Game of Thrones and the Throne of Grace

As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne .. (Daniel 7:9)

There appears to be something different about the throne of the Ancient One. Among all the thrones, when the Ancient One sits down we are to take notice. What is it about God’s throne that stands out?

At this time of the year, we still ought to be saying: “Winter is coming.” Although it is obvious now that we can, with all “Game of Thrones” fans, be asserting those ominous words that indeed, “Winter has arrived”!

Fans of the epic TV series “Game of Thrones” need still to wait until the final season airs next year. In the symbolic centre of this miasma of twisting plot lines and characters constantly fighting for supremacy sits the imposing throne at the front of the grand hall of the capital city in George RR Martin’s fantasy world of ‘Westeros’.

Who will finally succeed in claiming the throne? Who IS the rightful heir? And how will each of the so-called ‘pretenders’ manage to usurp ultimate power in the Seven Kingdoms? These are the questions swirling around this throne, highlighted by spiked swords and jagged edges—a dark, cold symbol reflecting the heart, it seems, of what it takes to succeed in this place.

… and an Ancient One took his throne …

When Jesus stands before Pilate hours before Jesus dies a criminal of the state on a bloodied cross, he tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world.[1]The cross stands as a counterpoint to the world’s thrones. The cross stands as a symbol, not of cold-hearted power-plays and world domination where the end justifies any, bloodied means. No, the cross is a sign of the God who failed according to the world’s rules, who found defeat at the hands of the worldly mighty.

The throne that Jesus sits on is indeed very different from all the others. When Jesus said ‘my kingdom is not of this world’ he meant its values are at odds with how power is exercised among humans, in all its brutish ways. We may be alarmed, and despair; yet, we accept that the ‘Game of Thrones’ world is quite similar to our reality on earth, more so than the kingdom of God.

I find at least two ways we fail to see and realize God’s ways on earth:

First, I suspect, for Christians, the temptation is to go the other way: to deny God’s kingdom on earth. The problem is that, without even consciously, we may delegate God’s values to some fantasy world. To practice genuine humility, forgiveness, grace, mercy and unconditional love not just to family and friends but to people we don’t know—well, we say, that’s reserved for ‘heaven’ someday; it has no place in the ‘real world’, we way.

But God’s throne is not in a different world than ours. God’s throne is not ‘up there’ or ‘over there’ or in some fantasy world far removed from our own.

The truth, and our hope, is that God’s way can be realized on earth. Not only has Jesus enabled people of all time and place to face the truth about ourselves, our relationships, our faith, and the world in which we live, Jesus is saying that his kingdom is also present — in part — upon the earth, in all our relationships.[2] Wherever grace is given and received, wherever forgiveness is practiced, wherever mercy and love are shown. There, is God.

I’m finishing up this week teaching a course on Martin Luther, prayer and the legacy of the Reformation (at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality). In teaching this course, the students and I have returned time and time again to the notion of movement. Semper Reformanda–the Latin phrase popularized by Karl Barth in the last century: Always reforming. The legacy of the Reformation is that we are a church that is continually changing, and moving, and becoming. And, in what ways?

Here, I want to bring in the Rev. Riitta Hepomaki, assistant to Bishop Pryse (Eastern Synod–Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada). She said at the workshop the council attended last weekend that what we lack, today, as a church of the Reformation is this sense of movement. Our western church, and especially our generation, has adopted a “we have arrived” mindset.

This is the second way in which we fail to realize God’s ways, God’s reign on earth.

If we have arrived, we don’t need to move. If we don’t move, we are stuck. The feeling of being stuck often leads to hopelessness. And, we are not talking here about physical movement from one street address to another, per se. We can make little moves: from the church hall to the streets, from our own kitchen or garden to a community kitchen or garden—wherever God is sending you.

Giving up the ‘we have arrived’ mindset means also that we are willing to move from my little world to other people’s worlds. It is challenging. But we can do it because we have faith, even faith the size of a miniscule mustard seed. And we have each other. We have fellowship. We have a new way of life. And because we are confident that our God will guide and provide.

So, let’s try to change our mindset from ‘having arrived’ to ‘being sent’, and ‘being in movement’. After all, if we don’t move, we cannot follow. Aren’t we called “followers of Jesus?”[3]And, today, we proclaim, that Jesus is the Lord of our lives. And that we are followers not of the ways of the world, but of the Reign of Christ.

In another vision of God, this time from a major prophet[4]in the Hebrew scriptures, God sits on his throne, yet the primary image is of the hem of God’s robe filling the temple. God’s presence permeates and fills all.

The world will indeed separate and set a boundary between the most powerful ‘at the front on the throne’, and the rest of us on the floor down below. Not so with God. In Christ, that boundary has been severed. Moments after Jesus died on that symbol of death and defeat—the cross—the curtain in the temple was torn.[5]The dividing line between where God is and where the rest of us are was opened.

