From spiritual childhood to adulthood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

[5]Psalm 42:7

Burn, fire, burn


I bought this t-shirt in Italy last month — featuring Andy Warhol’s artistic depiction of an erupting Mount Vesuvius.

There really isn’t anywhere you can go in and around Naples, Italy, without being in eyeshot of Mount Vesuvius. Whether you are boating off the Mediterranean coast around the islands of Ischia and Procida, landing or taking off from the international airport there, or driving one of the many autostradas intertwining a metropolis of almost four million people, the unique double-mound character of this famous mountain is never out of sight, from any direction.

Of course it is still considered one of the most, if not the most, active volcano in Europe. Since the catastrophic, violent eruption that levelled Pompeii in the first century, it has erupted about three dozen times, significantly once in the 17th century and most recently in 1944.

Geologists and volcano experts today expect another eruption from Vesuvius, and believe they will have about a 4-week warning period before the first signs lead to the eruption.

So, you can imagine the horror we felt when we saw smoke pouring from the peak of Mount Vesuvius. Just a couple days after climbing the famed Mount and learning all this history, we were driving into Naples from the north. After holding a sudden, collective breath, we exclaimed together: “It’s going to blow!”

Some of us with phones quickly called our friends. Of course I kept driving, but in Naples it seemed everyone smoked, talked on the phone and held their child in their lap while driving at 130 kms/h. You will be happy to know I kept both my hands on the wheel while my passengers did some quick research to find out that a grass fire on the south side of Mount Vesuvius was sending smoke over the top which made it look, from our point of view, like the warning signs of an immanent eruption.

Indeed we are terrified of fire when it is out of our control. I’m not talking here about the pristine and contained burn of a campfire at the end of a day of leisure play on a lake or in the backyard. People who have seen and witnessed the raging inferno of a forest fire — earlier this year in Fort McMurray, for example — can speak of the palpable terror of a consuming fire.

In the text from Hebrews for today (12:18-29), the writer describes God as a “consuming fire.” Indeed, the writer describes the religious awe from Exodus in the Old Testament as a terrifying experience: “Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.'”

What does fire mean, in the context of faith? When we experience and confront hellfire in our lives — describe it however you will, reflecting on the greatest challenges in your life now — what does the consuming fire mean? 

In the DC Comics recent film, “Suicide Squad”, our super heroes each have a special gift they use for the cause of good. One of them has the gift of fire. El Diablo is his name, and he describes his ability as the “gift of the devil.” Indeed, we make a direct association, through culture, between fire and sin, fire and evil. In Dante’s epic 14th century poem, Inferno, there are references to fire to be sure. But considering all the degrees of hell described therein, fire is not the singularly predominant symbol of hell.

In the last century, Scots preacher George MacDonald in one of his sermons poses a more nuanced reflection on the purpose of fire: “Can it be any comfort to us to be told that God loves us so that God will burn us clean?” How many of us want to be tortured? MacDonald goes on, “We do not want to be clean and we cannot bear to be tortured.” So, the natural, human tendency kicks in — better the devil we know than the devil we do not know. And we take the easy road: we remain stuck in our unhealthy life styles and viewpoints that are far from the honest truth of it all.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that for many of us, fire means punishment.

Either we want it to mean punishment, or we imagine other people do. So, we avoid the all-consuming fire of God’s presence in our lives. We don’t believe we can stand it. In the words of a famous movie line delivered in “A Few Good Men” by Jack Nicholson: “We can’t handle the truth!” And so, in our hearts at least, we run away from God.

But the bible (in Hebrews, Revelation, Exodus, and the Gospels at least) reveals that fire is not God’s punishment; fire is not meant to be torture. 

Fire is purification.

Fire is used to refine metals. The smelter melts and pours off the gold or silver, then skims off the dross until she can see her own face reflected in the molten metal — not a bad metaphor for God’s judgement. The question is, what gets purified? And the answer has to go further than merely ‘sin’. Because sin is so embedded in our lives, and will always be as long as we walk this earth. We have to go deeper. The purification of God goes to that place deep in our hearts that causes sin, that generates those unhealthy behaviours and thoughts:

Our false selves. All the excuses, the lies, the fictions, all the rationalizations, self-justifications, all the official versions and self-diagnoses we attempt to sell to others, all the self-adaptations and defensiveness to escape criticism, all the motivations that are fuelled more by selfish ambition and fear than an honest concern for the other. All these will be consumed in the fire of God’s love.

