Why? To melt hearts of stone

In a typical Canadian winter at this time of year, salt and light (Matthew 5:13-20), of course, serve a particular purpose.

It doesn’t matter how cold it can still get in February, if the sun is shining then the snow and ice will melt under the strengthening, radiant beams of warm light. And, with the occasional freezing rain still in the offing, that bag of salt sitting on the porch or in the garage can come in handy, to sprinkle on the walkways and driveways — to melt the ice.

Salt and light, in any given context, serves a specific purpose. I can remember when the kids were younger, one of ours had the habit of picking anything and everything up off the ground and putting it in her mouth.

I can remember needing to intervene when she was in her exploratory mode, walking down the sidewalk in the middle of winter. “Don’t eat it! That is road salt, dear. Not table salt.”

We are called to be like salt and light in the world. But that gift will serve a specific purpose, according to the context and circumstance of our lives.

How can we know what that gift is, and for what purpose it serves? It can be challenging to claim that gift for our lives, and then have the courage to use it. This can be difficult because the world and the dominant powers of culture may not support it. The gift and purpose may seem small in comparison to the dominant climate of coldness, hatred and violence so prevalent in the culture today.

Julian of Norwich in her first of Divine Revelations writes about the small hazelnut. She writes, that God “showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand …. I marvelled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.”

It may seem pallid at first, even pointless. But there is power in small. Ezekiel writes, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you …” (Ezekiel 11:19;36:26-27).

In words that may make better sense in our Canadian winter, God is promising us that God will melt our hearts of stone-cold bitterness, resentment, fear and hatred. And put the warmth of God’s light in Christ and the loving power of the Spirit to change our lives, and the world around us.

Salt and light are gifts that are subtle and small, yes, similar to the smallness of the hazelnut. And yet, these are gifts you cannot easily hide. Nor will they go away. They are public gifts, not private, in scope. They affect the whole experience of living.

You cannot add salt to soup, and not notice a difference. You cannot throw ice-melter on the driveway, and not notice some change on the ground. You cannot stop the sun from shining, and not stop the smile that comes on a sunny day after weeks of dark, grey, cloudy existence.

Faith Lutheran has a renovated gift, the gift of a safe and modernized building — a gift, yes. But why will it be used? How will our (Faith Lutheran’s) soon return to that site on 43 Meadowlands Drive restore something that was missing in the neighbourhood while we were here (at Julian)? Or, does it? What difference does that gift make to the world around us?

Our gift has a purpose. And that purpose is meant to catch the attention of a world that is shrouded in cloudy days and numbed to the slippery vices of distraction, delusion and fear.

Why is this important? How is it worthwhile? In an age when the church in North America is facing challenge and change, perhaps it is time again to focus on the WHY. It has been argued that people don’t buy-in to the WHAT we do but the WHY we do it. (1)

We need to be clear about that. The only way we can know WHAT do do with our faith, the church and our buildings is first to claim, embrace and communicate clearly the WHY of our faith. The WHY.

In the aftermath of the tragic violence in Quebec last weekend, the premier challenged his province, indeed our whole society, to reflect and consider again how we treat one another in a culturally diverse community. How we treat one another through the changes and stresses of life that can be disruptive. How we treat one another who are different and come from different walks of life, religious experience and ethnic diversity.

Observing how we do what we do may also give us a clue to the WHY. I believe the church has a lot to offer this world of ours, as salt and light. St. Paul encourages the fledgling, conflict-ridden Corinthian church to claim their identity they already have, in Jesus: “We have the mind of Christ,” he concludes (1 Corinthians 2:16). And Jesus, in short, came to show the love and grace of God to a world so hung up on achieving, earning, competing, judging, proving themselves, excluding others and fighting.

I believe the church has a lot to offer this world. To reflect Christ, the light of the world: to receive the love of God, to accept the love of God, and then demonstrate that compassion and love to the world. It is behind everything we do in the church. Everything. Let’s not forget that.

To melt hearts of stone.
(1) Simon Sinek, “Start With Why” (New York: Penguin, 2009), p.58

No easy way up those stairs


Perhaps you know someone like Sue.

Sue had Multiple Sclerosis (MS). As the disease progressed in her relatively young life, she nevertheless wanted to stay at home as long as possible. Her house, unfortunately, was not outfitted appropriately for someone in her debilitating condition.

And yet, she battled. For example, it took her twenty minutes to crawl upstairs to her bedroom. Sue called the stairs “Mount Sinai”. Because it was by struggling on those stairs, moving limb for limb through each laboured breath through gritted teeth; it was through determination for each step gained, that she learned so much (1).

The prophet Isaiah does this to us again — gives us an ideal vision of a world where no one suffers any longer, a utopia where everyone is joyful. What is perhaps even more astounding is that this vision of hope and promise is proclaimed in the midst of everything that was not:

These verses speak to Babylonian exiles (2). They are the captives of war, and as such have been wounded maimed, even intentionally blinded as was King Zedekiah (2 Kings 25:7). It is to this failed community now subjugated and marginalized in an oppressive regime far away from Jerusalem that Isaiah paints this picture of a highway leading back home through the desert (Isaiah 35:1-10).

The cynic in us alights, as it must have in many of the exiles in the sixth century B.C.E. For, when do we see the eyes of the blind opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the disabled leaping like a deer, the tongues of the speechless sing for joy? (vs.5-6). Words that Jesus later repeats almost verbatim (Matthew 11:5; Luke 4:18) surprise because he seems to validate the promise of a vision, hundreds of years after Isaiah, that has yet to be fulfilled.

