Making a way where there is no way

Year after year I ponder how “Remembrance Day” carries with it so much staying power — especially for older generations of people. While on the surface our observances acknowledge the sacrifice made by many young service men and women in the wars of the last century, a deeper vein is struck.

It is important ‘to remember’, because so many lives were lost in war. Death separates loved ones. Death means, for many, that relationships are severed and hopes are dashed. Similar to attending funerals of loved ones, Remembrance Day observances expose one of our deepest, human fears — being abandoned by our loved ones. Being abandoned by our loved ones is a horror too deep to even want to go there.

In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian church, he addressed a pastoral need. The early Christians living in those immediate decades after Jesus ascended to heaven believed that Christ was coming back in their lifetime. They believed his second coming was immanent. They looked forward to it.

The problem was, when their friends and family members began to die, they wondered if their loved ones would share in the glory of the resurrected Jesus at his second coming. Paul assures the church that not only are the dead included in resurrection at the end time, but that they will be “first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16) to join Christ at his return.

This passage forms a reading for one of the last Sundays before Advent. The season of Advent is about the ‘coming of Jesus’. We normally attribute this season to anticipating the coming of baby Jesus to Bethlehem — the incarnation of God — and we recall this history with much joyous tradition and emphasis.

But the ‘coming of Jesus’ theme is more than just the Christmas story. The Advent of Christ is attributed as well to the “Second Coming” when Jesus will come in at the ‘eschaton’ — the end time. We read in the Nicene Creed: “And he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”

Finally, the ‘coming of Jesus’ is meant to pique our attention to the ways in which the Holy Spirit comes to us daily, in the ordinary people and happenings of life, as well as in Word and Sacrament; in other words, the coming of Jesus is not only an event of history nor of future expectation, but something that happens now — all the time, in every moment. Especially at times of grief and loss when we fear abandonment, the assurance of a coming divine presence — or anyone’s presence for that matter — can bring comfort and hope into the moment.

How, then, do we experience a re-connection with those we love, especially because for whatever reason, we have been divided from them? There are many reasons why loved ones may be separated from each other, besides death: the friction of personality, vast geographical distance, emotional wounds, hurtful memories of a ‘water-under-the-bridge’ variety. Many reasons exist for why that division remains. And even though we may desire a better relationship with a loved one, we time and time again come up against those blocks. So, how do we even begin to make things better — amidst the grief, when facing hard times, when you can really use a friend to lean on?

An answer from the tradition of our Christian faith is, I’m afraid, not an easy one. First, in the words of Jesus from the Gospel for today: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13), there is this element of not being in total control of the outcome. And this is disruptive, especially for those of us who feel they need to be in some semblance of control over not only our relationships, but our lives in general. We can try. But the trying ought not be motivated by the result we envision.

Moreover, there are these dramatic and vivid images in Paul’s description of Jesus’ coming (1 Thessalonians 4: 16-17) that are, frankly, unbelievable and unrealistic: being drawn into the sky, trumpets sounding, the archangel calling, clouds whipping across the panorama — seems more like some filmmaker’s fantasy than anything that is real. The coming of Jesus into our lives is thus underscored with disruption, incredibleness and an unravelling of what we believe is possible.

Then again, this is a prevalent theme in the Scriptures. Two things: First, in our hope to re-establish relationships marred by whatever divides those relationships, can we be open to going to where it feels uncomfortable, unravelling of us, vulnerable — and being lovingly honest about it? If Jesus will bring his healing power to the relationship, the “refiner’s fire” (Malachi 3:2-3) will sting and singe, momentarily. The new thing that Jesus comes to establish in your life, in our lives, does bring judgement of sorts to what has been. We really cannot move forward unless we can lovingly and honourably discharge the past, and confess our own failing.

And it’s not just about healing the other’s issues — like pointing the finger at what you perceive to be ‘their’ problem. More importantly it is addressing your own issues that have contributed to the problem. And this is never easy. To even bother going there. Some would say impossible: to go inside yourself and let go of past hurts, to forgive others, to live in grace not anger and resentment. Impossible, you say?

But, and this is the second point from the testimony of scripture: God does come to make a way where there didn’t seem to be a way through: After all, God turns a rock into a pool of water (Psalm 114:8) and makes a path through the wilderness where none exists (Isaiah 43:19). Christ comes to disrupt the current, messy, state of affairs, yes.

But, to work a total transformation of our lives for the better. This turbulent coming creates a way to reconciliation, resurrection, a new life. As one theologian wrote: The kingdom of God “breaks into, disturbs, disorders, and troubles the waters of our fallen reality” (Jennifer McBride, “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p.282).

