How to love a porcupine

The following story was shared at a Faith Lutheran Women’s meeting recently, and I am relating it to the themes generated by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and adopted in convention by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) this past summer, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017: “Liberated by God’s Grace: Salvation-not for sale; Humans-not for sale; Creation-not for sale!”

I was walking through the woods one day, happy to be outside in the wild. I was thinking about Jesus’ command to love our neighbour (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27). How is this possible? How could I love people who are not like me, who are different than me, whose beliefs are ‘a stranger’ to me.

When I rounded a bend in the path through the forest, I suddenly came across a porcupine trundling across the way in front of me. Its prickling spine and shell were covered with a dense coat of sharp quills pointing outward towards me. I stopped short and wondered what to do.
I think the porcupine, startled by my sudden appearance in its world, did as well.

In the silence that separated me and the porcupine on that path, I grinned at the thought that God must also love the porcupine. As ugly and as funny a creature it is, the porcupine too is created and therefore beloved by God. But how could I love that porcupine?

The porcupine is a rodent that can be hunted in Ontario, open year round and no limit by the law. Moreover, the porcupine’s meat is apparently safe to eat — a low risk, uncontaminated option in the protein department. Help yourself!

Perhaps to love a porcupine could mean different things. Sometimes if I assume loving a porcupine could only mean one course of action, I may be pricked by the needles!

If you were in that forest, confronted by that porcupine, what would you do? Or not do? 
In whatever you do, are you aware of why the porcupine might be afraid of you? The porcupine, like many creatures in the wild, is not for sale; that is, you aren’t there to buy or sell the things you see in the forest. So, why are you in that forest in the first place? What are you doing there? What are some words you could use to describe your relationship with everything else that makes the forest their home — including the trees, the water, the birds, and creatures that inhabit the place? (For example, are you their ‘owner’, or do you ‘share’ the gifts of creation with other creatures? What do you make of the fact that you are stronger and smarter — probably, and hopefully! — than most other creatures? What do you make of this gift you have?)

How is the forest, the path, and the porcupine analogous to human community and how we relate in our society to one another? How can we love the stranger who is also our neighbour? And just because we may not understand fully other creatures — including other people who are different — how can we show love to them (For example, by listening to them? By being curious to learn more about them? By helping them with something they need in our shared humanity? etc.)

Rules of the Gate

“I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out, and find pasture” (John 10:9).

It would seem to me that the “gate” that is Jesus, ought to channel my thinking, my values and my directions in life.

Admittedly, there is a very strict etiquette to gates; a rule book that you must follow because not to do so may cost dearly, or lead to death, or destroy a family’s livelihood. What are the ‘rules of the gate’?

Well, the first that comes to my mind is, ‘shut the gate after you.’ It’s okay to open the gate to let yourself through but you must make sure it’s closed and fastened just the way you found it, once you’re the other side.

Other rules perhaps aren’t so obvious – if the gate’s held open, under no circumstances must you shut it, especially if you live on an farm with herds of cattle, sheep, horses, etc.. After all, the herd’s access to water is through that open gateway; if you close it disaster may follow: Animals may force themselves through hedges or fences onto a railway line or highway in their search for water with consequences too horrible to dwell on.

Rules also apply to climbing over the gate rather than opening it. Always climb near the hinges so that your weight doesn’t put a levered strain on those very hinges and potentially bend or even break them. The same applies to where you aim yourself if you’re going to vault the gate.

And if you’re tempted (and supple enough) to crawl under a gate – don’t – you’ll wear away the ground and encourage others to do the same until eventually animals will also do likewise. And, of course, always use the gate no matter how much extra effort it involves because to avoid it by scrambling over a wall, pushing through a hedge, or scaling a fence has potential for damage that animals will seek out and follow.

With gates there are rules. With gates there are principles of which to be aware. With gates come obligations that every person should follow. These are things to think on when Jesus calls himself the gate.

Whatever else the metaphor means, it’s clear that it’s about Jesus as the single entrance to the community of the faithful. We can only be part of this flock by going through this one gateway – and in that is our security and our protection. There is no other way in. Jesus is the very gate itself. The strength and clarity of that image is, I think, obvious.