No longer are we divided, violent, fighting, them-and-us. No longer need we compare, compete and kill. These are the actions and behavior of those who bow to the world’s thrones.

Rather, we are all enfolded in the robes of God’s grace forever. There are no boundaries, no limits, to the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And, as the writer to the Hebrews expresses, we can therefore approach the “throne of grace” will confidence.[6]No longer afraid that God will rebuke, punish and condemn us. No longer condemned by our faults, sins and weaknesses.

We can approach this throne with boldness, assured that God will embrace us in mercy, forgiveness, and love.

 

[1]John 18:33-37, Gospel for the Reign of Christ Sunday, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[2]Robert A. Bryant in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol.4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.337.

[3]Riitta Hepomaki, The Eastern Synod Lutheran Volume 44, Sept 25, 2015 (Kitchener: Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada), p.1

[4]Isaiah 6:1-8

[5]Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45

[6]Hebrews 4:16

Traveling stones: a pilgrimage lesson in letting go

In the sixth century Saint Benedict said, “A monk should have death always before his eyes.”[1] ‘Death’ doesn’t need to refer only to our physical demise at the end of life but to any loss experienced in life. There are many deaths we experience in life: the death of a cherished pet, the loss of friendship, the loss of a job, divorce, death of a loved one, moving into another home. Any significant change, even positive ones, involve something lost.

In the second reading for today written in the first century, Saint Paul admonishes the Corinthians to live in this world “as though not.”[2] He is advocating a certain disengagement from the attachments and claims of our lives, including some of our most cherished relationships. The likes of Paul and Benedict reflect, as well, the wisdom of the prophets and poets of ancient Israel: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of God stands forever.”[3]

Our earth-bound attachments come under scrutiny here, no doubt. The question remains for each of us on our own journeys of faith and life – what are those things of which we need to let go in order to move on? After all, in the Lord’s Prayer the words, “Thy Kingdom come”, mean little unless we can also say: “My kingdom go.”[4]

Following Jesus means leaving things behind — as the first disciples did, in our Gospel reading for today (Mark 1:14:20).

You heard about the man who was hiking in the mountains when he slipped, and started to slide over the edge. Just as he was about to fall into the abyss, he grabbed a tree branch growing out of the rock ledge. He hung on perilously dangling in the air.

He didn’t know what to do. It was impossible to pull himself up since the branch stem was slippery and wet. He swung in the silence of the breeze contemplating his fate with growing terror. Finally he looked up to the sky and prayed: “If there is a God anywhere up there, I could do with some help, please.”

To his surprise and shock, he heard God’s voice respond instantly: “I will help you. But you first have to let go.”

The man was silent for a minute. He dared not look down. It was a long way to the jagged rocks of the canyon below. Again he looked up to the sky, and said: “Is there anyone else up there?”

A long-standing tradition in doing a pilgrimage is to bring a stone from home and lay it somewhere along the path. This home-stone represents a part of myself that I lose, and leave behind, where I have walked.

Last Spring when I walked a part of the Camino de Santiago, I wanted to leave my stone in the waters off the western coast of Spain, either in Fisterra or Muxia – both coastal towns are some one hundred kilometres west of Santiago.

I imagined this place a fitting resting place for my stone since I love walking by water and coastlines. Once, long ago, people believed the coastal town of Fisterra (French, for ‘the end of the earth’) was the physical limit of land – the farthest one could go. In my imagination, I saw myself facing the setting sun, having completed the 800-kilometer, two-month trek, looking west to the horizon line beyond which lies the land of my home in North America.

I imagined feeling satisfied at the end of a long journey, having reached my goal, grateful for the challenge and all the things the Camino taught me. In that moment of gratitude and joy, I would toss my stone as far as I could into the spume and depths of the Atlantic Ocean. That was the vision, anyway.

I found the perfect sized stone while wandering around my house one afternoon a week before leaving for Spain. Because I was running about making the last-minute preparations for the journey, I placed it temporarily on the landing railing in the garage, certain I would soon tuck it away in my backpack.

Two weeks later I was scrambling up a steep incline outside the town of Irun on the first day of my pilgrimage. As I expected that first day was incredibly tough going. The temperatures soared to above 25 degrees C and the sun shone brightly. Sweat pouring down my neck and back I struggled up that cliff wondering why on earth I chose to do this on my sabbatical. I dug my walking poles into the hard-caked sandy ground to make the next ledge and wondered sarcastically if I should have rather taken rappelling lessons in preparation for coming to Spain.

In that moment of physical and growing mental exhaustion, I realized I had forgotten to pack my stone. It was still sitting on the railing in the garage back home! I stopped in my tracks and exhaled deeply.

“What’s the matter?” my Dutch pilgrim friend asked me, huffing and puffing as I was.

