almost negligible act of grace, my not letting on that I knew she was there. Yet I suspect that in that one act my child may have mirrored God for me better than in any other way I’ve known.

Still to this day, it seems, God is for me a seven-year-old daughter, slipping back across the grass, holding her breath in check, wanting once again to surprise me with a presence closer than I ever expected. “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself,” the prophet Isaiah declared.[6] A playfulness as well as a dark mystery lies richly intertwined in that grand and complex truth.[7]

“Where is God?” Maybe God is right beside us. And if we can’t see, feel, or hear God’s presence, may this Advent Season of preparation and waiting and watching be dedicated to keep looking for God in our lives, who may very well be standing inches away.

“Keep calm, and keep looking” should be on a t-shirt worn by Christians in Advent. Because hidden amidst the décor, bustle and busyness of this season, you will find Jesus. This season of preparation is best served by slowing down, breathing and paying attention. Do you see? Do you perceive God?

Antoine de Saint-Exupery writes of waiting one night for a late flight to depart from a remote landing field in the Sahara desert. Feeling vaguely uneasy as he walked out into the desert air, he heard dragonflies striking their wings against an oil lamp nearby.

Back home in France, the flight of moths around a candle flame at night would have been perfectly common. No big deal. But in the desert the sudden presence of insects meant something entirely different. Swept hundreds of miles from their inland oases, the presence of dragonflies were clear signs of impending danger: A savage sandstorm was on its way, sweeping every living things before it.

Saint-Exupery was grateful for the warning that had come. But he was moved even more by the powerful experience of having been attentive: “What filled me with a barbaric joy was that I had understood a murmured monosyllabic of this secret language, had sniffed the air and known what was coming … it was that I had been able to read the anger of the desert in the beating of a dragonfly.”[8]

“Keep awake!” are Jesus’ words to his disciples, and the call sign for Advent. Keep calm and pay attention. Keep looking for the God who may not be hidden in our expectations of grandeur and spectacle. But in the beating of a bird’s wings.

God’s refusal to replicate a mighty Red Sea –dividing deliverance when Isaiah laments centuries later does not mean God has abandoned Israel, nor us. God’s mode of action looks more like that of an artist or parent than that of the superhero. Both the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah use the image of God as the potter and we the clay.[9]

God, hidden in human form, comes not to inaugurate an apocalyptic cleansing of spectacular proportions. But God comes to reveal the power of the powerless in Jesus of the manger and Jesus on the cross. In so doing, Christ reveals the will of God, who is eternally and patiently molding and shaping the clay of creation into the New Jerusalem.

[1] Diana Butler Bass, “Finding God in the World: A Spiritual Revolution” (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2017), p.7-8

[2] Belden C. Lane – “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality” (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.180 – cites Jerome R. Mintz in “Legends of Hassidim (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), p.344

[3] Genesis 3:9

[4] Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer both describe God as ‘hidden’. See Scott Bader-Saye in “Feasting on the Word”, ibid., p.2-6; and, “Luther’s Works” edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1964) Volume 4: Lectures on Genesis, chaps 21-25, p.115-122

[5] Isaiah 64:1-2

[6] Isaiah 45:15, KJV

[7] Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.181

[8] Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “Wind, Sand and Stars” (Toronto: Penguin Books, 2000), p.52-53; cited in Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.190

[9] Isaiah 64:8; Jeremiah 18

Rooted in the earth, rising to the sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How surely gravity’s law,

strong as an ocean current,

takes hold of even the smallest thing

and pulls it toward the heart of the world.


Each thing —

each stone, blossom, child —

is held in place.

Only we, in our arrogance,

push out beyond what we each belong to

for some empty freedom.

If we surrendered

to earth’s intelligence

we could rise up rooted, like trees


Instead we entangle ourselves

in knots of our own making

and struggle, lonely and confused.

So, like children, we begin again

to learn from the things,

because they are in God’s heart;

they have never left God.

This is what the things can teach us:

to fall,

patiently to trust our heaviness.

Even a bird has to do that

before he can fly. (3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s counting?

I think it was Albert Einstein who said that we can’t solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking that caused the problem in the first place. In other words, we can’t move forward with solutions into the new thing God is doing using a frame of mind that also contributed to creating the fix we find ourselves in today.

The Gospel story today (Matthew 25:14-30) is a good example of a parable that challenges a materialistic way of thinking, a mentality that has contributed to a problem we face today. It also introduces — if we pay attention to it — the Gospel way of thinking. And I believe, the Gospel way of thinking not only judges the ways of old, it paves the way for entering God’s future.

A man and his wife were having some problems at home and were giving each other the silent treatment. Suddenly, the man realized that the next day, he would need his wife to wake him at 5:00 AM for an early morning business flight.

Not wanting to be the first to break the silence (and LOSE), he wrote on a piece of paper, “Please wake me at 5:00 AM.” He left it where he knew she would find it.

