Prayer as Growth – Advent sermon series 1

In the movie, “Good Boys”, three young friends explore the meaning of friendship and growth. On the journey towards maturity, Max, Lucas, and Thor discover what it means to be in a healthy relationship that can change over time.

Everything is going fine until each boy begins to pursue individual goals. At the same time, they realize that what one of them wants to do is not necessarily what the others like to do. It looks like they are going their separate ways. And the friendship group appears to dissolve.

When Lucas sits down with his parents in tears, bemoaning the breakup of his friendships, his parents offer some sage advice. They recall an old pet Lucas used to have – a hermit crab. But, when Lucas was much younger he wasn’t told how exactly his hermit crab had left them. His parents, now, tell him the truth:

The hermit crab had to find a new shell, they say. And died on its way to the beach. They explain that a hermit crab eventually outgrows its shell. And must find another shell that is larger into which it can continue to grow. If it doesn’t find a larger shell, it will die one way or another.

Lucas makes the connection that he is growing, and may need to find a larger shell to grow into – a larger social group, new friends, other activities. Leaning on this truth, Lucas is freed from the self-blame for the recent troubles with Max and Thor. It is normal and healthy to go through these growing pains in relationship. As it turns out, the boys learn to find a new way of relating with one another – a way that respects each other’s unique talents and personalities.

Throughout his letter to the Romans, Paul describes a healthy relationship to God.[1]And as we grow in this relationship, we change. And the way we relate to God changes.

In this first part of the series of sermons in Advent on prayer, I would like to underscore this theme: Prayer as growth, in our relationship with God.

There are times in our lives, events and circumstances, that give us this sense that our whole person–our deepest desires, the core of who we are–is actually waking up. At first some experiences may not feel particularly enlivening. Ironically, it is often difficult, challenging times in life that cause this re-birthing within us.

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: “Wake from sleep, now is the moment! Shed your clothes of darkness and ignorance and be clothed with Christ.”[2]This imperative is a common theme in Paul’s writings; to the Ephesians he writes: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead!”[3]

And in our Gospel text today, Matthew records Jesus’ instruction to “Keep awake!” especially at the time when you are in the darkness of not knowing, or in grief, or loss or some kind of suffering. This is the time to wake up, for God is doing a new thing for you.[4]Do you not perceive it? It is time to get up. It is time to slough off the old and make room for the new. It is time “to live into the reality of the new age about to dawn.”[5]

We hear the call at this start of a new church year and the first Sunday in Advent. We hear this call to spiritual renewal as we seek to deepen our lives of faith and wait upon the coming of the Lord into our lives. The call to renewal starts with prayer.

I started by saying there are occasions in our lives that become opportunities—divine invitation, you could say—to try a different way of praying.  Like spokes on a large wagon wheel, there are different ways to pray—intercessory praying, devotional prayer, prayers with lots of words, prayers without using any words, imaginative prayers, body prayers, sacraments, song, music, art.

A variety of prayer forms give us ways of growing and deepening our relationship with God in Christ. Because at the centre of every wheel—even one with several spokes—is the hub, which is Christ. The ever-present, living Lord, moves with us and in us down the road of life.

As we grow older, for many of us, the only real question is: Why doesn’t  God answer my prayers? Because of this conundrum alone, many of us frequently just stop praying and hope for the best. Hopefully on our life’s path, when we meet others we listen to them and discover that no two of us have exactly the same spiritual journey.[6]So, why would we believe there is only one way to pray or only one way of understanding what happens in prayer?

We are each like the hermit crab, seeking to find a larger shell to grow into.

But how can we be encouraged to find a larger shell? How can we even believe that we are growing, that our broken lives so weak and stained by life’s hardships be the place wherein Christ makes his home and through which Jesus’ light shines? How is this even possible?

I heard this week the story of someone recently walking through the woods. Without yet any snow on the ground to brighten things here in Ottawa, the landscape is shrouded in browns and darkish colours. Blah. While walking the forest path, she stopped at large, oak tree which still held its leaves.

But the leaves weren’t full and vibrant with life as you would see in late Spring. They were curled at the edges, no longer pulsing with life-sustaining chlorophyll. Like crumpled, dried paper, these leaves hung there, lifeless and dead. Just waiting for the inevitable drop to the ground.