God comes, in Christ, to make a way where there is no way. In the fallen reality of death, abandonment, and separation — God comes to reunite and reconcile in acts of forgiveness, generosity and mercy.

In the fallen reality of dying church institutions and perceived dwindling of resources — God comes, in Christ to stir things up and create new ways of being the church in today’s world.

In the fallen reality of clashing religions and cultures where extremism threatens to escalate violent acts — God comes, in Christ to disarm and disable ideologies of hatred and make swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4).

And so we can have hope in the new thing that God promises. This hope is not in what is possible, but precisely in what seems impossible to us. What we can never on our own merit or strength, God will. Get ready! God is on the move!

Not a prize to win but a gift to celebrate

When the lost sheep is found, and the lost coin is recovered, there is much rejoicing in heaven (Luke 15:1-10). God celebrates. God is pleased. God is honoured. And all are invited to the party.

The shepherd’s friends and neighbours are invited to the celebration. The woman calls her friends over to rejoice together. For what has been found is so precious to the one who finds.

A couple of months after I was married, my wife and I raced to the beach in Goderich Ontario at the end of the workday. Because the bluffs overlooking Lake Huron there are high, you can watch the sunset twice. First at the beach level; then, as soon as the sun sets you run up the stairs some fifty feet to the top of the bluff, turn around and see the sun go down again.

That evening, we arrived too late to watch it twice. The sun was setting from atop the bluff when we got there. But we didn’t drive all the way there not take a short walk along the beach. So, after the sun set, we descended the steps and walked onto the sand as the day’s light quickly dissipated.

Because it was getting dark, we decided not to walk far, but just to sit down on the sand and watch the amazing array of yellows, blues, reds, and orange in the sky. Not only was it getting dark, but the late summer temperatures quickly plummeted. And it was getting cold.

And when our hands get cold, the blood vessels restrict and our fingers narrow somewhat. After about 10 minutes of sky-gazing, we went to get up to go, and with shock and horror I realized my wedding band was no longer on my finger. It had slipped off.

At first we froze in indecision. What do we do? Give up? Accept the loss? After all, to find a ring in a 25 square foot area buried in soft sand full of pebbles and wood chips in the waning light of day seemed impossible. Despair began to creep into my heart.

We said to each other that rather than just give up, we should at least try. So with a stick we drew a square in the sand, and on our hands and knees raked with our fingers every square inch of that boxed area.

It was nearing pitch black as we approached the last corner of our ‘fenced’ area. Suddenly the tips of my fingers felt something cold and metallic. I scooped up my ring and we darted up those steps feeling giddy and light on our feet. The joy, the relief! All was not lost!

In Luke 15, Jesus responds to the Pharisees with stories whose climax is a party, a rejoicing, a celebration. The upshot of the these parables is an invitation to all people, including the sinners and the tax collectors to join together in the celebration of God’s kingdom.

But what about the Pharisees? Are they included, too? I wonder about the 99 sheep left behind.

I wonder what the 99 sheep must have felt, when the shepherd leaves them alone to go after the one who has broken all the rules? What is the shepherd thinking? A crazy risk, wouldn’t you say? 99% of the shepherd’s assets are left unprotected, vulnerable. And, for what? One, lost, misguided, rebellious lamb?

I see a similar dynamic here to the elder son in the story of the Prodigal Son which immediately follows these ones in Luke 15. The elder son who has faithfully remained and worked on his father’s land resents his brother who is shown so much love and attention. And, for what? For running away, squandering his father’s inheritance, shaming the family only to return to the biggest party ever thrown? For him? How fair is that?

We see here that God’s economy is not based on merit, but on mercy. God’s economy is upside down. While our culture is built on merit, God’s kingdom is built on grace. For, God is merciful, gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 103:8).

What Jesus is saying to the Pharisees is that the sheepfold – the family of God – exists primarily for those who are not yet members of it – especially those we would consider ‘lost’.

Here we see some values that emerge from a focus on God’s character, values that we would do well to consider in the church.

Let’s say we are the sheepfold, the flock whose Savior is Jesus, the great Shepherd. Where do you think Jesus will be found? Based on this scripture, I’m thinking the attention of our Lord is focused, relentlessly, on those who are not yet here.

By implication then, whatever we decide to do in the church, we would do well to ask this question: Whose purposes does a certain action serve? Ourselves? Whom are we serving, in all our work in the church? Do we make decisions on programs and worship practices that serve our needs? Or, do we see things from the perspective of those who are not here every Sunday? — who are on the fringes of the community, who are somehow distant? What would benefit them?