The vision, the promise, operates like a bouncing ball through history. Indeed, our world to this day — two thousand years later — is still rife with human brokenness, both visible and hidden from sight. Many have given up on God precisely because they can’t see how a God of love can be represented in a world of suffering, disease, violence and disability.

What if this promise is given, is meant, for us today? Can we believe it? Yet, perhaps human beings will always struggle with the God who came, and is coming again and again, in Jesus. We have to be careful with Isaiah’s vision, for it can pander to our perfectionism, which denies the reality of a life lived in the graces of God: That what is of God is exclusively the purview of the rich and famous, successful, beautiful and handsome — only for the perfect ones.

Perfectionism pretends that we have to achieve that vision of wholeness and restoration by our own herculean efforts and responsibilities. A denial of the suffering in life leads us to attempt a path around all that is difficult, challenging and transformative.

“A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way, and the unclean shall not pass it by, but it shall be for them.” (Isaiah 35:8)

When John the Baptist shouts that the coming Jesus will make a way through the aridity and desolation of the desert (Matthew 3:3), it bears reason to pause and reflect on the place of John’s prophetic work. Not in the public square in downtown Jerusalem nor on the steps of the Temple.

He stands on the banks of the Jordan River — which separated two worlds. On the one side, the desert which represents the long journey, the pilgrimage, that the people of God made from slavery in Egypt. On the other side of the Jordan lies the Promised Land, the place of arrival, destination, highlighted by the holy city of Jerusalem.

John the Baptist stands preaching words of challenge and hope in the in-between place — the River Jordan. Baptismal in its imagery, this in-between space is the place where something happens. A change occurs in our lives. The space in-between is often a place of disruption as the mental furniture of long-held beliefs, assumptions and values are re-arranged. In this in-between place of discomfort and turbulence we experience, nevertheless, a transformation to be people ‘on the way’ to our destination with God.

We must be willing to go there. And not deny this path through the wilderness. A holy highway does not circumvent the desert places of our lives. What ails us, what disturbs us, what challenges us — these are often valuable clues, yes even invitations, to a deeper engagement with our lives and with God. The disruption is actually God calling us into a transformative experience of life.

Do we accept this? Advent is a time to be honest. Advent is a time of reckoning. Will we stay the same, stuck in our inhibitions and motivated by fear? Or, are we willing to take the risk and go through this in-between place that does not deny our suffering and discomfort, but which actually holds redemptive power?

It is no accident that God chose to be revealed in a broken body. A bloody and pierced body hanging on a Cross. God showed us the way, in Jesus’ death and resurrection. God opened to us the way of salvation.

We know God saves. The names of Isaiah, and Joshua — important in the Hebrew Scriptures — echo the same meaning of Jesus’ name: God saves. No dispute there. But what is the way, the how, of God’s saving? How does God save?

The path through the desert. Before there is a re-ordering of our lives, there must first be a dis-order or sorts. There is no direct-flight from ‘order to re-order’ as much as we might wish there were. In God’s realm, according to the way of Jesus, we must go from ‘order to dis-order before arriving at re-order’ (3).

Julian of Norwich wrote: “First the fall, and then the recovery from the fall. And both are the mercy of God” (4).

We can’t have Easter without Good Friday. Both are held in tandem. Even today in popular Christianity, people avoid worshiping on Good Friday; most experience the ‘hosananas’ of Palm Sunday only to return the following Easter Sunday to sing ‘halleluia’. No wonder we get seduced by culture’s ‘glory’ theology that pretends we can somehow deny suffering in order to validate our faith.

But without somehow acknowledging the Passion and suffering of Holy Week culminating in death on the Cross of Good Friday, we miss the point of Easter. We miss the point of Christianity:

The body of Christ is broken in love for us. God loves us not despite our brokenness as human beings but precisely because we are broken.

Lutherans talk a lot about grace, and unconditional love of God for us ‘while we were yet sinners’ (Romans 5:6-8). This is good talk. But — being a diehard, lifelong Lutheran myself and so I can say this — it is not easy living, behaving and inter-relating according to that unconditional-love-‘way’ with others. It may be a simple concept for the mind to turn over and accept, but it certainly is not easy for our egos to put into practice.

Climbing the steps of “Mount Sinai” as Sue was want to do was a feat of incredible endurance. Whether it took her twenty minutes or two hours is not the point, really. It’s the journey: Learning to love, forgive and accept our lives not because everything is ‘just right’ but precisely because God is there in the ‘not alright’ — is a discipline that may indeed take a lifetime to learn.

Enduring whatever suffering comes your way. Grieving whatever loss or mourning a loved one. Carrying on in the midst of the in-between places of our lives. Being present to all the feelings and thoughts and sensations of life — good and bad. Accepting our own imperfection and disability — and still enjoying moments of grace with one another on the way.

So as we learn on the way, may our journeys be inspired by moments when we do experience the presence of a God who understands and walks with us, when the vision appears no longer a mirage on the horizon of reality. But is truth incarnate. An inexplicable gift of joyous wonder.

When, “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10).

 

(1) Charles Foster, “The Sacred Journey” (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2010), p. xxiii
(2) Bruce C. Birch in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1” (WJK Press, Kentucky, 2010), p.51-55
(3) Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditation”, Tuesday, December 6, 2016 (Center for Action and Contemplation), http://www.cac.org
(4) Julian of Norwich, “Revelations of Divine Love”, 61, ed. Grace Warrack, R.Rohr paraphrase (London: Methuen & Company, 1901), p.153

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”