Ironically, what I often call ‘religiosity’ is also a target for God’s fire. When we are honest about our true motivations for coming to church: Is it to look good, to make a good impression, to merely reflect the group’s ideals taking on manners of speech, dress, belief, common sense, even political opinions that make us fit and feel good about ourselves? The mournful fragmentation of the Christian Church into a plethora of denominations today is an unfortunate testimony to this truth, I believe. Yet, God’s fiery love will clean us from that sort of religiousness as well.

And when all that happens, this is the joyous promise: When God’s presence breaks into our awareness, when we feel ourselves being utterly known, embraced, and accepted as we are. The embraced and accepted self is not the false self that reflects only our perfected self image; it is the real self that God created. In that moment, the false self becomes ashes. In the end, I believe that the harshest judgement of God’s consuming fire (read: mercy, love and grace) is friendlier than our own most lavish self-praise.

But do we want to go there? Do we want to change? Or, are we afraid of what we will find when we take off the masks of our false selves?

Perhaps we cannot do this. Perhaps we are too weak to confront the consuming fire on our own willpower. Perhaps our fear is too great, and we are trapped in cycles of self-delusion. Like the point of view in our sighting of smoke on Mount Vesuvius: It looked like an immanent eruption but in truth it wasn’t. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know. In that case, it was better the devil you knew! We choose how we want to look at things. What is our response?

I see a connection with the parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:2-14) where you might recall the king threw out a guest who wore no wedding robe even though the guest had clearly not anticipated attending a wedding when leaving home that day. However, a little know fact: it was up to the host to supply suitable robes to invited guests in that time and culture. The truth of the matter was that this man refused the offer, likely insisting he was OK as he was. Invited, yes. Fit to be present, not yet.

The invitation to the marriage feast is given to us. The joy and freedom is promised. Perhaps the consuming fire of God is an unavoidable mercy. And the only thing we can count on, is that this mercy will be offered to us over and over again throughout our lives regardless of how we respond to the events, people and circumstances of our lives. And so, all we can do is take the next step on the pilgrimage with our God, the all-consuming fire.

For that alone, then, thanks be to God.

Much of this sermon is adapted from Gray Temple’s fine piece in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds, “Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year C Volume 3 (Louisville Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p.376-380

Faith’s fire & water

Please read Psalm 82, and Luke 12:49-56 — the appointed biblical texts for Pentecost+13, Year C (Revised Common Lectionary)

You may have heard some of the old rhymes of how outdoors’ enthusiasts and mariners have interpreted the appearance of the sky: For example,  

“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.” Or, “Rainbow in the morning sailors take warning; Rainbow towards night, Sailor’s delight.” How about, “If smoke goes high (from a campfire), no rain comes by; If smoke hangs low, watch out for a blow.”

Indeed we have our ways of predicting and managing our lives, based on beliefs and observations over time. We then convince ourselves of the truth of the things we repeat, like the rhymes, in our minds over and over. Even if, like the weather, we can be totally off.

If anything, our ability at self-deception is huge. For one thing, we have convinced ourselves that Jesus and Christianity is not about justice for the weak. If you don’t believe me, just examine our attitudes towards Indigenous First Nations people — how quickly we resort to condemning them as lazy drunkards, self-justifying our own greed and fearing the loss of our own power and property. Even though we are the rich and powerful, and they are the people in our communities who are the weakest, the lowly and the destitute. 

How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute (Psalm 82:2-3)

When God calls us to give justice to the weak, who then are the wicked? Not the weak, the lowly and the destitute. Given the structure and spacing of these verses from Psalm 82 — the wicked are those who occupy the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum: those who are strong, who are in power, who have wealth and security.

Why is that?

Most of Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament indeed focuses on issues (and problems) of power, prestige and possession. 

And yet, how quickly and easily we avoid those and focus on issues that Jesus spent little if no time on — homosexuality and abortion, to name a couple recent hot topics in the church.

It’s not that sexuality, addictions and ‘family values’ are not important. But these do not form the core of Jesus’ teaching.

The core of Jesus’ teaching reflects in such notions as: Blessed are the poor and the peacemakers; parables about rich men, selling all, the widow’s mite, the lost sheep, rendering to Caesar, he who has no sin throw the first stone, bigger barns, eating with sinners, praying to be seen vs the humble stance — the list goes on. I remember attending a stewardship event years ago when the main speaker asserted that most of Jesus’ teaching centred, in fact, on money.