“I forgot to bring my stone,” I confessed my failure.

“Don’t despair,” my co-pilgrim wanted to advise. “The Camino will give you an answer.”

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Several days later two significant things happened. The first was while I was walking down a slope towards the northern Basque town of Guernica, I thought I should take with me a couple stones from this path, as a keepsake from walking the Camino. So, I selected two small pebbles from under my feet where I stood beholding the town and valley below.

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That same day, my knee seized up, and I walked the remainder of my Camino in pain. Three days later, coughing and feeling very sick, I was on a plane homebound. Diagnosed with pneumonia back in Ottawa, I had to come to terms with my failure of not having reached my goal.

Not only had I not reached Santiago and Fisterra, I had done nothing with my stone which I had forgotten anyway. By forgetting the stone, had I already destined myself not to finish the pilgrimage? These dark thoughts swirled in my mind.

After having recovered a few weeks later, my wife and I flew to Lisbon for a week of vacation to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Originally, the plan had been for her to join me at the end of my pilgrimage, where I would meet her in Lisbon. Nevertheless, this time, I did bring my stone from home, renamed my ‘glory’ stone.

My glory stone represented all my aspirations, desires, longings which I knew deep down the Camino had taught me to let go of. I had to surrender even my human yearning and goals to God.

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And so, at Cabo Da Roca near Lisbon, Portugal – the farthest most western point of land on continental Europe – I threw my glory stone into the Atlantic Ocean facing the setting sun. I had to practice letting glory go.

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It seems I was still bound to finish some kind of pilgrimage during my sabbatical. I didn’t have enough time to go back to Spain and finish the Camino de Santiago. But I did have enough time to walk the entire length of the longest contiguous sand beach in North America – fifty kilometres on Long Beach Peninsula in Washington State. There, my journey of letting go continued.

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There, on “Cape Disappointment” – fittingly named – I brought the two pebbles that I picked up in Spain on the last day I walked on the Camino. One glorious afternoon, I scrambled down into Dead Man’s Cove – also fittingly named – on Cape Disappointment. After reflecting on my disappointments of late, I realized on my journey of life not only did I need to yield all my dreams but also all my regrets and suffering. And so, I threw those stones of disappointment into the Pacific Ocean. I let these go.

 

I realized life is not lived well when we obsessively hold on to all those things that cause us grief. I had to offer these to God as well. Later, while I sat on a park bench near the lighthouse on Cape Disappointment looking over the Pacific, I met a couple of Americans visiting from Portland. In our conversation, we were able to affirm that “all great spirituality is about learning to let go.”[5]

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But I didn’t leave my pilgrimage empty handed. When I climbed out of Dead Man’s Cove that day, I picked up from the sand a smooth, round stone. Now, any rocks on the Peninsula are rare. Most of the fifty-kilometre stretch is sand, land created from the outflow of the mighty Columbia River as it spills into the Pacific Ocean. Most rocks you see on the Peninsula have been trucked in. So, I was delighted to take with me back home, a rare thing.

And hope is a rare commodity in this world of pessimism, denial, and despair. This is my “stone of hope”, that I hold forever, amidst all the human aspirations swirling in my life and all the disappointments and failures which I regularly need to practice letting go of.

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We hold not only that which we need to let go of, but we also hold hope throughout our lives. “We do not simply resign ourselves to the give-ness of the world, for we have planted within us a great hope that God’s kingdom will come on earth, as in heaven. This means we are a people who look to the future with trust and hope, confident that God is working God’s purposes out and that God’s realm is even now breaking into our world.”[6]

At this point in your journey of life, which stones are you holding — of dreams, of disappointments, of hope? Which ones do you need to let go of? Which do you need to hold on to? I suspect it is true when the likes of Saint Paul, and all the wise teachers over the ages, writes: “Hope does not disappoint us.” [7]

[1] cited in Ruthanna B. Hooke in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 1” (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.280

[2] 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

[3] Isaiah 40:8

[4] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Thursday, January 18, 2018.

[5] Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation, cac.org

[6] Ruthanna B. Hooke, ibid.

7 – Romans 5:5

Cape Disappointment

How do we learn to deal with disappointment?

When health concerns mount? When there are cutbacks in the company you work for? When a relationship breaks down? When someone betrays you? When you fail to meet your goal? When you lose something precious?

How, as people of faith, do we learn to deal with disappointment? When what has happened does not make sense, when we can’t understand ‘why’?

In 1788 Captain John Meares named the spot of land overlooking the confluence of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean, Cape Disappointment. He was disappointed that the Columbia River was simply thus, a river, instead of the fabled Northwest Passage which he was intending to find.

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Mr. Meares was obviously well off-course to his goal. We know today that the Columbia River begins its journey at Columbia Lake in central British Columbia, Canada, and winds itself south hundreds of kilometres into the states of Washington and Oregon before spilling into the Pacific.