Because that’s where Jesus is. He’s out there. Looking. Searching. And we know the end of the story: He invites everyone to the table for a celebration. Even the religious types.

When Jesus leaves the 99 in order to search out the one, when you think about it, the shepherd must be putting a whole lot of trust and faith in those 99. He wouldn’t leave them for a while without believing in his flock, believing they had the ability and the resources to do what they had to do during his absence.

God has faith in us all. God believes in each one of us. And God will have faith in anyone who returns home to live in loving relationship with Jesus – whether the sinners, the tax collectors, the Pharisees …. [complete the list]

Because it is a gathering for everyone to celebrate not a prize won, but a gift given by an all-inclusive God whose sights are set beyond the pen, beyond the borders of safety, beyond the walls of any church.

Toward Discovering the True Self

The true self, as Thomas Merton described, is like a deer. It doesn’t really want to be seen, noticed. It is somewhat elusive. We cannot easily identify and claim it as we would a car, computer or fashion. In other words, it cannot be objectified.

The message of the Gospel of Jesus, according to Luke, is that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. When Jesus begins his ministry in the synagogue proclaiming the good news, he confesses his purpose: “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).

So, where is this kingdom?

English translations will render the original Greek concerning where the kingdom of God resides, in 17:21, “among you” or “within you”. Jesus says about the kingdom — you cannot say to it, “It is over there, or over here.” The kingdom of heaven, our true identity — who we are — is only discovered deep within us.

When I catch myself concentrating on something, am I really concentrating? When I say I am humble, am I exercising humility? Saint Benedict said that when a monk knows he is praying, he isn’t really praying.

Self-consiousness is the bain of the contemplative life. Self-consciousness is a sure sign that we are not being our true selves in whatever we are and do: when we worry how we appear before others; when we try to please others; when we speak and are thinking not feeling into the moment; when we show off who we think we are to others – we are likely further away from our true selves, our place in the kingdom of God.

Personal liberation cannot even be the goal of the true self. Being free cannot stand as the ultimate end-game in our devotion and spiritual practice. If you engage in Christian Meditation, for example, because you want to experience personal freedom in who you are, be careful. Because Christian Meditation is not a self-help program whose ultimate goal is the self, self-fulfilment, self-realization, self-glorification.

The goal of Christian Meditation is counter-intuitive and paradoxical: Poverty. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus opens his sermon on the beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel (5:3), echoing Luke’s version in 6:20. And here’s the trick: If poverty is the goal, then the liberation of our true selves is often a consequential benefit. We need to work towards poverty of self; then the paradox: We will discover our true selves when we lose our self-conceived, self-created identity.

Imagine the shape and form of a typical hour glass. What is important here is not the function of the time piece; that is, merely keeping time as the grains of sand funnel through the narrow centre and spill out into the bottom of the glass in chronological time. What is important to hold as a guiding image of the hour glass are both the direction and the form in describing the process of Christian Meditation.

The direction is downward, signifying the call to go deeper into prayer, deeper – initially – into the self (in the top half of the glass) toward the centre (the focal, still point) and finally farther downward into the broad space beyond the centre. The form leads us – beginning with gathering all that we are: our personal, unique, individual expressions of character and activity, passions and occupations, needs and strengths, our ego compulsions, our fear, our anxiety, our shame and guilt, our anger; in other words, what is visible and easily apparent in our identities, on the surface, so to speak.

Then, into the focal, impoverished centre point: in silence and stillness into the singular prayer of Jesus — the silent and still hub at the centre of the prayer wheel. It is here where we discover the starting and end point of all that we are in the poverty of prayer, in our own personal poverty, in stripping away all our ego compulsions and repeating, concentratively a simple word, mantra, or prayer phrase. The important spiritual practice here can be summarized in the art of “letting go”, releasing, simplifying, surrendering all that we have and are. Each time we meditate we experience this process.

The journey is toward the centre, which is not completely the self, because it leads beyond the self to engage the world in a renewed way. The aim of all prayer is the poverty of the self at the centre, where all we find is the human conciousness of Jesus praying to Abba. This is our soul, the quiet, still centre of our being, that leads us into communion with God, into our true self.

At the National Conference of the Canadian Christian Meditation Community, held in Ottawa in June 2011, Rev. Glenda Meakin was asked a question dealing with our soul. I am told she responded by saying (I am paraphrasing): “The soul is that part of me that nothing can touch. It is so of God it cannot be taken away from me. My centre. My true self is coming in touch with the way God created us. When we meditate we learn who we really are.”

Here, we participate in the kingdom of God — our true selves — and then engage the world to “…proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also.”