Checking our Image of God

Do you know “Good Old Uncle George”? (1)

Listen to this description of what happens when a family makes a visit to Uncle George who lives in, and never really leaves, his formidable mansion.

At the end of the brief visit in which the children describe Uncle George as bearded, gruff and threatening, he leans closely, and says in a severe tone of voice, “Now listen, dear. I want to see you here once a week. And if you fail to come, let me just show you what will happen to you.”

He then leads the family down to the mansion’s basement. It is dark, becomes hotter and hotter as they descend, and they begin to hear unearthly screams. In the basement there are steel doors. Uncle George opens one.

“Now look in there, dear,” he says. They see a nightmare vision, an array of blazing furnaces with little demons in attendance, who hurl into the blaze those men, women and children who failed to visit Uncle George or act in a way he approved. “And if you don’t visit me, dear, that is where you will most certainly go,” says Uncle George.

Do you know “Good Old Uncle George?” Sound familiar?

From the bible readings assigned for this season after Epiphany, we are asked to consider again who is this God we are called to follow. Of course, no one image of God is complete. Our perspective is limited, no matter how well we know the bible or how many degrees we may have behind our name. And God is greater and bigger than anything anyone can imagine or say.

Nevertheless, it is fruitful to examine what we think about God. Our image of God influences our own behaviour and what we do “in the name of God”, who is revealed in history, in our experience and in the Scriptures as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Eventually, our actions mirror the God to whom we pray, to whom we relate, whom we imagine. (2)

I would like to highlight briefly three aspects of the character of God, in Jesus, that we can see in the story of Epiphany for today — the baptism of our Lord (Matthew 3:13-17).

First, Jesus moves. He does not sit still for too long. Jesus is baptized ‘on the side of the road’ so to speak. He is baptized nowhere special, not in some officially consecrated, designated holy place — but in the wilderness where John preaches ‘on the edge’ of civilization where crowds have to follow to be there.

In fact, the Jordan River is some 35 kilometres from Jerusalem. For people who walked, this would likely mean at least a two-day journey from the city. So, most of the people who witnessed this divine event and encounter between Jesus and John on the banks of the Jordan River had to travel to get there. Even the high priests and Pharisees, those in power and who held influence in the religious establishment of Jerusalem had to get there.

Who is God? God is more a verb than a noun; God is not static; God is always on the move; we can in this story of Jesus’ baptism appreciate the moving parts of faith. It is important to note to where God goes, and is revealed.

Mobility is a kingdom value. Going some place else away from what is familiar and comfortable is part of exercising a healthy faith. Conversely, staying in one place too long is not healthy for the soul.

Second, in this mobility God relates to us in vulnerability. In worship and praise of God we are accustomed to calling God Almighty. But, at the same time, if we are ‘getting’ Jesus, we ought to be calling God Al-vulnerable.

Jesus relates to us. The divine becomes one of us in moments of vulnerability, especially. The primary symbol of Christianity, the Cross, points to the ultimate, earthly destination of Jesus, and reveals our most vulnerable God. The Cross is a sign that says: God understands us even in death and dying.

What is unique about Matthew’s version of the baptism of our Lord is that it is meant for public witness. Unlike the other Gospel accounts who make this event more of an inward, spiritual experience of Jesus, Matthew portrays the baptism of Jesus as an external event, available to all present.

Also, Jesus submits to baptism not because he needs his sins washed away. Through this act, Jesus was indicating his willingness to yield his life, to surrender his life, in obedience to his Father. Jesus requests baptism by John so that he could completely identify with those he came to save.

Therefore, relationships described by mutual vulnerability is another kingdom value. Being with others in this way, in community, is vital for faith. Prolonged isolation and emotional detachment from others is not healthy for the soul.

Finally, not only is God in motion and in vulnerable relationship with us, God is reaching out to us, immanent and present to our common lives.

Jesus’ father in heaven calls to him, validates and affirms his path. Then, too, Jesus calls his disciples. Jesus does not do it alone. He includes his disciples in his travels, walks in their shoes, involves himself in the common, daily activities, gets his hands dirty — so to speak.

Jesus is the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, he fishes with his disciples, he goes to weddings and drinks wine, he hangs out with all people not just the ‘good ones’.