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In keeping with the rather downer of name, the lighthouse on Cape Disappointment overlooks the hundreds of shipwreck sites off the coast. The United States Coast Guard recognizes this large area of water as the most dangerous among all the river outlets along the continental shores of the United States.

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Both the strong outflow of the broad and mighty Columbia competes with the powerful tides and winds generated by the largest ocean on earth. Crisscrossing currents of water create constantly shifting sand bars and opposite flow wave action that can confuse, disorient and ultimately undo any mariner navigating this passage.

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Add to this mayhem the fog which has an uncanny knack of coming in unexpectedly on the north breeze, disappearing under the burning sunshine as quickly as it appears. I stood bewildered in such a fog jam on the beach one day, unable to comprehend how a perfectly cloudless sky in beautiful sunshine can change so quickly. Signs are staked at entrances to the shores along the thirty-eight mile stretch of contiguous sand beach north of the Cape warning unsuspecting swimmers of rip currents and unstable sand conditions above and below the surf.

In short, while ascetically beautiful to the eyes, this small part of the world contains hidden, life-threatening dangers beneath the surface of things. Disappointing is an understatement when considering the potentially dire consequences of a mariner’s failed attempt at moving around the Cape, let alone dealing with the failure of not arriving at one’s goal.

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In the first reading for today[1], God responds to Jonah by asking questions, rhetorical though they are. Jonah expresses his anger at God for sparing the “great” city of Nineveh. God’s actions did not make sense to Jonah, even though Jonah confesses his belief in a gracious God who is “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”[2] He obviously did not think much about the people of Nineveh regardless of God’s mercy. Yet he is internally divided, unable to reconcile his belief with his feelings. He can’t figure it out. He is depressed. And wants to die.

If God says anything toward Jonah’s healing, it starts with a question: “Is it right for you to be angry?” And when God provides a bush to protect and save Jonah’s life, a bush that then dies, Jonah is angry again. What does God say to Jonah’s outburst? Another question. “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And to top it off, the entire book of Jonah ends rather abruptly, again with a question from God.[3] Questions. Not pat, cut-and-dry answers. Questions.

I wonder if we have tended to make God and religion into something and someone to give us quick and final answers. We demand ‘what’ from God when all along Jesus, in the wisdom tradition, is primarily teaching ‘how’. Out of the total of the one hundred and eighty-three questions that are asked of him in the Gospel, Jesus only directly answers three of them.[4] In the New Testament, Jesus’ very first words spoken to his disciples was a question: “What are you looking for?”[5]

Jesus turns the tables on the disciples, as he does time and time again. Rather than give them what they are looking for in a neat and tidy package of an easy answer, he throws it back at them. What do you want?

The first call of Jesus in our lives is a call to be honest with ourselves. Before we can do anything, we need to be true to ourselves. And commit to that lifelong struggle to move beyond our intellect and its insatiable compulsions for answers, towards actions that reflect a trusting heart. Because following Jesus in this world does not, most of the time, make a whole lot of intellectual sense. If we are being faithful.

It is not our job to know everything. God knows all. We don’t have to. Ours is a call to hold, not rid ourselves of, all the messy contradictions of our lives. Abraham, Jacob, Rebekah, Moses, David, Job, Esther, Jonah, Elijah, the disciples, Paul – they were not people who had all the easy answers to life’s complex questions. But they were trusting, obedient, and they acted. Sure, they objected to God at times. Yes, they made mistakes. If anything, the story of Jonah ought to reinforce the importance of a real, personal, topsy-turvy relationship with God. That is the stand-out characteristic of all the faithful.

During the years following the Council of Nicea in the fourth century, a common heresy re-emerged under the leadership of Eunomius, a bishop in Cappadocia (in modern day Turkey). Eunomius argued that we can understand the nature of God simply and clearly. Reflecting on what was the mystery of the Trinity, he implied that God was perfectly accessible to human intelligence.[6]

The Cappadocian Fathers, as they are called, reacted to Eunomius. Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa along with John Chrysostom insisted on the incomprehensibility of God to the human mind, and the necessary limits of theological discourse. Their position became the orthodox, Christian stance, ever since.

I wonder, ever since the Reformation, the industrial, scientific revolutions and enlightenment era of the last few centuries in especially the western world, haven’t we slipped back into this heresy once again? Pretending, even though we may not be aware of it, that we should have answers to all of life’s important questions.

It is our natural humanity to strive to know everything. But if we are honest, our minds certainly cannot grasp fully such incomprehensible realities as the mysteries of love, suffering, death and God. Here, we must trust and let go of all our pretenses. “For,” in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”[7]

Disappointment in life is a doorway to a deeper awareness of God’s truth and presence in our lives. Our varied expressions of worship, of living out God’s call, our prayer lives – all these are not so much, then, a matter of petition, of doctrine, of rule-setting-and-following, of solving the discrepancies and inconsistencies of the bible and theological discourse.

