The angel

I know an angel.

She’s the deli counter server who smiles when taking my order.

He’s the fourteen-year-old who dreams of winning $10 million to give to Parkinson’s research because his grandpa suffers from the disease.

They’re in the bus shelter laughing and giving hi-fives and kisses to friends who do not share the same skin colour, age, language and physical ability.

She’s the one who comes in the nursing home room to encourage with a soft and happy voice.

She challenges world leaders to pay attention to and do something about the climate crisis.

I know an angel.

Today, and every year on September 29, the church recognizes the annual festival, “Michael and all Angels”. In the bible, we acknowledge the popular ones: Gabriel, who brought news to Mary of God’s intention to give her Jesus. And, Michael the great protector whom we read about in Daniel and Revelation.

Herein lies one of those very grey areas for Lutherans who have, in our recent history, become increasingly nervous about the angels. Why is that?

In the Confirmation class which started this past week, we closed our time together by praying Martin Luther’s evening blessing: “I give thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have graciously protected me today. I ask you to forgive me all my sins, where I have done wrong, and graciously to protect me tonight. Into your hands I commend myself: my body, my soul, and all that is mine. Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me. Amen.”[1][emphasis mine]

By the way he prayed, we can tell Martin Luther believed in angels. On the other hand, Luther didn’t care too much for those parts of the bible that suggested allegory—those so-called apocalyptic descriptions that described futuristic, other-worldly, colourful, image-rich portrayals of angels, arch-angels, cherubim and seraphim, of sword-wielding horseman, dragons and giant wheels in the sky. Luther consequently relegated these scriptures to a lower priority for the biblically literate.

“Angels cannot be our intermediaries between us and God,” we reformers insist. “There is only one mediator and that is Christ,” we claim. Christ alone, we’ve made things simple. Concrete. More about this in a minute …

And yet, at the same time, we cannot deny the reality and the truth, that just beyond the thin curtain of our awareness and perception there lies a dimension of reality in which we, too, participate—for good and for evil. Our highly trained, rational minds—thanks to the Reformation and Enlightenment eras of the last few centuries—have made us suspicious and skeptical of making such risky forays into those ambiguous, beyond-rational notions. We just don’t know what to do with that part. We just don’t know …

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells a beautiful story about an experience he had following his mother’s death: “The day my mother died I wrote in my journal, ‘A serious misfortune in my life has arrived.’ I suffered for more than one year after the passing away of my mother.

‘But one night in the highlands of Vietnam, I was sleeping in the hut of my hermitage. I dreamed of my mother. I saw myself sitting with her, and we were having a wonderful talk. She looked young and beautiful, her hair flowing down. It was so pleasant to sit there and talk with her as if she had never died.

‘When I woke up it was about two in the morning, and I felt very strongly that I had never lost my mother. The impression that my mother was still with me was very clear. I understood then that the idea of having lost my mother was just an idea. It was obvious in that moment that my mother is always alive in me.”[2]

Perhaps you, too, can point to these subtle yet profound moments—especially following a loss or some great suffering or deepest love—when the cloud breaks, the sun streams through, a bird calls, an image flashes across your vision, a dream’s effect captivates you, a momentary feeling of peace and well-being engulfs you, a stranger impresses you in some unexpected, surprising way.

This is real. People talk to me about these experiences all the time. We can’t put our finger on it. We can’t rationalize our way through it. Well, we try, by talking about neural impulses and undigested fats in our bellies. But here we go again, dealing with our discomfort by reaching for yet another rational explanation. But can we explain away these experiences? Should we?

It’s easy to place religion into the esoteric realms of doctrinal outer-space. That’s our head space whose thoughts, theories and machinations serve to disconnect us from what is, right in front of us. And, sadly this state has almost exclusively defined the Reformation since the days of Martin Luther.

What about our bodies? What about our feelings? What about the natural occurrences in our daily lives? Are these not the purview of God as well?

Martin Luther insisted on the real, the tangible, as a valid and powerful expression of the divine. A faith that is characterized by the incarnation—Word becoming flesh—is a faith that cannot deny what we see, hear, taste and feel. When God became human in Jesus. When the Holy Spirit indwells in our hearts, our bodies. When we eat the body of Christ in the sacrament. God makes our reality God’s domain. Angels among us. The spiritual becomes tangible. Matter is, and has always been, the hiding place for God.

One of the clever jingles of the TSN1200 radio station in Ottawa is their oft-repeated phrase introducing whatever sport they broadcast: “The Sens play here” (NHL hockey); “The NFL plays here (football)”; “The RedBlacks play here”(CFL football); “The Fury play here” (soccer); “The 67s play here” (junior hockey).

That needs to be the church’s motto: “God plays here.” In real, tangible, visible, ways. “God plays here” among mortals, among real people in real situations. “God plays here” along with the angels and archangels.

We may not be able to figure it out completely. We may not know the mind and ways of God fully. We may not know this spiritual realm that interplays with our own. We may not even be able to rationalize it in the usual ways. And yet, we trust.

