The great un-doing

This past week I heard from someone how they overcame their addiction to smoking. A middle-aged man, he said he had been a smoker for many years until he started feeling the ill-effects of the habit. He had tried many gimmicks and treatments to quit, to no avail.

It wasn’t until he let go of his need to control the outcome of his efforts, that he succeeded. In other words, when he was able to tell himself: “I can’t do this on my own,” he finally found the capacity within himself to quit. He was able to stop smoking only when he accepted his own limitations, when he released the false notion that he was the master of his own destiny. Even to do something healthy, good.

He didn’t need to accomplish this on his own. What he wanted (to quit smoking), he needed to let go of. What he sought, he needed to release control over.

Whatever you want, you first need to let go of. Counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Usually when you want something, you go for it. And you don’t let up until you have it, eh?

So, what’s going on here?

What did the rich young man in the Gospel story want (Mark 10:17-31)? He wanted to prove that he was a righteous, good man. He wanted to show Jesus and others that he had fulfilled all the rules of his religion and therefore he was worth his religious beans. And who could compare?

The rich man approached Jesus thinking he had it in the bag. His question—”What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)—sounds disingenuous, inauthentic. In a manipulative, self-congratulatory way, he thus approached Jesus, even kneeling before him.

He had self-righteously fooled himself into believing he already knew the answer. The gospel writer doesn’t even assign the rich man a name, underscoring the fake, artificial nature of the man’s attitude.

But Jesus cuts through the crap, skims the fat off the top, and goes to the jugular! Indeed, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). Jesus sees through the rich man’s pretense, and uncovers the real, authentic person beneath the surface. There he finds an enslaved heart, and brings to light the truth:

In order for the man to be liberated and set free, he has to surrender what owns him, what captivates and grips his soul: For him — it’s material possessions. For someone else, it might be different. But he has to learn, if he wants to grow, to let go and not hold on to those things that keep him stuck in false beliefs about himself, God, and the world around him.

What he wasn’t expecting, was an answer from Jesus that undid him. The one thing that he wanted to get—an unscrupulous, beyond reproach reputation as a religious superman—he would now have to let go of. He would have to let go of everything that made him, that put him in a position of power and wealth in his community and that gave him the grounds to boast.

He would now have to sell his reputation, literally, and become poor. And what do the poor have to show for their religious prowess? Wasn’t (and isn’t) being impoverished a sign of God’s dis-favour?[1]

All the texts assigned for today reflect the nature of relationship with God. Relationship with God is at the root of our spirituality, our church lives, our purpose in life and the meaning of our lives. Relationship. Relationship. Relationship.

And what the lectionary offerings are inviting us to consider today, is the nature of our relationship with God. They ask us to be honest, first, about who this God is we are supposed to relate to.

Let’s say, we want God. Well, detach from what we want. That is the key. Let go of our false conceptions about God. For example, an underlying assumption we will make about God is a transactional, mechanized God. Such assumptions were criticized by reformers like Martin Luther in the 16thcentury but also those before him like Meister Eckhart in the 14thcentury. This image they condemned, was God the “reward machine”.[2]It goes something like this:

God is the great rewarder-in-the-sky. And, if you put enough quarters in the slot, God will send down the candy-bar. In Martin Luther’s world, the criticism focused on the sale of indulgences—the more money you paid to the church, the more spiritual benefits you accrued.

These false beliefs about God then generated attitudes and actions that placed the onus all on us and our capacities and resources as individuals. That it was up to us to garner favour with God and so we would earn, and deserve, our salvation and even prosperity on earth.

I believe this is what is behind the rich, young man’s presumption and approach to Jesus. Certainly, he of all people deserves God’s favour.

And Jesus’ response is, essentially: If that’s what you want, you need to let go of it. And, it’s going to hurt before it gets better again.

Whether it’s a bad habit or false understanding of God or anything else that puts you in the driver’s seat of your life, God is looking you in the eye and challenges you to let go of that pretense. Whatever it is you want, first let go of it, and feel the pain of it. Detach yourself from your attachments if you truly want to be healed. It ain’t easy.

And the image is apt: Putting a camel through the eye of a needle is meant to communicate impossibility. And we say that in our own way every day. “Bah, I can’t change; people can’t change.” “We don’t change.” “People stay the same.” And so, we continue to get mired in unhealthy and self-destructive life-journeys. Transformation is inconceivable, we believe.

Maybe, before anything, our image of God needs transformation. If God is not a reward machine high in the sky, who and what is God all about?

It’s hard to believe with all the rain we’ve had in the past month that earlier this summer the lawns were brown, and the ground was bone dry. We’ve seen a lot of rain, lately. I’ve noticed local creeks are flowing again, and the grass on our yard is thicker and a dark, rich green.

I was reminded this week when I read that waterdrops in the atmosphere are created when water vapour condenses. That part I knew. But what popped out at me was the following sentence: water vapour condenses on tiny particles of dust. At the very centre of every raindrop is a particle.[3]

Our relationship with God is not between entities, to begin with. We don’t relate to being, a God among various God-beings out there in a religious marketplace.

We relate to God as the ground of our very being. Our connection to God already exists. Before we do, say, or think anything. Whether we know it or not. God is already connected to us, in our innermost being.

Saint Paul writes: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16); and, “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love (Eph 3:16-17).

We don’t add God to our lives, like filling a shopping cart in the grocery store. We don’t need to relate to a transactional God-the-rewarder-in-the-sky with our consumer mindset. The Reformation should have put that mechanistic view of our relationship with the Lord to rest. We still need the Reformation!