Rather, our complex lives with all the joys and disappointments become the tableau, the canvas, upon which we discover we are not alone. And that God is ever present and faithful, regardless of what we do or think. You can’t make God love you one ounce more – by all your right thinking and having all the right answers – than God already loves you right now.

Often, the disappointments of our lives bring us to this realization more than all of our accomplishments and successes. Because if we are going to get anywhere in our lives, we need to hope and believe, despite the disappointing circumstances of our lives.

Cape Disappointment marks another very important place in the history of North America. It is not just a place that signifies disappointment, tragedy and danger. It is also the very spot where the famous Lewis and Clark expedition reached the Pacific Ocean in November of 1805. Yes, Lewis & Clark met with many a disappointment and setback along the 3700-mile route up the Missouri River, across the American Midwest, over the Rocky and Cascade mountains and down the Columbia River Gorge that took them a year-and-a-half to accomplish.

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On the journey, were they ever absolutely certain they would make it? As it was, they must have taken their disappointments in stride. For on an uncharacteristically calm day in a stormy November, they made their final push around the western Cape and finally met the limitless horizon.

Significantly, the Lewis and Clark Expedition was called the Corps of Discovery. Today, a 10-mile-long, well-groomed paved path winds through the dunes of Long Beach Peninsula and up into the forest of the Cape. It is called the “Path of Discovery”.

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Cape Disappointment is intricately tied to the Corps of Discovery, where both failure and success are entwined in a rich and diverse history of exploration. The spirit of questing celebrated on these shores includes and transcends both the unique events of human tragedy and human achievement. You cannot have one without the other. In one place. In one human being. Each of us is invited to the journey that includes, embraces and transcends disappointment and failure.

At some point along the journey, you need to have hope in order to continue. Even in the midst of all our unknowing, we can believe and trust in the solution, before it happens.

It’s called faith.

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[1] Jonah 3:10—4:11, NRSV, Proper 20A/Ordinary 25A/Pentecost+16

[2] Jonah 4:2

[3] Jonah 4:4,9,11, NRSV

[4] Richard Rohr, “Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation” (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2004), p.112

[5] John 1:38, NRSV

[6] Belden C. Lane, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.105

[7] Isaiah 55:8, NRSV

photos by Martin Malina IMG_5940

Even there your hand shall lead me

Later this summer I will be going on a 10-day canoe-camping trip on the French River. Last summer my friend and I did three nights and four days on a smaller portion of the French; this summer we want to challenge ourselves to do the whole, or at least most, of the river all the way from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay.

Because the challenge is greater, I felt I needed to take a First Aid Course in preparation, so I could be of some use to the company with whom I travel.

I learned some interesting facts about providing First Aid. Did you know that in all of Canada, except Quebec, you and I are not legally obligated to provide First Aid to anyone experiencing a medical emergency? In Quebec, however, we are legally bound to help someone who is in distress. It is, from Quebec’s point of view, a basic human right for any person to receive first aid in an emergency.

In class we discussed reasons why we may choose not to give First Aid: For fear of hurting them more, for fear of harming oneself, and of course for fear of legal repercussions. Our instructor countered this latter objection by reminding us of the “Good Samaritan Act” which governs any attempt in good faith to help someone in an emergency. So, legally, we were off the hook.

But we may still hesitate to take the risk and commit ourselves to helping someone. It would be easier to pretend we didn’t see it, get on with our busy day and avoid the added stress and responsibility.

Every time I read the wonderful story of the so-called “Walk to Emmaus” (Luke 24:13-35), something else piques my interest and causes me to reflect. I believe there is so much depth to this story while it provides a summary of what we believe as Christians. Particularly, this time, I wondered what Cleopas and his friend had to do with this incredible encounter with Jesus.

It seems they really had nothing to do with making this encounter happen, when Jesus appeared to them on the road that first Easter day. As far as we can tell, they weren’t expecting to meet Jesus let alone praying for it. And, ironically, when they do finally recognize the living Lord Jesus at the breaking of the bread, Jesus disappears from their sight! Truly, this event happened to them.

But were they merely passive recipients of this encounter? There is one turning point in the story, where things could have gone one of two opposite directions. Up until that point, they had not yet consciously recognized the man walking with them as Jesus himself. After that point, the table was set — literally — for their full recognition of Jesus.

Had they not invited Jesus to stay with them, for the evening was nigh, they would have missed out on a wonderful conclusion to their day. “Abide with us, for it is evening,” they invited this still stranger to them into their home. They could have chosen to let the man on his way. They could have chosen not to pay attention to their burning hearts. They could have ignored the subtle yet real ‘promptings of the Spirit’ we may call it today, within them.