In that instant, the clouds high above suddenly broke. And streams of sunlight immediately penetrated the darkened woods and shone upon these listless leaves. In that moment of brilliance the leaves were clothed in the light. They were animated in the sunshine and restored to an incredible vision of renewed life. They absorbed and reflected the light. Their previously deadened state was transformed.

In the darkness of predawn, it is indeed hard to believe there is anything but the night. But arise, awake! The light is coming. And when the son comes as it does every morning, we are transformed and renewed in the light. And our lives reflect again God’s grace and love.

 

[1]Patrick J. Howell in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.18.

[2]Romans 13:11-14; ibid., p.16.

[3]Ephesians 5:14.

[4]Matthew 24:42; Isaiah 43:19.

[5]Howell, ibid., p.14.

[6]Ray Leonardini, Finding God Within: Contemplative Prayer for Prisoners (New York: Lantern Books, 2018), p.1,41.

Over mangoes

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Mercy Lawluvi’s first days in Canada were met by the famous ice storm. Arriving from Ghana a young woman in 1997, Mercy had never seen first-hand, touched nor felt snow, let alone freezing rain that made moving about a danger and terror for slipping and falling.

Mercy was alone. And she felt lonely, surrounded by the four walls of her apartment. She couldn’t even see her backyard garden bushes and trees buried and drooping under the heavy, thick accretions of ice.

Nevertheless she decided to slip-and-slide over to the nearby Loblaws. Surviving this first test of Canadian living, she made her way to the fresh produce section. Mercy was delighted to find some mangoes, her favorite fruit.

And as she was standing there, turning over a small reminder of her homeland, a woman came up to her looking for mangoes herself. “Hello,” she smiled. “The mangoes look good. What’s your name?” she asked.

“Mercy,” she responded.

“Where are you from?” the woman asked. “Ghana, in Africa. And these are my favorite fruit. I am so happy they are here.” And so, the two stood there for a long time chatting and exchanging mango recipes. Finally, the other woman asked, “What is your occupation?”

“I am a teacher.”

“I know the administrator of an ESL (English as a second language) school in Ottawa. Let me get the name of my friend to you. Maybe you see where that goes?”

“Thank you so much!”

Twenty-one years later, Mercy stands before us during the “Welcoming the Newcomer” session hosted by the Ottawa Lutheran Refugee Sponsorship Committee[1]this past Thursday, to tell us this story of her first welcome to Ottawa.

Because of the kindness shown by that nameless woman in Loblaws twenty-one years ago, whom she has never since met again, Mercy was able to find the emotional strength and resources to settle well and grow in her new country.

She said how much that simple encounter by the mango display made all the difference in the world to her, not only on that first day during the ice storm to help her through the loneliness and fear. But how important that encounter was for her development, networking and success-finding in her new home in Canada. Someone—a stranger to her— acknowledged her. And was genuinely interested in her.

Twenty-one years later she stands before us as the executive director of “Immigrant Women Services Ottawa”.[2]

And it all started by a caring, open-hearted person asking, “What is your name?”

Indeed, what is our name?  We have a family name sign in front of our house. In my first parish twenty-one years ago in the heart of farmland in southwestern Ontario, every house along the long and straight rural concession roads had one of these kinds of signs hanging or posted in the front yard.

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Fast forward to today, I believe we are the only house in Arnprior, maybe even the whole of Ottawa, who has one. Obviously, it’s not a thing.

I understand Millennials prefer their private, cocooned lifestyles. I understand that, fueled by fear, we are hyper-sensitive about things like identity-fraud and being targeted by criminals. So, if there’s anything we can do NOT to be publicly identified or exposed, the better.

I wonder, though, how much we have, because of this attitude, dampened, even snuffed out, any collective heart-filled reaching out. Because before newcomers, or anyone for that matter, can get to know us and trust us, we need to be available, visible, transparent, accessible to them. In other words we cannot hide from others, and then say that we are welcoming.

I read this week that the first step to building an ethical culture in churches, in business and in society in general, is to let people be who they are. Without needing to persuade, sell something, impose our opinion or argue a point. Without believing they first need to conform before I/we will give them any time. Without needing to protect, defend and uphold my or ‘our’ way of thinking, fearful that any such approach means a loss of integrity or personal safety.

Letting people be who they are, first. Means an open heart. Means, listening first. Means, asking questions first. Means, listening for points of similarity – mangoes. And, then, when trust begins to build, going from there.