We don’t add God to our lives. We add our lives to God. Who is already there, at the very centre of our lives.

Imagine rain, falling. The raindrops have a way to go before reaching the ground. It may feel like a free-fall. Unnerving, dis-orienting, it is to let go of our deepest attachments. We experience like Jesus did a painful, momentary ‘forsaken-ness’ (Psalm 22:1). I wonder if the rich, young man had the courage to sell all he had to give it to the poor.

I would love to meet him, especially if had gone through with it. I have many questions to ask him. I suspect, however, that if he did it, if he did what Jesus called him to do — that in the letting go he opened his heart, confronted his greatest fear and experienced a free fall … right into the love of God at the very centre of his life. What a joyous surprise, to find the presence that will always be there, and has always been there!

It may seem impossible to do—this letting go—but in Christ all things are possible. And we discover in the journey: there really isn’t anything to lose that is of any enduring, lasting value.

[1]Today’s so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ implies that when you have it right with God, you will be blessed with material riches; the converse is true, too: according to the prosperity gospel, when you sin, God will withdraw blessing and you will be impoverished.

[2]Bernard McGinn, Praying with the Masters Today, Volume 2 (Meditatio Talks Series CD B, Track 5), 2018.

[3]Richard Rohr, “The God Particle” Daily Meditation 10 Oct 2018 (cac.org /Center for Action and Contemplation)

Resonance in marriage: a wedding day sermon

The afternoon we first arrived at the Bed and Breakfast on the shores of western Newfoundland, I headed straight for the beach. I didn’t know it was high tide when I saw several meters off shore a couple of large rocks breaking the swells like solitary giants guarding the beachfront.

Our nine-year-old daughter wanted to wade out to those rocks. But I hesitated. I was worried about what danger lurked at the base of those rocks never-mind the strong riptides that usually surge around these things. I just couldn’t see what lay underneath the swells.

Early the next morning as I looked out over the waters of the Gulf of St Lawrence I was taken aback by the ocean floor that was exposed by the low tide.

Those two rocks were now joined at their base by a flat, sandy smooth, debris-free floor. Without the swirling, roiling waters and white caps breaking all around the rocks, I was able to see that these otherwise solitary giants were profoundly and essentially connected at their root, standing united on the same, pristine ground.

Separate and distinct on the surface, yet fundamentally joined and united. Both — being separate AND being connected — are important, when it comes to healthy relationships, especially in marriage.

One thing that has connected you to one another is music. And so a music metaphor may prove useful to placing your marriage in a healthy context. For example, in my appreciation of music I enjoy listening to how dissonant sounds resolve into resonant sounds.

Dissonance happens — at least on the keyboard — when two notes directly beside each other are played at the same time; at first, it doesn’t sound right. The sound those two notes make when played together is not pleasing; it sounds ‘off’. And if a whole musical piece was played like that, I’m not sure I’d be satisfied at all.

Resonance, on the other hand, happens when there is at least a one-note space in between the two notes being played at the same time. Resonance is harmonic and therefore pleasing to the ear.

Two notes, when sounded at the same time, produce something that is greater than the sum of their separate parts. It is a beauty that is greater than us, individually.

If the musical piece, however, was only made up of resonant harmonies, the music would sound cheap, flaky, unreal and superficial. It’s always more pleasing to have those minor, dissonant chords eventually resolve, unfold and fall into the resonant harmonies.

But I can’t fully enjoy the resolutions unless there was the dissonance to begin with. You need both: The sounds that upset the equilibrium, even challenge the sweet desires of the ear, as well as those pleasant harmonies.

If the climax of a piece of music seeks resonance out of dissonance, for me, then, it is not so much who is playing the piece but how the music is played. This we can apply to relationships of love.

Recently a good friend of mine suggested that, in the end, is not so much who we love, but how we love that other person. Do we love the other with grace and forgiveness? Or, do we expect our partner to change, to be more like us, to reflect our opinions and orientations to life?

You see, when we have the courage to love without expectations of the other, when we love with the grace of God that is given to us all, we acknowledge the other as a distinct, separate being. Like those two rocks which on the surface stood apart from one another amidst the swirling waters of the ocean.

In this self-giving love, we allow the other person to be fully who they are. By acknowledging this separateness there will be experiences of dissonance, of conflict and competing desires, to be sure. This is normal, even healthy.

Famous poet, Kahlil Gibran, in his writings about marriage and love entitled, “The Prophet”, sounds this note over and over again — that in honouring our separateness and the ‘space in between us’, we discover what true love is all about.

How we love makes all the difference. Because you know, despite the differences that mark your unique individualities, what is underneath the surface. You know that both of you, though very different in your personalities, stand on a common ground. You are both linked by the ground upon which you stand.

I’ve already hinted at what connects you both — indeed, us all. This ground upon which you stand united is the very grace and love of God that created each of you in the first place. Despite those necessary differences, the other stands with you on the same side of the fence — a fence that doesn’t really exist. By appealing to the ground of your being, especially in times of dissonance, you will, by the grace of God, experience harmony, true joy and resonance.

And, in the end, perhaps give you the courage to seek even a deeper connection with the other, a path you may likely not have undertaken had you not recognized what keeps you united.

When the tide came in and the pounding surf splashed around those two rocks once again, my daughter and I playfully waded out to those rocks and created some precious memories of being together. I was able to relax and take a risk because I knew what was underneath the surface; I knew the ground upon which we stood.

May your marriage make good music! Including some dissonance, but finding those resonant harmonies as well.

I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love — Ephesians 3:16-17