I learned some thought-provoking statistics on my First Aid course this week. There we were, some twenty-five of us stuffed into a tiny room above a car repair shop in Renfrew. We were from all walks of life. Local businesses paid for their employees to take this course; therefore, my class mates were prompt and motivated to learn their First Aid techniques, principles and procedures. Certificates were issued upon successful completion of two exam periods and practice with bandages, splints and manikins.

Then, our instructor posted these statistics after asking us: Presuming it was done properly, what was the success rate of providing only chest compressions (sets of thirty thrusts downward over the chest) to someone who was unconscious and not breathing? What was the success rate of doing just that? 1.2%.

Without the aid of an Automated External Defibrillator (AED), adding ventilation to the chest compressions (pinching the nose and breathing in sets of two into the casualty’s mouth) raises the chance of recovery to only 5%.

I thought to myself: There is hope to humanity! Because it would be easy to just not bother! No wonder we may feel unwilling to commit to providing First Aid to an unconscious stranger on the street! What’s the point of doing that, let alone learning how to do it?! The chances of success are so slim!

And yet, there we were. These classes, I am told, are usually full. Businesses and organizations require their employees who engage with the public to know First Aid. They employ resources to make sure their employees have this training. All this effort for at best a 5% success rate.

But the ethics of it would argue: It is worth trying. Better to do something, than do nothing at all.

Sometimes I wonder whether being the church feels a bit like that. We expect the church to function at a 100% success rate; and when we fail the odd time, well — the church is no good, don’t bother. What is the worth of it all?

People are still bad. Failures in humans abound and seem to persist against all good intentions and efforts to be good. The message of the Gospel doesn’t always seem to make any positive difference in our lives. So, what’s the point?

Driving on Clyde Ave the other day, I noticed the sign outside the Reformed Church that reads: “Growth doesn’t come without change. Change doesn’t come without some risk.”

Following the example of Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus, the only thing we can do, it seems, is learn to pay attention to those rare moments whenever our hearts are burning with love. And then, practice making the invitation in response to that nudging of our hearts and open our lives to those moments when we sense something shift within us. We may not be able to put our finger on it just yet, but respond nonetheless.

And then the rest is up to God. God is free. God enters our lives and walks with us whether we know it or not. God then ‘disappears’ from our awareness whenever God wants. But whether we feel God near or far, God is there. “Am I a God nearby and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” says the Lord. “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (Jeremiah 23:23-24).

The God of Easter is alive and present with us no matter where on earth we go. This is the good news of the resurrection. God is alive, and so we are called to rise up in renewal and joy. “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Psalm 139:9-10).

It is worth it. Even though we fail time and time again. There is the hope. There is the promise. There is the opportunity. There is the constant presence of God.

An impossible call

After months of deadly fighting, the four tribes on post-apocalyptic, war-ravaged earth have achieved a tenuous peace treaty. The band of new comers barely catches their breath before they receive a signal for help. The distress call comes from somewhere in the borderlands, forbidden zones marking the territories occupied by the combative tribes. 

The earth’s inhabitants avoid these areas altogether now, anxious that any movements within the borderlands may be construed as aggressive. Those venturing into the forbidden land may be seen as provoking another war.

The distress signal calls the young troop into action. As they prepare to leave the relative safety of their compound, the elder statesman turns to the leader of the rescue mission and says, “We’ve lost people and shed blood to make peace. Don’t mess this up.”

Of course, such dialogue functions as foreshadowing — meaning, yeah, they’ll likely do just that: mess it up. Such a story line, or a variation thereof, sounds like many in popular fiction and TV today.(1)

When the stakes are high and there is so much to lose, the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah: “Now, I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms” (Jeremiah 1:9-10). This is no walk-in-the-park calling. The appointment from God is not a nice, extra little job to do as a hobby. This is not a proposition for an easy, comfortable life-style. This is not an extra-curricular weekend, work-life balance proposal.

The stakes are high. Your life is on the line. Everything you have and know is placed at great risk. You are more likely to fail. You can really mess this up. Not only for yourself, but for a whole lot of people.

Can we really be hard on Jeremiah (oh, and Moses, Sarah, David, Isaiah, Mary, Zechariah, Timothy and others in the Bible) who first questions the call from God? Doubt the veracity of the claim. Question the wisdom of such a move. Balk at the incredulous proposition of this word. Jeremiah understandably doubts his ability, and knee-jerks into finding excuses: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (v.6). 

It is the natural, human response. God, though, does not give up on us.