“I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you,” Wisdom says.[3]I have the image of a couple of friends getting together at the end of a long day over drinks. And each takes turn pouring out their hearts to the other. Arms waving. Voices rising and falling with each impassioned response. Laughter. Silence. A mutual-inpouring!

I heard recently that each human being requires these two things to survive and thrive: unconditional love, and complete understanding. Both are met in this image from the Wisdom writings of the Bible. An intimacy that affords love and understanding to the partners involved in relationship.

Intimacy. God promises a deep and lasting connection within us. Despite our foibles, our missteps, our compulsions. God promises a deep connection within us despite our mistakes and failures.

Transparency, on the surface, goes only so far to the truth of who we are. You may see the name sign outside my home. You may see my license plate on the highway or city streets. This may be a good first step, I believe, to an honest transparency and invitation for conversation. But, that only goes so far.

When Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is, the question reveals more about the disciples than it does about Jesus. “Who do you say that I am?”[4]Jesus ask them, not because Jesus doesn’t know the answer himself but because the disciples are on a journey of growth with Jesus. These wayward disciples don’t often get it right on this journey. They miss the point of Jesus time and time again.

Jesus’ rebuke of Peter is consistent with how the disciples are portrayed by the Gospel writer.[5]And while Peter might I.D. Jesus correctly, while Peter can give Jesus his proper title and name—the Messiah—he still doesn’t understand what that name actually means in Jesus:

That this Messiah will suffer and die; that this Messiah will be rejected by the powerful, scorned by the knowledgeable, that this Messiah will be arrested a criminal, tortured and die a brutal death by capital punishment. And that this Messiah will rise again three days later. The disciples, Peter among them, do not really understand Jesus.

Just because we may know God’s name, doesn’t necessarily mean we know what is called of us under that name. Just because we can name Jesus and say the right words of faith doesn’t mean we get the follow-through right all the time. In another Gospel, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”[6]

Because, ultimately, our titles and our names only give us an entry point into who we are. Words, titles and names cannot capture the totality of who we are. As James so pointedly writes, the words we say by our tongue will get us into trouble; “though small, [the tongue] stains the whole body.”[7]

Getting it right verbally isn’t what faith is about. It’s rather about experiencing God in our own lives and in relationship with others. Wisdom pours out her thoughts into us, not at us. God writes God’s law upon our hearts, deep within, despite our mistakes.[8]This faithful following of Jesus is not just a function of our brains.

Intimate relationship with God and with others in Christ is a matter for the heart. We know God and we know truth not by the words we say or the names with which we identify, but by a deeper knowing marked by deeds and experiences of faith, hope, trust and love.

When the heart is in a good place, we start simply, in small ways, to see the other, reach out to them with a smile and a question: “What is your name?”

And God replies, “Mercy.”

[1]olrs@bell.net

[2]http://www.immigrantwomenservices.com

[3]Proverbs 1:23 NRSV

[4]Mark 8:29

[5]Mark 6:51-52; Mark 8:21; Mark 9:32; Mark 10:23-32,38; Mark 16:13

[6]Matthew 7:21 NRSV

[7]James 3:1-12 NRSV

[8]Jeremiah 31:33

A wedding sermon: To expand and include

In a moment, we will share candlelight in this circle of friends and family. Sharing the light is a symbol of the meaning of marriage. Just as one candle shines its light in the darkness and with other candles expands the field of vision, so the nature of the rose bud is to open and expand into the world. Each of you receives a rose from the bridal couple.

Like the rose bud, the human soul defines itself in the same way. The soul’s nature and purpose is to expand and include, by offering a courageous ‘yes’ to life.[1]The soul, in all human goodness, always says ‘yes’. Wherever and whenever ‘no’ must be said, it will follow the initial ‘yes’. ‘No’ never leads in a life of faith, and love. ‘No’ will find clarity and effectiveness only after the gracious lead of ‘yes’ – to any and all of life’s circumstances and situations, marriage included.

The primary words in a wedding service, traditionally and effectively, are spoken by the bride to the groom, and the groom to the bride: “I do.” In other words, “Yes! I will.” You cannot come to a wedding service without the energy of the “yes” defining this very moment. Thanks be to God!

In the time I have journeyed with the bridal couple in preparation for this day, I have witnessed in them a celebration of who they are as a couple. I have witnessed an emerging and resilient joy at their union. And the gift within them.