And yet, how much these days a disproportionate amount of energy in the church is spent on anything but. We want to avoid talking about money in the church, especially if it means a sacrifice on our part.

You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? (Luke 12:56).

That’s what Jesus is saying in the conclusion of the Gospel text: You have fancy ways of reading the sky but you can’t even discern the truth of your very own lives and the truth of what I’m all about!

We need to hear again the words of scripture and the Lord God:

Rise up, O God, judge the earth. For all the nations belong to you! (Psalm 82:8).

Ultimately the question is: To whom do we belong? To whom does all of creation belong? We have all sorts of acceptable answers to that: We belong to our spouses, to our families, to our parents and grandparents. We belong to the church. We belong to the nation. Sounds righteous, does it not?

And, we go on: creation belongs to us! Natural resources belong to us. In this line of thinking, belonging morphs into ownership and the commodification of basic things, like water. As long as you have enough money to buy it, you have a right to it.

Speaking of water, these last few days those of us on municipal water in Arnprior were not permitted to use water for anything. Anything — not only drinking. We couldn’t boil it, or wash in it, take a shower or bath in it, wash laundry, do the dishes, even touch it!

The house was a complete mess by the weekend. We were driving into the city to take showers and to buy lots of bottled water. I felt just a little of what it must be like for the First Nations communities in northern Ontario who on a regular basis do not have adequate access to safe, drinking water.

I read here an excerpt from the online description (www.claygathering.ca) of the National Youth Project from 2012-2016 which will culminate in PEI this week at the Canadian-Lutheran-Anglican-Youth (CLAY) gathering:

“What is water? Although this may seem like an obvious question, the answers that we provide often depend on our cultural and religious backgrounds. Traditionally, western cultures, like ours, have treated water as a common property, meaning that water is owned equally by all of us.

“In recent years, however, western cultures have shifted their understanding of water. Now, water is viewed like any other natural resource, like natural gas, oil, or gold, and unfortunately, for the right price, it can be bought and sold by individuals and corporations. But who owns it? The water from the tap, the river, the rain… who owns it?

“As you might expect, this new western understanding of water differs strongly from that of many Indigenous communities. Instead of treating water as a resource that can be bought, it is viewed it as a living being with which all creation has a relationship and a responsibility to protect. 

“For the Ojibway, water is a source of purification, and for the Iroquois, it is a gift from the stars integral to medicine, prayer, and cleansing. In many Indigenous cultures, women have a special association with water: they are the keepers of water, and it is their responsibility to lead water ceremonies which demonstrate a community’s respect for water. What we can learn from our Indigenous brothers and sisters is that water is a force that sustains, and requires respect and protection.

“Although western culture may treat water as a resource that can be used and abused, as Christians we know that it is a very important component of our spiritual life. We know that in the Bible, water is recognized as divine and life-giving. In Genesis 1, we see that the shape and content of all bodies of water are creations of God. In Revelation 21, we are told that, through Jesus, we are freely given a kind of water that sustains our lives and in John 3, we learn that those who enter the Kingdom of God are those who are born of water and the Spirit. Indeed, our very baptism is validated by the Word and Water.

“These parts of Scripture and sacramental practice show examples of the importance of water to us as Christians. It reminds us that, just as our practical life depends on water, so too does our spiritual nourishment.

“Many Indigenous communities do not have access to this vital resource: even where there is access, the quality of water is poor. Understanding that water is important and is a human right, what happens if you have access to water but it isn’t clean, useable, or safe? As Christians, we recognize that water nourishes and cleanses, and now we need to care for it as much as it cares for us; we need to be good stewards of the earth.”

We don’t ‘own each other’ as property to be traded on the open market as much as we don’t own anything in creation. Creation is meant for all people to share and hold in common, for the common good.

That means, in God’s view, no one is alone, no one is left behind, and no one falls through the cracks. This is the Good News: Everyone belongs. Everything belongs. Where we are weak, we belong. When we fail, we belong. When others are weak, they belong. When others fail, they belong. To God.

This Gospel, while good, is not popular for those who have it all we need and more. For us who are fortunate — all things being equal — we have a tough pill to swallow, here.

God’s presence and God’s truth must permeate through our sinful greed, materialism, and lust for control and power. A fire it is, that God sends upon our lives, (“I came to bring fire to earth” – Luke 12:49) to burn through the false thinking, false beliefs. A baptism by fire, some call it.