The next morning, the man woke up, only to discover it was 9:00 AM and he had missed his flight. Furious, he was about to go and see why his wife hadn’t wakened him, when he noticed a piece of paper by the bed.

The paper said, “It is 5:00 AM. Wake up.”

On several levels this story exposes the kind of way we operate when facing difficulties: It’s a tit-for-tat world we live in. There have to be winners and losers. It’s really the only game we know well. When someone, or some group, or some other religion or denomination poses a threat, we respond in kind. Because someone must win and someone must lose. During the Cold War Era, we called it ‘mutually-assured-destruction’; or, as the acronym accurately suggests, when we give ourselves into this compulsive way of behaving, we are indeed MAD.

On the surface this parable looks like it contains a good stewardship message. And, admittedly, there is this theme of valuing personal industry and action as part of what it means to follow Jesus. By comparing what the three servants do — one turns five talents into ten and the other turns two into four by bold, risky investment; but the third doesn’t do anything with his talent — we may be left merely with the notion that the solution is by just upping the ante of all our spiritual work. Just do more. Work harder, and spin those wheels faster.

All of this to get more of what we think we want; that is, more of the same thing we’ve always known. I like to joke that when someone in the church suggests we do something today the same way the church did it 50 years ago — whether it is about a strategy for getting more people in the pews, some outreach program all intended to bring people in — it’s like advising someone who has car trouble they should really trade it in for horse and buggy. It just won’t work today! The church today really needs to do something altogether different from the ways of thinking fifty years ago.

I wonder what would have happened if the first two slaves had put the money in a high-risk venture and lost it all. Jesus didn’t tell the story this way, but I cannot imagine the master would have been harsh towards them; he might even have applauded their efforts. The point here is not really about doubling your money and accumulating wealth. (John M. Buchanan, “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, WJKP 2011, p.310). The point is not about achieving a desired result, and being congratulated for your success, materially. This is not management by objective. This is not ‘the ends justify the means.’

This is about living — living in a way that demonstrates a willingness to take risks not knowing how it will all turn out. The Gospel way is not win-lose, it is both-and. Because in being faithful, we may try things, and sometimes fail in the world’s eyes. But emphasizing risk-management may sometimes impede our action to do the right thing when we have to do it, despite the sordid circumstances of life. We can’t wait until everything is hunky-dory before we take action; otherwise we never will. The reason the third slave received judgement was because he wanted to play it safe, be cautious and prudent; he wanted to make sure he wouldn’t lose anything; low risk, no risk.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the sin of respectable people is running from responsibility. Bonhoeffer, who was a pacifist, took his own responsibility seriously, so much so that he joined the Resistance and helped plan an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. His sense of responsibility cost him his life. (ibid., p.311-312)

We, as Christians, are not called to be ‘counters and measurers’. God knows, if we do anything well in times of institutional crisis and constriction, we count and we measure — we do this very well. But in all our counting and measuring and bottom line conversations, are we not being judged? We just need to look around and count the heads in our churches today, for that answer.

When we arranged for this pulpit swap, the purpose around doing so was to provide an opportunity to share about how we reach out. In the congregation I serve, in the last couple of years, we have done “Back to Church Sunday”. Practically, this event boils down to each member of the worshipping community being challenged to ask a friend, “Would you like to come to church with me?” And it’s not as easy as it may seem on the surface.

Success in the program is not based on how many first-time visitors walk through the door on B2CS. Success is not measured by the number of people who agree to come. No-one may show up on that Sunday. But the event could still be considered a success IF … If at least one member — one of you — actually asked someone, actually invited someone, to come. Because the result is not something we have control over. How a person responds is not in our control — it is the job of the Holy Spirit to move in the heart of the person.

Yes, we have some work to do in the process — developing a friendship with that person, praying for that person — these are things we can do to prepare ourselves for asking that question to them. And had we done all those things, culminating in actually asking that question — then we are successful.

This calls, admittedly, for a radical shift in our mentality and in our approach. It necessitates, I believe, some uncomfortable letting go of the way we have seen ourselves. But in the unravelling, discomfort and vulnerable places we put ourselves in living the Gospel way, we can be encouraged.

For one thing, in reading this Gospel text, have you ever noticed how trusting the master is with his resources. God, like the master, has faith in us. God gives according to our abilities — not more, not less. God puts no condition on what we do with this bounty. Even the one talent was worth — in those days — 15 years of wages. Converted to today’s average salaries, that would be around a million dollar value! But who’s counting?

The point is, God entrusts us with an abundance of wealth, gifts and resources. God is so generous to us. Do you see the good in your life? I hope you do, because this ‘seeing’ calls us to respond in kind. God believes in us, and will ever be faithful by God’s gift of abundant grace. Just maybe, then, we can trust God when we live boldly using those gifts in the world for good, and as we step out into the unknown, as we move out of our comfort zones to do great things that God can accomplish in us.