Each of us has a gift inherent and living within us. I invite you to participate now in a brief guided meditation to experience and touch that gift within your life. You may close your eyes or focus on the rose in front of you:

‘Imagine, for a moment, a rose bud. At first, the rosebud is closed and enveloped by its green sepals. Now, imagine that the sepals start to open, turn back, and reveal the petals inside – tender, delicate, still closed.

‘Now, the petals themselves slowly begin to open. [Such is the process of growth in us.] As you imagine the petals slowly begin to open, perhaps you can become aware of a blossoming also occurring in the depths of your being. You may feel that something in you is opening and coming to light.

‘As you keep visualizing the rose, you feel that its rhythm is your rhythm, its opening is your opening. You keep watching the rose as it opens up to the light and the air, as it reveals itself in all its beauty. You smell its perfume and absorb it into your being.

‘Now gaze into the very center of the rose, where its life is most intense. Let an image emerge from there. This image will represent what is most beautiful, most meaningful, most creative that wants to come to light in your life right now. It can be an image of absolutely anything. Just let it emerge spontaneously, without forcing or thinking.

‘Now stay with this image form some time and absorb its quality. The image may have a message for you – a verbal or a non-verbal message. Be receptive to it.’[2]This is the gift of the rose for you today, on this joyous occasion of the your union.

There is something beautiful emerging out of this expanding and inclusive circle. From the union of two, comes the growth of an emerging new family, including more and more people, an expansion born out of the ‘yes’ of love, life, and light.

In your opening notes about the service, dear couple, you quoted from the bible a verse from Proverbs (17:17). “A friend loves at all times.” The verse goes on to say that these relationships bear together not just the good times but the challenges of life, too. Despite the dissonance inherent in all relationships, someone stands by you. This, too, is an important image for the journey of marriage.

When I bought the same Sony receiver that you have in your home, I connected them to some old Sony tower speakers that I’ve used for years. You’d think that the same brand would create a perfect compatibility. But, I neglected to consider what connected these two parts. To connect the speakers to the receiver, I used the same, old speaker wires whose ends were frayed to put it mildly.

As a result, whenever the receiver is plugged into the electricity, I can hear this faint but persistent humming sound. For some reason, the wires inhibit a perfect compatibility between speaker and receiver. For a perfectionist such as myself, it drives me crazy. Needless to say, I’m on the hunt for some new wire that will, hopefully, more adequately convey and balance the connective energy between speaker and receiver.

In other words, the connection will not always be perfect. In truth, conflict is part of healthy life. “A life without conflicts is by necessity only half a life,” I read recently. “A certain degree of stress is good and necessary; and shows you inside of the true Mystery”[3]of all relationships, even good ones.

The healthiest of relationships will carry some subtle dissonances. But, when the marriage focuses intentionally on its fundamental purpose and nature to ‘make music’ – staying with the analogy – then the grace of God is experienced in all beauty and wonder and goodness. Because when I crank that receiver, the whole neighbourhood can hear what I’m playing! And it’s a sweet, clear sound.

When light does what it is meant to be – despite the darkness all around …

When the rose bud does what it is designed to do – expand and include …

When the human soul, before anything else, says, “Yes!” to love and life …

When, in the midst of the hard realities of life, the music of love and gentleness and compassion sound to all the world around …

Then, we know that we do and are, what we were meant for.  Then, your marriage communicates to yourselves and to those around all that is good in this life we are given.

[1]Richard Rohr, “Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer” (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2014), p.23-24.

[2]Jacqueline Syrup Bergan and Marie Schwan, CSJ, “Love, A Guide for Prayer” (Maryland: The Word Among Us Press, 2004), p.78-79.

[3]Richard Rohr, ibid., p.19.

Talking about toast

“I want butter on my toast, but not too much.””You’ve spread it on too thinly. I want a whole wad of it.”

“You’re being wasteful. You’ll use up the tub in a couple of days.”

“If you didn’t burn the toast to a crisp all the time …”

“I don’t like my toast slightly warm.”

” … the butter would melt into the bread.”

“Toast is toast. A slice of bread is a slice of bread. There’s a difference.”

“Lighten up. Just slather it on.”

Of course, the words alone in this dialogue do not tell the whole story. There are other ways that we communicate, that animate the message. They say seventy percent of communication is non-verbal. What does the tone of our voice communicate? What are our eyes looking at when we speak? And, most significantly, what are our bodies doing? What is our body language?