In the last line of the Evening Blessing from the Small Catechism, Martin Luther, after praying for the holy angel to be with him, he gives the following instruction:

“Then you are to go to sleep quickly and cheerfully.” And falling asleep quickly and cheerfully can only happen when, despite our inability to have all the solutions and figure out all our problems, we can feel that it will be well with my soul.

God will make God’s ways and purposes knowable to us, in the regular grind, routines and ordinary circumstances of our lives.

May you know some angels, too.

Trust.

 

[1]Martin Luther, “Small Catechism” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006), p.1162.

[2]Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life (Riverhead Books: 2002), p.5.

Meeting the unexpected

On New Year’s Eve, the roadway was completely covered in snow. All I could see in the waning light of day was the general shape of the roadbed curving slightly to the right in front of me.

I couldn’t see the customary yellow and white lines on the pavement to guide me. There were no tracks left in the snow of cars gone down this way recently. The snowfall was fresh and the road was not well-travelled.

I could control my speed, of course, but I didn’t have a lot to go on. Would I get home in one piece? First, I had to slow down. And even be prepared to stop.

The Magi were on a journey to arrive at the home of the young Christ child. Christmas cards and the popular mindset show the Magi at the baby Jesus’ side on the night he was born. But that is likely not the case.

The Gospel of Matthew indicates the Magi visited the holy family’s “house” in Bethlehem, hardly a description of a cave or stable for animals.[1]The Gospel of Luke, from which we read the birth narrative on Christmas Eve, does not mention the Magi.

The Magi were on a journey that took months if not years to accomplish. Their journey took time. Their coming to Jesus, so to speak, was not an immediate, instant, snap-of-the-fingers conversion. Their experience was slow, plodding and winding course across the deserts of the Middle East. On their journey to find Jesus, they had to have the long-view in mind. A whole lot of determination. And a commitment to the journey with all its fits and starts.

I also get the impression, reading through these verses from Matthew, that the Magi who were nearing the end of their long journey had to make in-the-moment changes to their plans. They had to check their assumptions and change their minds about initial expectations.

For example, at least half the Gospel text for today focuses on Herod. Initially, the Magi came to him in good faith, believing the Roman governor would sincerely help them. But an angel of the Lord had to steer them away, literally by a different road, and from Herod’s manipulating, plotting, fear-ridden treachery. The Magi had to trust ‘new information’ and make changes to their flight plan in mid-stream.

Then, the gifts. Three gifts: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. In biblical times, these gifts were usually given to a king or a person with highest status. Gold was such a gift. From the Hebrew scriptures, when The Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon she gave him precious gifts: “Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan – with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones” (1 Kings 10:2). The spices that she brought with her might very well have been frankincense and myrrh.

The gifts themselves are a powerful sign of what these visitors originally intended. The Magi were coming a long way to worship who they considered the true King. Not Herod. Not Rome. But the divine Son of God.

And, still, not what they expected.

The meaning of these gifts needs to be examined in light of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. For us, what is ‘kingship’ in light of Christ—certainly not what we might first assume: glory, power, military strength and victory. Jesus’ journey took him through the defeat and humiliation of the cross. That’s the kind of kingship Jesus is about.

Myrrh represented healing. Healing in the light of Christ was not so much about an instant cure to earthly disease. But rather, healing is a transformation of the inner life of our attitudes and finding wholeness and grace in every moment of life, especially in the midst of suffering and pain. The king whom the Magi came to worship was a king who, in truth, represented values and meaning that countered—were at odds with—the values of the world.

And that is why this story starts the season of Epiphany in the church. Epiphany means, Revelation. The baby Jesus is revealed as the Son of God who shows us the way of God—God’s path of transformation and salvation. The season of Epiphany invites us to participatein this way. Participating in this journey asks us, like the first Magi, to be prepared to change course and examine our standing assumptions about God and the world.

It’s the manner in which the truth is revealed that ought to catch our attention in the biblical story. And this way is both apparent by what these three gifts mean, and by the expectations we first bring to this story.

For example: We assume and even say ‘it’s biblical’ that there were three men and they were three kings. But that’s not what the bible says. For all we know, there could have been a whole caravan of them. And what if some were women?

Although we sing, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,”, these visitors from the East were also not kings. The term Magi is a plural form of a word in Greek which means, literally, Zoroastrian priests.[2]And, maybe they earned the title ‘wise’ because of their skills in interpreting dreams and understanding astrology.

It’s as if the proverbial rug first needs to be pulled from underneath us before the truth is revealed. We don’t come to it straight on. Our expectations first need to be checked, and likely over time, over turned.

Once on New Year’s Eve when driving down a country road covered in snow in the middle of a blinding snow storm I thought I was driving in the middle of the road. I figured I best check that assumption. Thank God I did.

In a moment no other vehicle was passing, I stopped and opened the driver’s side door. With my boot, I scraped away the fluffy blanket of snow believing I would find the dark asphalt of the road and maybe even a lane marker painted on the hard top.

To my horror, I turned over stones and gravel, indicating I was already on the shoulder of the road. Had I not stopped at that moment, my vehicle was heading in the direction of the deep ditch on the side of the road.