Jesus does not leave us alone, some distant, transcendent God who does not care about what happens on earth. Jesus will not stop reaching out to us, and will beckon us to follow where he goes. Jesus continues to engage our lives, touching our hearts, our hands and our minds, in the very course of our lives on earth. God will intervene, and pierce our perception, inviting us into a new way of being and doing.

Today, followers of Jesus can consider anew this God who is revealed to us in Jesus. Jesus is the divine-man, who walked everywhere and moved around a lot; Jesus is the God who seeks relationships and models vulnerability and self-surrender; Jesus is the God who will not leave us alone and continues to call out to us to follow in his way.

May God bless the path we journey. Amen.
(1) cited in Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn & Matthew Linn, “Good Goats: Healing our Image of God” (Paulist Press, New York, 1994), p.3
(2) ibid., p. 7ff

There’s no place on earth

People of faith, since the beginning, have been on the move. Even when they settled down for a while, they created ways of practising the journey — of moving from Point A to Point B.

Rome, central to the story and expansion of early Christianity, is full of famous steps. The most famous of these are the 135 Spanish steps which visitors traverse daily en masse.

Millions of Christians have walked the Camino el Santiago which spans almost 800 kms from the foothills of the Pyrenees in France all the way to Galicia on the northwest coast of Spain.

The trails to the castle at Lindisfarne in the United Kingdom attract Christians worldwide every Holy Week to walk nearly 200 kilometres.

People of faith have valued movement as integral to their spiritual growth. Because we are not the same at the end of a journey than we were when we started. This innate desire to be better, to change, to grow and mature — is part and parcel of the life of faith.

The culture of Journeying, so important to the Lenten season we now begin, has its roots in the original pilgrimages to Holy Lands. For centuries, Christians sought a deeper connection with Jesus who walked and lived and died in and around Jerusalem and the Judean wilderness. 

When the Crusades prevented pilgrims from traveling to the Holy Lands, Christians ‘back home’ developed prayer walks in Labyrinths — the most famous and oldest in the Chartres Cathedral in France — which symbolized the long journey to meet Jesus.

Indeed, settlers to this country moved here, many of them to exercise and practice their faith in freedom. Mobility, migration, pilgrimage — this is our story, as people of faith.

How we journey is the question. The journey is not only physical, it also describes our understanding of the way things work.

Over the last month, the Ottawa Senators (NHL hockey team) were looking to score more goals. They had lost more games than won. Their star players were not producing. 

One of their younger players, Curtis Lazar, decided to give $50 to a homeless person after dining out one evening. The next night, he scored two goals in a routing of the Toronto Maple Leafs — the Senators won that game 6-1. The following game, the Senators won again, 5-1, against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In an interview afterwards, Lazar confessed that perhaps there was “karma” working here. Meaning, because he had done a good deed, there was a ‘return’ on his righteous investment and he was rewarded with those goals and wins.

I like Lazar and I appreciate his hockey skills and character. At the same time, he reflects a dominant way of thinking. It is really what some have a called a mechanical type of spirituality, with inputs (from us) and outputs (from God). The sequence goes something like:

1. We sin

2. We are punished

3. We confess our sins

4. We change our lives, and do something good

5. Then, we receive forgiveness and grace

Such is the description of a journey towards goodness that hinges entirely on us, and our doing, our initiative. This spiritual journey then cycles back to the beginning and round and round it goes. Essentially, we force God’s hand. Karma is not a belief alien even to Christians, it seems!

The problem with karma is that because it ultimately relies on our good works, we will never achieve the goal. After winning two lop-sided games, the Senators have now lost three in a row. Where does that leave Lazar? Does he have to give $100 next time to poor people he meets?

In recalling the great acts of God in bringing the Israelites to the Promised Land, Moses confesses it is God’s mighty arm that started the ball rolling towards freedom; verses 8-9 of Deuteronomy 26:

8The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Like the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years, Jesus walks with us in a completely opposite direction from karma. His is not the spirituality of addition, but of subtraction. He goes into the desert.

Try to imagine Jesus’ first moments, entering into the wilderness he would occupy for forty days: The sound of any footsteps is absorbed by sand and rock, lost in the wind or in silence. It is in this barren place that Jesus chooses to retreat, far from what he knows.