I was attuned more to this truth in Italy during our family vacation. Every culture presents uniquely in the manner of body language during a conversation, to the point of caricature and over-generalization. Of course, not every English person speaks with a stiff upper lip; not every Italian gestures wildly with their hands; not every Canadian looks downward and apologizes. The exercise, nevertheless, of paying attention to a cultural tendency is helpful in bringing awareness to the way we communicate.

We played a little humorous game, somewhat irreverent, whenever we drove by or saw in a distance a couple of Italians speaking to each other — their bodies close, hands waving on either side of their partner’s ears as if guiding a plane on the tarmac to its docking at the gate, eyes piercing the other with intensity, even spittle flying from their mouths. We couldn’t hear what they were talking about. But we made up a dialogue about something the opposite in nature to their serious, even combative, style. We would try to convince ourselves that they were talking about toast.

Communication is essential to any relationship. And it’s not just the words we speak. It’s our behaviour. What we do. How we act. What our bodies are telling ourselves, and the other who is in our presence.

In other words, communication is real. It is not just reserved to the realm of ideas and theory and abstraction. Communication involves our whole lives, our whole selves. We are not by ourselves in the ideas we express and the words we use. 

When we speak about God, and our relationship with God, we dare not relegate our relationship with God to the realm of words alone — whether those words are printed on a page, or spoken during worship in a detached manner as if those words hold power on their own without context or embodiment.

Our God is real. Our God wants relationship with us. And, in the Isaiah text today, we read that invitation: “Come, let us argue it out!” says the Lord (1:18). God is having an argument with the people of Judah and Jerusalem during the reigns of kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah.

It is not a dialogue that is calm and reserved. It is not a cool, collected, disassociated manual of instruction. It is not a legal text. It is throwing down the gauntlet! Come on! You are messing up! But I make an offer. Let’s have it out! says the Lord! You have something to say? Then say it! The Lord can take it. Let’s negotiate. Let’s hear each other out. Let’s be real.

I wonder about our image of God when we shy away from such boldness. Is it because we imagine a God who is passive? Who only does our bidding, or should? Or a God whose job it is only to direct us, judge us and basically order us around?

But what about a God who is more vulnerable than that? There is no more direct and clear message of this vulnerable God than Jesus hanging crucified and dying on the Cross. So, what about a God who seeks our attention by being vulnerable? Who wants us to engage with God in an honest, self-disclosing way? Because the message of Scripture suggests time and time again: 

Not only is God’s company available and deeply important to us, but our company might very well be important to God. Could it be that God seeks our companionship? Could it be that God desires to have us as friends, and that the God who so patiently works with us in every moment rejoices upon occasion to have our undivided attention — even when our attentions are directed to the many particular concerns of our lives? (1) 

God is, indeed, the “great companion” (2). God is present with us, interested in us, and trustworthy. God’s love is receptive and responsive. In other words, we do not pray to an impassive, unmoved mover.

God is in relationship with us. God invites us, when we have a bone to pick about life, about whatever is happening in the world, to “Come, let us argue it out.”

It’s not that God always wants a fight. I will define a “fight” in this context as a bold yet non-combative, mutually-respecting exchange of unique perspectives. What this kind of arguing or fighting reveals is passion, real feelings, and the truth about ourselves. 

And this is a sign of any healthy relationship whether we talk about relationships in marriage, or work, church, community or play. Honesty. Truth. And in the exchange of honest discourse, we bring all that we are, not just our words. Our hearts. Our minds. Our bodies. 

We may not change God’s mind about whatever. But that is not the point. God wants to hear what we have to say. God wants to feel our passion, hear our cries, sense the beating of our strained hearts. God wants to understand us. This is what Jesus was all about. 

God sent Jesus in our flesh so that God could begin to truly understand what it means to be human. And in that humanity, in seeking us, God can bring an outpouring of love, grace and mercy — time and time again.

So, any subject is on the table. Thanks be to God! Anything is on the table, in all honesty. Including talking about toast.
Amen.

1 – Nancy Campbell & Marti Steussy, “Process Theology and Contemplative Prayer: Seeking the Presence of God”, p.87

2 – Clark Williamson, “Learning How to Pray,” in Adventures of the Spirit: A Guide to Worship from the Perspective of Process Theology with Ronald Allen (Lanham: University Press of America, 1997), p.162

Finding Love

When the Beatles sang, “All you need is love” back in the 1960s, this soft sentiment echoed the enthusiastic embrace by some people who wanted everyone simply to get along and overlook their differences. It was also during this turbulent time in history when others expressed a rejection of this dreamy emotion. The hard-liners suggested that we can’t solve the problems of the world without first acknowledging the base motives and evil intent of others expressing competing differences; the solution: a forceful, uncompromising response.