Like my experience in the dunk tank last week: It’s both thrilling and scary, to let go of control, not knowing when the ball will hit the target and I go for a total immersion plunge.

This is the baptism into which we are called: A lot of turbulence and uncertainty before it gets better; humility comes after being humbled; forgiveness and mercy only after confrontation, honesty and truth; a letting go before new life, new beginnings. Pain before the gain.

A sunset and long darkness in the sky before the brilliance of the sunrise to start a new day.

This is our hope.

The gift of the White-breasted Nuthatch

I walk quickly. In the first hour of walking I can manage 6 kilometres. Pretty impressive, eh? Well, I was zipping through the treed park near our house the other day when I heard birds rustling and chirping in the branches above me. 

I stopped when I noticed a small bird scampering down the trunk of the tree head-first. This tiny bird caught my attention. It had a disproportionately long beak, a black cap and a white breast. I memorized the details of what I saw, and scurried home to consult my three, different bird books.

It was a White-breasted Nuthatch. I was so thrilled to have made that identification. I love birds, and I enjoy the challenge. Most of the time.

I’m by no means an experienced, knowledgeable birder. Because most often I forget the names of the birds I identify or mis-identify. Because I don’t carry around with me my bird books and note pads wherever I go, I have to hone my skills of observation and memory. There are times even when my bird books don’t display sketches or photos of what I think I saw. That’s really frustrating!

When Paul and Silas were thrown into prison after being flogged for disrupting the peace, their future was uncertain at best, an absolute failure at worse (Acts 16:16-34). They were done, or so it seemed. The prospects of continuing their missionary journeys looked bleak no matter how you looked at it. What could they do?

I bet no one expected that earthquake to come when it did. A natural disaster always comes unexpectedly. The severity and life-changing magnitude of an earthquake, for example, cannot be predicted. It’s only after-the-fact when assessments and conclusions of what happened can be made. 

No one could see it coming the way it did: The fires in northern Alberta around Fort McMurray, despite the dry hot Spring, could not be predicted. Who could forsee precisely how it’s actually played out, and continues to play out? It just happens. And people have to react to the moment, when it does.

Despite the life-changing magnitude of events unfolding around Paul, he still seems to find stride in his faith, and yes, even joy. He shows resilience in faith. Despite all the losses, earthquakes, imprisonments, floggings, shipwrecks, rejections, threats on his life, thorn in his side — he still demonstrates an incredible passion for, dedication to, and joy in his life in Christ.

They are in the Roman colonial city of Philippi when Paul and Silas are arrested. Paul’s famous letter to the Philippians was written, later, when Paul sat in a Roman prison cell. And it is in this letter where we find some of the most joyous and aspirational words from Paul’s hand: 

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (4:4-7)

Paul is instructing his good friends in Philippi, and followers of Christ in all times and places, to rejoice — not when everything is perfect, not when your problems have been resolved, not when certain conditions have been met, not when we are prepared for rejoicing, not even when the stars are aligned.

But, to rejoice, precisely when things are chaotic and messy. Rejoice, precisely when things are not going well, nor planned, nor pre-conceived, nor forseen. How is this even possible?

When installing our new dishwasher recently, I screwed clamps into the cabinetry on both sides. Tightly.

When I ran a cycle for the first time, water started streaming out the side of the door. It’s as if the door wasn’t even sealed! I discovered later that because I had fastened the clamps too tightly, the whole unit twisted and warped the door in an unnatural way and therefore could not seal properly and do its job. 

As soon as I loosened the screws a bit so that the dishwasher could rest naturally, evenly and squarely on the floor, everything worked fine.

Indeed, to be faithful is to know how to celebrate, even in difficult, unpredictable times. Trying too hard without a break can actually damage our commitment in faith. 

When things don’t go well, is it that we are trying too hard? Or believe the solution is simply to work harder? And then do we get all tense, anxious, impatient and frustrated when nothing in our power seems to work or when things don’t always go the way we planned? And we don’t ask for help. Or recognize or confess openly our limitations. Who do we think we are?

Especially during the long journey of a dark night of the soul, it is vital for our health to pause from time to time, loosen the screws, and lighten up a bit. Doing so will improve our endurance, open our hearts, deepen our trust in the good Lord who comes to us, who is alive and lives in us.

It is the freedom of God who comes to us, quite unexpectedly. Like the gift of the White-breasted Nuthatch. All I needed to do, was to stop my rushed march through the woods. Stop my over-thinking, incessant mental machinations. 

Just stop, and look up.