A caution: This is not a word just for the professional religious. Another excuse today would be for the people of God to dismiss this text as irrelevant, pertaining only to those discerning a call to full-time ministry and ordination. There is here a word to all who face seemingly insurmountable odds:

A call to attend with care, compassion and dedication one who is dying. A call not to give up, but persevere in a course of action. A call to leave an unhealthy relationship behind in order to embrace an uncertain, unclear future. A call to stop doing something without being certain about what will replace it. A call to change one’s mind and adopt a different approach, perspective and opinion on a long-held belief. A call to do something or go somewhere that you had never thought possible in your life.

Now, we are all saying, “Oh, Lord, I can’t do that. Impossible!”

“Do not be afraid … for I am with you to deliver you” (v.8).

When against all the odds we are faced with an incredible task, our relationship with God is brought into sharp focus. What we really believe about God rises to the surface. Our faith is exposed. What do we see there? 

I wonder whether in anxious moments of life we expect God to do something for us — intervene with thunder and lightning to show the way unambiguously in a booming Charlton Heston voice from above; or, more to the point, do the thing that needs to be done while I stand on the sidelines, spectating.

I wonder whether in the anxious moments of life what we really need to ask is not what can God do for us but who can God be for us? (2) When we are down-and-out, will God be our comfort? When we face a decision, will God be “the source of our courage, the keeper of our troubles, the teacher of our prayer, the guide of our pathway, the nurturer of our virtue, the companion of our soul”? 

The being God, rather than the do-ing God, keeps the boundaries clear as to who needs to do what job, and whose job it is anyway to work as prophet “over nations and over kingdoms” (v.10). The being God won’t give in to our responsibility-shirking tendency to pass the buck on the job we are called to do. When we actually risk doing it, nevertheless, God will be there for us. God will not forsake us. No matter whether we fail or succeed.

There is a wonderful grace that comes with the promise of God, as it did to Jeremiah, to be with him through it all. Yet, this grace comes not in words alone. This grace is not reserved nor exclusively confined to the realm of the abstract — a dis-embodied, disconnected cerebral, mental event. This grace is not the purview solely of an internal process.

God’s grace is embodied. It comes to us in the real world. “Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth …” (v.9a). Touched. The image is rather odd, yet similar to the burning coal that touches the mouth of the prophet Isaiah at the beginning of his call (Isaiah 6:6-7). 

God validates, confirms, and communicates the call through the concrete, material aspects of our lives. Some may call it a ‘sign’. I prefer seeing it in terms of what you need in order to do the job. God supplies us, gives us the resources and personal support we need, to get the job done.

When we confront and respond to an impossible call, God will have already given us the gift we need to do it. We may not see it, acknowledge it or make sense of it right away. Yet, God equips those whom God calls to do what seems impossible. A poster used to hang in my home office: God doesn’t call the qualified, God qualifies the called. We are qualified to do what we must.

What has God already given to you, in order to do the impossible thing standing between you and God’s beautiful vision for your life, and the life of the world?

(1) – such as “The 100” CW TV, season 3 episode 1, based on the books by Kass Morgan

(2) – Joyce Rupp, “Open the Door” Green Press Initiative, 2008 digital version, Week 2 – Knocking on the Door, p.18-19

The virus of perfectionism & the healing acme of God’s love

I remember at the conclusion of my qualifying exam as a seminarian seeking a call to serve as a pastor of a church, the lead examiner made only one suggestion.

Sitting before the bishop and an examining committee for over an hour –  hearing me answer questions about church doctrine, dealing with conflict, upholding the Gospel in a pluralistic society, defining God’s mission, etc. – I remember being taken aback with their summarizing statements at the end of it all:

They said, essentially: “From the sounds of it, Martin, you will have to work on one thing. And this may cause you problems down the road if you don’t navigate this issue well. So this is what you will have to practice, right from the start …

“The first time you lead worship one Sunday morning as a pastor of that congregation, when you notice the paraments on the altar are crooked, or not hanging in a symmetrically-perfect fashion, resist at all costs the urge to correct it.”

Here I was all concerned about issues of theological integrity, confessional adherence, denominational survival and biblical interpretation of controversial proportions – and what the leadership of the church was most concerned about was not what I believed so much, but how I, a future pastor, would exercise my leadership among the people of God.

At first, I was convinced they were missing the point. But the more I reflected on this and the more mileage I clocked over the years in pastoral leadership, I came to appreciate very much their advice. Perfectionism is like a virus, and can lead to many bad things not only in leadership but in the practice of faith:

Perfectionism is why I give up too quickly on many a handy-man project at home whenever it doesn’t work out the way I expect it to. Applied to a life of faith, perfectionism, I have discovered, leads only to discouragement, depression and a low self-esteem. Perfectionism, closely related to the need to please others, places undue pressure and unhealthy stress on our lives. Perfectionism makes religion out of following a bunch of rules. Perfectionism keeps us stuck in negative, self-depreciating cycles of thinking.