Depending on our personality and life experience, each one of us likely leans in one way or another. But neither vision of ‘love’ is what Jesus expresses in the Gospel for today (John 15:9-17), a text laden with talk of love.
Love, it goes without saying, is one of those words that is not easily defined. At least the biblical Greek distinguishes a few nuanced understandings of love ranging from a desiring love (eros) to a friendship love (philia) to a self-giving, outward-focused love for all people (agape). Consistently, in this Gospel text, it is the agape love that is prevalent. But Jesus weaves agape with friendship. And so Biblical scholars are correct to insist that these biblical definitions of love are not mutually-exclusive when they are used (David Cunningham, “Feasting on the Word” Year B Volume 2, WJK Press Kentucky 2008, p.498); there is overlap in meaning. So, we are back at the beginning, confronted with a powerful word which can mean so many things.
How do we understand what Jesus was getting at? How can we grasp, and better yet, experience, for our own lives the love of which Jesus demonstrates with his words and life?
Maybe we do need to look at more than just the word. We need to look at the setting, or context, in which those words are spoken. Because the words that we hear in one time and place can have an entirely different impact on us if we hear them in another time and place:
For example, ‘I hope you are well’ may seem like nothing more than a polite greeting in a casual conversation over the phone. But the phrase has a much more focused meaning if it is spoken by a friend visiting you in the hospital. They are the exact same words, but they carry a different resonance, a different intensity and inflection.
So, meaning shifts with the setting. That is an important principle to remember in the Gospel of John, for its words are always sounding in at least two different historical contexts: First, there is the immediate story line, the unfolding narrative of Jesus Christ and his ministry as recorded on the pages of the Bible. And second, there is the community that gave birth to – that wrote down the words of – the Gospel of John and the circumstances in which that community lived some three generations after Jesus’ earthly ministry.
Consider how the exact same words of Jesus would sound in these two different contexts. If, in the face of Jesus’ impending death we read, ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (15:13), then the verse leaps out to us as an interpretation of the sacrificial action Christ is about to suffer on the Cross.
But what happens if we read it in the context of the community of John at the end of the first century – when these words were first written down? During this time the community of Christians faced growing oppression from the Roman Empire and was experiencing serious conflict with the Jewish synagogue (9:22; 12:42; 16:2). The words seem no longer to refer only to Christ and his death, but to the sacrifice of members of the community.
I don’t believe we have to choose between one reading and the other. Instead, by identifying both readings we understand how the life of faith keeps expanding and deepening the meaning of Jesus’ words. It is a process that has kept the church vital generation after generation. And it continues in our own lives today. The Word is a living word whose meanings grow clearer as we hold the complexities of life in its light. (For this meaning-finding in context, I used Thomas Troeger’s wonderful formulation in “Feasting on the Word” ibid, p.497-501)
Love is not only a mushy, self-gratifying emotion that finds energy and drive in our dreamy states and compulsions. Love is also not merely a ‘tough’ love that is forceful, cleansing and ‘real’. Love is not only self-sacrifice. But neither is it self-denial and self-hatred. The meaning of love for each of us is more likely born in our own lives where we have to struggle and suffer through some external or internal conflict.
Another phrase from Jesus in this Gospel plants notions of love and joy firmly in the context of suffering. He says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (v.11). How can Christ speak of joy when he is about to be arrested and tortured to death? But also imagine how these words would have sounded to a community of believers at the end of the first century who themselves were grappling with rejection and persecution. Finally, what about us, the heirs of Jesus Christ and his disciples: How do these words redefine the meaning of joy as we move through strenuous times?
In the reality TV-show, “The Amazing Race” whose 26th season finale is soon approaching, a dozen teams are racing around the world. Couples challenge each other through each leg of the race, ultimately seeking the $1 million prize at the end. 
One couple in this season – Blair and Hayley — is particularly fascinating to watch. Because they have such friction. She is a nurse, and he is a doctor. You would think they have a lot in common and therefore could get along. But they are at each other’s throats all the time. Hayley nags and complains and is downright nasty to Blair. And Blair isn’t a pushover but for the most part is patient, non-anxious and keeps it together. You would also think, because they can’t communicate very well and have such acrimony between them, they would have long ago self-imploded and have been eliminated.
But, contrary to my expectations, they have found a way to make it work. They are still in the final four teams racing for the million. And, what is more, they won a recent leg of the race!
When Phil, the host of “Amazing Race”, greeted them on the ‘mat’ he shook his head in disbelief and inquired as to how they are finding success. Both of them admitted the challenges they face and how each of them drives the other crazy. But both of them said they respect each other and this tension is somehow motivating them forward. Phil responded: “You sound like true BFFs!” – Best Friends Forever.
To be honest, I have a hard time calling this ‘love’. But there is an aspect of ‘love’ here we often forget: A community needs to learn how to love one another despite the fact we will drive ourselves crazy from time to time. The early Christians, facing oppression and persecution from outside, needed to learn how to strengthen their bonds in-house, so to speak. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t disagree. That doesn’t mean, they needed to force each other to repress their differences. That doesn’t mean they all had to be like-minded and ‘the same’. That doesn’t mean it has to be roses and champagne all the time.
Similarly for us. We can express our differences, fight (fairly!), respect each other. And still love one another. Especially when we focus on the reason we are together, the prize, the goal, what in truth unites us in Christ, we will find traction on our journey. There can be a beautiful loving that can happen in a diverse, sometimes chaotic, existence called the church. We won’t be all holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ around the campfire all the time. Sometimes, our love will mean we have to make some tough choices, confront our differences and work through conflict. That’s love, too.
How do we find God’s love? Well, it’s a little bit of both/and. And sorry to say for those who want to have control – there is a little bit of letting go necessary. And, conversely, for those who tend to be passive, there is some work involved!
Photographer Ansel Adams would wait days and hours for the perfect circumstances and ideal light to take his iconic photos. He said, “Chance favours the prepared mind.” There is a method to the faithful walk. And it must go far beyond merely enforcing the will and doing it as if it all depended on our own sheer determination and timelines to make it happen. We have to remember, God is free and is not dependent on our actions. The reason Jesus says he no longer calls us slaves but friends (15:15) is this: A master was bound by convention and law to care for his slaves; but a friend’s love is freely given, and mutual. A friend will love and receive love, freely and without condition.
Could we learn to wait for and fully expect God’s grace and love to come freely as God will – in the flow of “living water”, “blowing wind”, “descending flames”, and “alighting doves” – all biblical descriptions of how God comes to us in love and truth? (see Richard Rohr, “Breathing Underwater”, Franciscan Media, Ohio 2011, chapter 6)
So, the waiting and the preparing the mind for God finding us in love, the softening of the heart, the deepening of expectation and desire, the ‘readiness’ to really let go of control, and the recognition that “I really do not want to let go” – these are all characteristics of the mature Christian. Because the actual willingness to change is the work of weeks, months, and years of “fear and trembling” (as Paul expresses in Philippians 2:12). 