Christ chose to retrace the path of his ancestors — in the desert: Abraham. Moses. Ruth. Some of them were responding to God’s call. Some were fleeing persecution. Some were simply looking for a place to call home.

There may very well be value, to our growth as Christians, in embarking on spiritual journeys and earth-bound pilgrimages with some expectations at the destination in mind.

At the same time, we can be assured that Jesus not only waits for us at the ‘end of the line’. Jesus is right there with us, each step of the way. His journey into the desert of testing and suffering shows that there is no place of suffering, pain and loss on earth, to which Jesus is unaccustomed. No place of want that Jesus doesn’t know, intimately. This is more the point.

I like one of the sayings, attributed to Albert Camus, on a Valentine’s Day card I saw: It’s a message of love from one to another: “Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow; don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Just walk beside me, and be my friend.”

The message of Christianity is that God is not out there, or back there. God is ‘in our skin’, with us. And goes where we go in our journeys of faith and life, through the good and the bad. Jesus is not only the God of our eternal salvation, Jesus is our friend for life, and no matter what.

Jesus resides in the deepest places of our heart and activates our truest most authentic selves no matter where we are at.

Long before Jesus came, the Psalmist knew this gracious truth in his heart: There is no place on earth where God’s presence of grace, love and mercy cannot reach. In Psalm 139 —

7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? 
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 
9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. 

Contrary to karma, this journey of faith begins with God’s grace and forgiveness, as it always does. It is in the desert of our lives where we experience this grace because life happens regardless of how hard we try. And because we are already forgiven, already blessed, we can live confident, transformed lives, even in the desert of our lives. As we live out of our freedom in Christ, we can then confess, “Jesus is Lord!”

As God is with us in our deepest darkness and light, we look to those on the move today. Refugees. Migrants. More than the places of the journey, it is the people we must engage. 

While the desert wilderness was a time of solitary retreat for Jesus, migrants and refugees live in communities: their solace is in the comfort of companionship and common history and identity with those whom they live alongside. In the Lenten days to come, in our own solitary places, let us pray for those for whom solitude is a luxury. And welcome them into our hearts and minds. (1)

(1) Lutherans Connect, “Welcoming the Stranger” blogpost Lenten devotions, Day 1 (lc2016lentdevotional.blogspot.ca)

An Advent-Christmas funeral sermon

In some churches, the manger scenes during the Advent season are left intentionally incomplete: For example, as in our creche, the manger is empty; during the four weeks leading up to Christmas, the figurine of baby Jesus is not there. Until December 25th.

In one congregation that worships in a large, cathedral-type building, the magi start their journey at the beginning of Advent somewhere in the narthex (the entrance). Each successive Sunday in Advent, the magi move closer to the manger scene which is set up at the front near the altar.

And, each Sunday, the children of the congregation are charged with a treasure-hunt search for where the figurines of the magi have been placed that week — whether on a decorated window sill, or beside a poinsettia plant, or on the steps to the chancel, etc.

Not only do these traditions emphasize the important Advent themes of waiting and watching with expectation for the coming Christmas joy, we are reminded at this time of year that we are, all of us, indeed, on a journey towards the manger, towards a new encounter with Jesus.

I believe Grant’s love of hiking revealed his ability to see the Big Picture. You see, when you go on a hike, following a trail that spans hundreds of kilometres as Grant has done on occasion, you are not just meandering aimlessly. Oh, yes, the trail can take many twists, turns, ups and downs.

But part of the joy of long-distance hiking is understanding in your imagination where you are headed, where you began, and the relationship between the two. No matter where you are along that journey, you can see the Big Picture.

One of my favourite visual effects of modern cinema does this well: From the perspective of the TV/movie camera, a scene of someone or something that happens on the ground in one moment of time is suddenly zoomed out; we move backwards up into the sky — still focused on the ground, but quickly disappears through the clouds and then into outer space. And we can see the planet earth and the solar system. And we can understand how that particular event or person on earth relates to the cosmos!

To have this Big Picture vision is to see our present reality, on the ground, from the perspective of not only history (where you’ve been) but also from the perspective of the future (where you’re going). Grant was a Big Picture kind of guy. He enjoyed the long-distance hike.