Have you, too, caught the perfectionism bug? Laurence Freeman, recipient of the Order of Canada a couple of years ago, said that his greatest success in life was to learn that his failures were more important than his successes (audio, “The Virus of Perfectionism”, http://www.meditatio.ca). I am certain his comments reflect the testimonies of many successful business people and those who are at the top of their fields who confess that the most important ingredient in achieving success is the long list of the failures that preceded it.

And then we confront a text like we read today (Matthew 5:48) when Jesus says: “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” What are we to make of that? Does God want us to be perfect, and avoid all possibility of failure, at all costs?

I think we have to be very careful in our understanding of this word, as we practice our faith, day to day. As I have struggled with perfectionism I have come to appreciate the flip-side of this coin:

It is born deep within the human soul to want things to be right, proper, good. We are, after all, created in God’s image. And part of this reflection manifested in each other is to seek God’s glory – which is beautiful, holy, perfect, right – full of dignity and yes, perfection.

So, we ought not repress nor deny this natural yearning within our very being. But what is the difference between acknowledging and celebrating this longing deep within us, and falling into the trap of perfectionism?

“Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” I suspect we get hung up on the first part of that sentence all too often; but maybe it would do us well to start with the second half of that sentence.

How is God ‘perfect’? We know from the Gospel that should we want to understand God the Father, we need first to look at Jesus (John 14:7). So, what kind of perfectionism – if we can call it that – did Jesus demonstrate?

When folks ask me: “Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?” I approach the question of the atonement in this way: Is there a better way for God to demonstrate God’s absolute and steadfast love for us than by laying down his life for us (John 10:11) – by letting go and giving up that which is most precious to us all? If anything, Jesus’ death proves to us God’s unyielding, uncompromising and unconditional love for each one of us, in a way to which we could humanly relate.

And second, is there a better way for God to demonstrate absolute power over death and Satan for all time, than by God becoming completely vulnerable through Jesus to the consequences of that evil on earth – which was the unjust condemning of an innocent person to death?

Yes, Jesus could have walked away from Jerusalem. Yes, Jesus could have called down the forces of heaven to save him from the Cross and pound the devil to pulp before our very eyes. That might be a more satisfying approach. But that would have been playing the earthly game; that would have been playing by the rules of the forces of evil: force for force, might for might. Who comes out on top?

But Jesus chose to pull the rug out from under Satan’s legs. Jesus chose to limit his divine self (Philippians 2:5-11) in human form, and to suffer and die as a human completely vulnerable to an unjust evil. If anything, Jesus’ resurrection proves to us God’s absolute power for all time over death and the devil.

My favourite part of Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ”, is the last ten seconds of what feels like a very long movie: When Satan realizes, in agony, for the first time how he has been defeated. Now, that’s a perfect ending to a really graphic presentation of Jesus’ suffering and death.

That’s why Jesus died on the cross. To show us how perfect God is, in God’s love for us. We can’t do it perfectly; we will always miss the mark to some extent. But God is “perfect” love (1 John 4).

God’s love (hesed in Hebrew) is steadfast and unbounding, even to the point of complete vulnerability, letting go – for our sake and for all people. Jesus showed us the way of everlasting life for every human being of every time and every place. He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of God; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45)

The way of Jesus is the way to wholeness, completeness, in God’s eternal love, regardless of any and all human divisions within us and out there.

It’s not an easy way, to follow this perfect love. This way of Jesus doesn’t follow earthly rules of power plays, obsessive self-preservation and competitive perfectionism. Saint Paul prayed that God take away the thorn in his side (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). Presumably Paul asked for this so that he could be better at his job preaching the Gospel of Jesus. But God’s answer would nip Paul’s perfectionism in the bud. God’s answer was, ‘no.’

In fact, Paul’s weakness would be a far more effective way of showing God’s power. What would appear as ‘foolishness’ in the eyes of the world, would in truth be an effective witness to God’s power and God’s love, through Paul’s weakness.

God does not want us to be perfect. Because God does not want us to give up. God does not want us to give up on the journey of faith, no matter how difficult or how unpopular it may become at times. God just wants us to be faithful – to stay on the path, to doing what we can – not out of perfectionistic motivations but out of the heart of God’s love and power working through our imperfection.

And I think God wants us to be vulnerable to one another; that we are not afraid of showing and confessing our weaknesses, our shortcomings and our failures to one another. In the church, we don’t have to wear masks of perfectionism. We are, after all, broken people. That is the truth. But Jesus’ body, too, was broken, for the love of the world. And what is the church, but the Body of Christ?

We are vulnerable to each other, open to one another’s pain and one another’s truth, why? So we can find wholeness, healing, on our journey that begins now on earth and finds completion, perfection, in the world to come.

We are vulnerable to each other, open to one another’s pain and one another’s truth, why? So we can share the truth of God’s love to all people, effectively, genuinely and authentically.

Thank you, Jesus, for accepting us in your perfect love. Amen.