Love is a process. Love is revealed in the transforming, changing person. It is found in the grit on the road of life with others. It is revealed in the commitment to stay the course, however difficult that course may be.

Grace and love will always favour the prepared mind, the heart willing to risk it all and nurturing the anticipation that there is a hopeful outcome. And, if you ask me, I believe the reason that Blair and Hayley in “The Amazing Race” are finding success? It’s because at least one of the partners at any given moment is showing a whole lot of undeserved grace and forgiveness to the other. No matter how that team finishes in the end, they will, I am sure, remember the love that in different ways each of them experienced in the other over the course of the race. Perhaps a little bit, at least, like true, best-friends-forever.

A sob story

When Martin Luther said that “the fewer the words the better the prayer”, I wonder if that could also be applied to reading the bible. In Luther’s summary of prayer, he implies that a deeper, more meaningful, connection with God is made when we get more of ourselves out of the way; namely, our words.

Considering the lengthy Gospel texts from John assigned for these Sundays in Lent, I am immediately drawn to what is conventionally known as the shortest verse in the bible: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35 ESV/KJV). Coming to this point in the reading (John 11:1-45) is like stumbling on a diamond in the rough, landing at an oasis in the midst of the Gospel’s drawn-out narrative. At verse 35, I am permitted to pause, even for a breath.

The phrase is abrupt, unpolished and unrefined. In its simplicity nevertheless is revealed a precious nugget of understanding Jesus – his person and purpose.

Last summer, photos of the “crying cop” went viral following a tense stand-off between protestors and police. During the protest, which became violent, police clashed with crowds who objected to human rights abuses by the government of President Aquino in the Philippines.