The ancient caravan routes through the Holy Land, Judean desert I think informed the prophetic writings, many of which we read in the Bible. These caravan routes were the life-line of the economy, and framed the boundaries of social order.

When you followed a caravan route you were walking a path trodden by generations of people who came before you, and a path that was followed by many once you were gone. This is the experience of people who journey, in every time and place.

I like our Bishop’s repeated advice to pastors whenever we gather for clergy and leadership retreats: “Remember, we are one and all merely ‘interim’ pastors”. Even pastors who are tenured and may remain years, even decades, in one parish are still, only, ‘interim’. They are interim because there were pastors who preceded them in the congregations’s history, and hopefully there will be more pastors coming once they are gone.

The point is not a focus on the pastor so much as seeing that pastor in the context of the larger history and journey of a congregation. It’s to regard an individual from the perspective of the Big Picture.

I can see why Richard Rohr uses the term, Big Picture, to understand the Kingdom of God. Because even though we are in constant transition on the caravan route, both the memory of the past and the promise of the future impinge on the present moment. In the Big Picture, the twin pulls of historical and future vision reveal a “vibrant now” in which God’s kingdom is complete and dwelling among us (Gail Ricciuti, “Feasting on the Word; Advent Companion”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.94).

Being in the present moment, while informed by the past and motivated by the future promise, requires that you keep both feet on the ground. Hiking is an activity that requires the hiker not merely to keep moving, but to keep focused on the ground, one step at a time. It’s a cliche, but it’s a good one: a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

As such, the journey of faith is grounded in the moment. It is earthy, real. Your boots, feet and legs get dirty, scratched, bitten, sunburned. The Big Picture ultimately, for it to be effective, is anchored in the present, gritty, sometimes ugly circumstance of life.

Even when we experience death, loss, suffering and pain; this is part of the route when we have to go through the wilderness, the desert, and navigate the ‘dark night of the soul’ (St John of the Cross).

When I hiked part of the Bruce Trail near Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula years ago, I remember first following the trail from the parking lot to a cliff- edge standing over a hundred feet above the crashing surf of Georgian Bay. It was a beautiful vista overlooking the bay, the sky, the water birds. The memory is vibrant: breathing in the marine smells, feeling the warm, morning sun. I relished the moment, standing still, taking it all in.

I didn’t want to turn my back on it, and continue on the hike. I wanted the moment to last forever. I felt that should I continue on the trail, I would never experience such a blissful moment again. It wasn’t easy to rip myself away. However, in the course of the day, there were many more such views I enjoyed along the trail.

The poet T.S. Elliott wrote: “The end is where we start from … or say that the end precedes the beginning” (ibid.). Grant met his ‘end’, we say, in dying. But that ending was just the start of something new. Our faith in God, the promise of salvation, Jesus’ resurrection, and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit — we are, each and everyone of us, including Grant — well equipped for the journey of life and death.

Because even though we might need to keep putting one foot forward and turn our back on the old, there is in each turn only something new waiting for us — a new perspective, something beautiful, something beyond our wildest dreams.

When we finish our walk on earth, the journey to Jesus merely takes on a whole new dimension. This Christmas, like the Magi who finally arrive at their destination to encounter the Christ child, Grant arrives home — his home with the Creator God and his Saviour Jesus. Now, he can experience life and union with God in a whole new, and deeper way.

One thing remains. The caravan is a journey undertaken with others, together. No one would even consider travelling the caravan routes through the desert alone. Jesus travelled with Grant throughout his life on earth, just as Jesus embraces Grant this day, with all the hosts of heaven.

Psalm 139:7-10
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.

A Prayer for Christians in Syria

Let us pray,

Though we may be separated by thousands of kilometers and decades of memory, on this day and at this time we lift our hearts in your presence, O God, in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in faith in the Holy Lands. Especially we pray for the Christians of Syria.

In their pain, in their fear, in their anger and anxiety – you show them the wound in your side and marks of torture in your hands. Come close to all who suffer in any way, so that we may come close to you, who knows our every thought, fear, pain and anger.

May we share in the new life you have made possible for us. By the power of your Spirit, may we do what we can across the oceans and the ages to bear witness to the hope, faith, peace and love you would have for all people, in Christ Jesus our living God.
Amen