But that isn’t the only thing this images means.

Jesus, the master of parables, uses metaphor in a rich and involving way that encourages his hearers to think long and hard about the images he uses. He requires of us that thinking because it makes us part of his people. We are involved in using his thoughts; musing on his meanings; and engaging with the pictures he himself has given us.

His story-telling style is one that asks effort on our part so that we can live within the images and symbols that he thought important. He speaks in a way that deliberately draws us closer to him. He makes us active participants in his telling, his living, of salvation. We are never just the audience.

An English lad got himself a summer job working on one of the Canadian Great Lakes – it was a real adventure for him. Of course on the application form he had to answer certain questions about his suitability for the job. When it came to the vital one about whether he was able to swim, he wrote: ‘Yes, I learnt the motions of swimming at my secondary school.’

Inevitably the day came when he fell off his employer’s motor boat. There followed wild splashing and shouting. He was clearly in trouble and had to be rescued. When on the lakeshore he had recovered from his ordeal he was asked about his answer on the form. ‘Yes,’ he said, I learnt the motions of swimming at school but I found them hard to put into practice.’ (Thank you to Christopher Burkett for many of the words and illustrations here come from his sermon, “Finding the Gate” in the online resource: Preacher Rhetorica, 2014)

And indeed they are! You can only learn swimming by swimming. Knowing the motions helps, but that’s no substitute for getting wet! It’s the difference between ‘knowing about’ and ‘knowing.’ This is why the Jesus method of teaching requires of us practice. He doesn’t tell us about living faithfully; instead he asks us to know faithful living from the inside. It’s not ‘You might compare my place in our community to something like a gate,’ but ‘I am the gate.’ It is as easy, but also as engagingly complex, as that. ‘Work out your living with me as the gate,’ says Jesus. Take this image and make it part of your living.

Don’t only know about the motions – like the lad and his swimming. Don’t dwell on the theory, as essential as that might be sometimes. But rather let the image, the symbol, the story become the lens through which you see your living of the faithful life. You can’t get faith ready to wear, off the peg. It’s not a system you can be drilled, or forced, or argued into. No, faith is an adventure of heart and mind where you write the script that utilizes the ideas, the images, the symbols that Jesus provides. Jesus, the master story-teller, gives us enough material for a lifetime and more.

A way through the gate is what is needed. Helping each other to a way through – to the way through, is our witness as people of faith. How do we do that?

When Bishop Michael Pryse (Eastern Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) met with the Christian Council of the (Ottawa) Capital Area last week, he addressed some good questions about what keeps us from actively pursuing and growing relationships with people of differing faiths from ours. Bishop Pryse said that what motivates him to engage people who are different from him is that doing so always “brings out the best Christian” in him.

Contrary to what we might first think — that hanging out with Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, Baptists, United Church members or Anglicans could ‘water down’ our faith as Lutherans or Christians — engaging the diverse community of faith in truth enhances our loyalty to and conviction in our Lutheran-Christian identity. If anything we should seek out, not avoid, building relationships with those who are different from us, because it may very well encourage to “bring out the best Christian” in us.

The strategy, or rules of engagement, are threefold: First, be a friend. Second, make a friend. And then, bring a friend to Jesus. In that order! These gate rules are, essentially, about practising compassion, care and grace. That’s the best way to be a friend, then make a friend, then bring a friend to Jesus. NOT by trying to persuade the other they are wrong and we are right. That’s not how you be a friend — by trying to win one over against the stranger — to compete with them, to say, “My way is better than your way.” That’s not how you make a friend or keep a friend, is it?

You would expect me to say that the ways to go through the gate are the routes and rules of religion – faithfulness in prayer, in receiving communion, in working with the scriptures, in the giving of effort, time and cash to godly purposes. And that is certainly the case – these are tried and tested pathways. But the Jesus way of engaging us and the world in his saving life does more.