The police officer, Joselito Sevilla, was among hundreds of armed military police facing the protestors. As the photo shows, he’s a big, intimidating man. And yet, for most of the protest, he made the peace sign, and wept. Many commentators have reflected on what brought about those tears – and the message sent by his unexpected behavior.

A king is not saved by his great army;

A warrior is not delivered by his great strength.

The war horse is a vain hope for victory,

And by its great might it cannot be saved. (Psalm 33:16-17)

If not by physical might, strength and intimidating power, then by what?

Jesus’ dear friend, Lazarus, teaches Jesus to cry. The Gospel writer makes clear that some of Jesus’ closest friends were Mary, Martha and Lazarus (John 11:3,5). Friendships of love (translated in this text from the Greek, philio) literally bring Jesus down to earth, and make him human, as well.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is portrayed as a divine being sent by God. Repeatedly John emphasizes Jesus’ direct relationship with God the Father. For example, in this story, Jesus looks heavenward and prays, “Father, I thank you for having heard me …” (v.41-42). But it is an act of humanity that starts the rock rolling, again literally, to the cross.

There is so much in this story that links the death and rising of Lazarus to the anticipated death and resurrection of Jesus – symbols like the stone sealing the burial tomb, and then rolling away. It was the raising of Lazarus that initiated the plot to kill Jesus (v.46-53: “From that day on they planned to put him to death”).

The shortest verse in the bible precipitates the greatest divine act in all of history. Jesus’ humanity – his compassion and his ability to feel loss and grief as we all do – is the anchor in the unfolding divine drama.

What does it mean to cry? There is power in tears.

Emotional tears often result in peace. Crying erases the competitive edge between people. Divisions are dissolved. Hearts of cold stone melt and crumble. Biologist Oren Hasson suggests that humans evolved emotional tears as a way to show others that we were vulnerable, that we would prefer to make peace (http://chealth.canoe.ca/channel_section_details.asp?text_id=5742&channel_id=11&relation_id=27878).

When most people see a crying face, don’t we feel an urge to ask what is wrong, to offer help or empathy? Hasson claims that “emotional tears signaled our willingness to trust and become bonded into supportive, protective communities. And crying when we felt fearful or vulnerable or when we felt a sense of unity could then have developed into the kind of emotional crying we all do now and then.”

He goes on to distinguish between good and bad crying. A good cry happens when criers receive support from those around them. Moreover, criers get a boost if they come to a realization, a new understanding, or resolution regarding the thing that made them cry.

Crying cleanses. It releases what’s pent up. It lets go. And therefore, spiritual guides over the millennia have identified what they have called, “the gift of tears”. Shedding tears has become a valuable spiritual gift not only in the contemporary world of pastoral care and counselling, but as an experience of God’s deep love for all people in the midst of human misery and suffering (http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/20717226?uid=3739448&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=3737720&uid=4&sid=21103926560643). Pope Francis recently extolled the ‘gift of tears’ as an appropriate expression of prayer for approaching great mysteries of life (National Catholic Report, September 16, 2013).

Authentic tears welling from the heart promote peace where humans are bound by division and hatred. Lazarus was raised because Jesus’ tears evoked a faithful response by those gathered around the tomb with him. People responded to Jesus’ request for help to “take away the stone” (v.39) and “unbind him and let him go” (v.44). Jesus’ own vulnerability leads to the building of a community, where each one of us is called upon to unbind and set free wherever people – including ourselves – are shackled by chains of hatred, fear, rage or shame.

It was Jesus’ actions, in the end, that got this ball rolling. It’s his action of raising Lazarus that results in the Passion. It’s his crying that evokes the response of the crowd to help move the stone and unbind Lazarus.

Martha, too, says all the right things. Before Jesus does anything in this story, she is confessing Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God (v.27). But it’s not enough. She also has to experience, personally, the power of Christ’s humanity and divinity. The experience of Jesus’ presence counts here, not just all the right words, doctrines and confessions of faith that one says.

It’s not enough to say we believe. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus admonished his followers (Matthew 7:21). We have to ACT in ways that reflect the truth and presence of Jesus. Even if it means being vulnerable, and crying in the presence of others.

And in that perceived weakness, we will witness the loving power of God. It is the power of God shown in human weakness (1 Corinthians). It is the cross of Jesus where death will be overcome. It is an act of supreme love that conquers the powers of the world.