Remember, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment: to “love another” (John 13:34; 15:12). Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount: “There is no other commandment greater than greatest of these” — to love God and love neighbour (Mark 12:31). Paul writes to the Galatians: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (5:14).

The image of the gate asks of us effort, imagination and personal involvement. Jesus is the life. And we are to live in his way and dwell in his truth, that we may live his risen life. One of the things the resurrection of Christ means is that all the old criteria of judgement no longer apply – the ultimate criterion of death is no more.

We are to be a people who measure things not by the scarcity of death but by the abundant, resurrection life of Jesus. Let there be an end to cynicism and despair. We need each other to keep that measure bright and usable. Knowing each other; sustaining each other; bearing with each other; encouraging other; learning of each other; supporting each other – in joy as well as trouble.

Following these ‘rules of the gate’ will get us to pasture, through the valley of the shadow of death, and into the life, the light, and the love of Christ, eternal.

“There is a place we can find, a good place
like quiet meadows where flowers spread,
like green grasses by gentle streams;
a place where the heart feels nourished,
where the mind is hopeful, unhurried,
where the spirit is glad and at peace.
We’ll name this place fulfillment,
we’ll name it healing and thankfulness,
we’ll name this good place pasture
for there we seek to feed.

And there is a voice we can hear that calls us,
a gentle voice, melodious,
a voice like songbirds and laughter,
like a mother comforting her children,
like a shepherd calling his sheep.
We’ll name this voice acceptance,
we’ll name it mercy and forgiveness,
we’ll name it the voice of God’s love,
inviting us gently to feed.

It invites us to enter pasture
when we think we’re too hurting to listen,
too angry or grieving or fearful
to hear the voice that calls us to peace.

It invites us to enter pasture
when we’re sure we’re too busy to listen,
too burdened or worried or pressured
to hear the voice that calls us to peace.

It says: Come in and go out and find pasture.
It says: We are safe with the shepherd of all sheep.
It says: Meadows await us, in this moment.
It says: Rest in love. Where you are. Joyfully feed.”

“Pasture”, from Andrew King’s web blog, A Poetic Kind Of Place

Bane and Blessing

In the popular Brothers Grimm fairy tale, “Rapunzel”, that was in recent years adapted for the big screen in the movie “Tangled”, the main character, Rapunzel, has extremely long hair. This is her gift, it would appear.

But the evil witch has locked her in a room at the top of a tall tower without any entrance or exit except a window near the top. The witch and the prince climb up to the room where Rapunzel lives, by calling for Rapunzel to let down her long hair; they use her hair like a rope ladder.

But Rapunzel never uses her gift of long hair to free herself from her entrapment. While others recognized the gift she had, for better or for worse, why couldn’t she just cut off her own hair? Why could Rapunzel not use her gift, especially if it meant freedom? She had what she needed to be free!

Was it her strong emotional attachment to her hair that prevented her from living life truly, freely? If only she could let go and surrender that which was most precious to her….

In the famous Beatitudes, Jesus described the ‘blessedness’ of those in the kingdom of God. How can we understand this ‘blessing’? This Sermon on the Mount does not read like a self-help manual for the successful, in the twenty-first century. There is something counter-cultural going on here; something paradoxical, even radical.

It seems to suggest to me that to be followers of Christ we must also be able to see in ourselves what we see in others: the bane and the blessing, the good and bad, both/and. It is, on the one hand, to recognize the sinner in ourselves, and to forgive – let go, surrender – ourselves of that sin. And not let it rule us.

To recognize, embrace and confess the poverty of spirit within us.

To explore and acknowledge places of grief and loss in our own lives.

To practice humility with others, a stance that recognizes God as the “source of our life” (1 Cor 1:30).

To identify and name our own hungers, longings and thirst for righteousness.

To be merciful unto ourselves, to begin with.

To search after the purity of our own heart.

To share the gift of peace that is within us.

And to endure the persecution and suffering we all encounter in whatever form, for Christ’s sake.

It’s easy to point the finger, and see it in others, and preserve our own sense of self. It’s easy to do nothing and ‘wait’ for someone to come and save you from your problems (like Rapunzel), without noticing the resources you have yourself to do the right thing, even it means starting by confessing your own sin.

The Gospel of Jesus, while being simple is not easy. Therefore, we need not shy away from seeking after the ‘blessing’ of God upon our lives in our honest, simple, vulnerable selves. We need not hold back from coming to God in all our sinfulness, because God won’t hold back his love to us.

“Consider your own call …: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not…” Paul writes (1 Cor 1:26-28).

Spiritual greats over the centuries have recognized this truth of God. St Augustine says, “In my deepest wound I see your glory and it dazzles me.” Julian of Norwich put it, “God sees the wounds, and sees them not as scars but as honors … God does not blame us for them.” Paul wrote elsewhere, defining God as one “who creates life out of death and calls into being what does not exist” (Romans 4:17).

On the cross, Jesus reconciled all these divisions in himself (Ephesians 2:10). It was, and is, the pattern of his life with us, as the Scriptures testify: Jesus himself was crucified between a good thief and a bad thief, hanging between heaven and earth, holding on to both his divinity and humanity, expelled as a problem for both religion and state.

His dying – his absolute letting go – upended any religious program that said, ‘You need to earn your worth and favour with God.’ Letting go is the nature of all true spirituality. Letting go is the nature of any genuine reconciliation. Letting go is the engine of meaningful and lasting transformation. And these are all, admittedly, a mystery – a paradox.

For Rapunzel, we cannot blame her for being attached to her hair; after all, it was a gift. Why would she want to cut it off – for any reason? Why would she want to give that up? It was such a deep part of her identity.

When we see Jesus on the cross, we see that our faith is about being ‘attached’ in love. Jesus instructs his followers in the Golden Rule to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27).

But there’s a price, a cost, to pay for it. When you love someone, and act out of love for them, there is always the risk of pain and we will suffer for it. If we love, we give ourselves to feel the pain of the world. Love will simply lead us to the cross.

Sometimes the worst possible circumstances in our lives turn out to be the greatest gift – and vice versa. Because our greatest gift can be the source of our downfall; or, at very least, keep us from become the people God called us to be. Yet, it is in the collision and letting go of these opposites, where the blessing is realized.

Listen to the witness of a Catholic priest who visited the Philippines:

“I saw so many shining eyes in the Philippines, yet these are souls who have been eaten up and spit out by life. The Filipinos are a people with so little. I celebrated a Sunday Mass in a squatter’s camp. Shacks all around. Yet they were so excited that ‘Fodder’ was coming. The kids met me to lead me into the barrio. Out of these shacks came kids in perfectly clean clothes. I don’t know how the mothers kept them so clean. They were all dressed up for Sunday Mass. The boys all got their guitars, and it was the big event of the week. They have something we have lost.

“I felt like telling them, ‘You live in a dump by our standards, but do you know what you have? You’re not cynical like we are. You’re all smiling. Why should you be smiling? You don’t have any reason to smile. You live in a shack! It smells like garbage. But you have father and mother and clear, simple identity.’”

Then, this priest confesses: “I don’t know who trained them to do this, but you constantly feel your hand taken by the little Filipino children. They take your hand and put it to their head. They don’t ask you to bless them. They take it from you. It made me weep. For they have their souls yet! They have light, they have hope. The little children call you ‘Fodder, Fodder,’ and I think when they pull blessings out of you, blessings really come forth.

“They are ready for the blessing. They believe in the blessing, and you are not really sure if it was there until they saw it, expected it, and demanded it. These are the blessed of the earth,” he concludes.

These are ones who don’t need to be taught the faith. They live it. They live the mystery of life and death, blessing and loss. They’re okay with paradox, even if they can’t articulate it as such. They don’t need everything explained to them. They just love. And bless. And are blessed.

They, indeed, have the light of Christ. And they know it, deep down, in their souls.

Apart from the reference to Rapunzel and the film, Tangled, most of this reflection is adapted from Chapter 6, “Return to the Sacred” in Richard Rohr’s book, “Everything Belongs”