Thank God, I had it in my mind to stop when I did, and scratch the surface of my belief. Then, I was able to change course.

The star finally stopped over Bethlehem, showing the Wise Ones where the destination of their journey lay. At this sign, “they were overwhelmed with joy.”[3]Arriving home in one piece from driving in less-than-ideal road conditions gave me a sense of joy. The joy comes because of the journey, maybe because the journey was difficult. Maybe because the journey called forth the best from you, to meet the challenges and make headway despite the journey’s challenges, pain and suffering.

The amazing thing is that God somehow brought the Magi–the Wise Ones–to the exact location of their hopes and dreams. Perhaps not what they expected at first. But this gift they surely recognized.

Here are some questions for reflection as we enter this new season after the Epiphany: What was the most important gift you received this holiday season? Did you expect it? Why is it important? How did you receive it?

God has given us the greatest gift in Jesus. Where we find him will be shown to us, on the journey. This grace continues throughout our lives.

May our trust grow in a God who has this uncanny ability to trust and have faith in us to get home. Let us pray: God, you led the Wise Ones by a star to find the Christ child. Lead us as we strive to follow you in living our faith. No matter how long it takes. No matter how winding the journey. Help us trust your promise to bring us home. Amen.

 

[1]Matthew 2:11

[2]Niveen Sarras, “Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12”, http://www.workingpreacher.org

[3]Matthew 2:10

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)

Traveling stones: a pilgrimage lesson in letting go

In the sixth century Saint Benedict said, “A monk should have death always before his eyes.”[1] ‘Death’ doesn’t need to refer only to our physical demise at the end of life but to any loss experienced in life. There are many deaths we experience in life: the death of a cherished pet, the loss of friendship, the loss of a job, divorce, death of a loved one, moving into another home. Any significant change, even positive ones, involve something lost.

In the second reading for today written in the first century, Saint Paul admonishes the Corinthians to live in this world “as though not.”[2] He is advocating a certain disengagement from the attachments and claims of our lives, including some of our most cherished relationships. The likes of Paul and Benedict reflect, as well, the wisdom of the prophets and poets of ancient Israel: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of God stands forever.”[3]

Our earth-bound attachments come under scrutiny here, no doubt. The question remains for each of us on our own journeys of faith and life – what are those things of which we need to let go in order to move on? After all, in the Lord’s Prayer the words, “Thy Kingdom come”, mean little unless we can also say: “My kingdom go.”[4]

Following Jesus means leaving things behind — as the first disciples did, in our Gospel reading for today (Mark 1:14:20).

You heard about the man who was hiking in the mountains when he slipped, and started to slide over the edge. Just as he was about to fall into the abyss, he grabbed a tree branch growing out of the rock ledge. He hung on perilously dangling in the air.

He didn’t know what to do. It was impossible to pull himself up since the branch stem was slippery and wet. He swung in the silence of the breeze contemplating his fate with growing terror. Finally he looked up to the sky and prayed: “If there is a God anywhere up there, I could do with some help, please.”

To his surprise and shock, he heard God’s voice respond instantly: “I will help you. But you first have to let go.”

The man was silent for a minute. He dared not look down. It was a long way to the jagged rocks of the canyon below. Again he looked up to the sky, and said: “Is there anyone else up there?”

A long-standing tradition in doing a pilgrimage is to bring a stone from home and lay it somewhere along the path. This home-stone represents a part of myself that I lose, and leave behind, where I have walked.

Last Spring when I walked a part of the Camino de Santiago, I wanted to leave my stone in the waters off the western coast of Spain, either in Fisterra or Muxia – both coastal towns are some one hundred kilometres west of Santiago.

I imagined this place a fitting resting place for my stone since I love walking by water and coastlines. Once, long ago, people believed the coastal town of Fisterra (French, for ‘the end of the earth’) was the physical limit of land – the farthest one could go. In my imagination, I saw myself facing the setting sun, having completed the 800-kilometer, two-month trek, looking west to the horizon line beyond which lies the land of my home in North America.

I imagined feeling satisfied at the end of a long journey, having reached my goal, grateful for the challenge and all the things the Camino taught me. In that moment of gratitude and joy, I would toss my stone as far as I could into the spume and depths of the Atlantic Ocean. That was the vision, anyway.

I found the perfect sized stone while wandering around my house one afternoon a week before leaving for Spain. Because I was running about making the last-minute preparations for the journey, I placed it temporarily on the landing railing in the garage, certain I would soon tuck it away in my backpack.

Two weeks later I was scrambling up a steep incline outside the town of Irun on the first day of my pilgrimage. As I expected that first day was incredibly tough going. The temperatures soared to above 25 degrees C and the sun shone brightly. Sweat pouring down my neck and back I struggled up that cliff wondering why on earth I chose to do this on my sabbatical. I dug my walking poles into the hard-caked sandy ground to make the next ledge and wondered sarcastically if I should have rather taken rappelling lessons in preparation for coming to Spain.

In that moment of physical and growing mental exhaustion, I realized I had forgotten to pack my stone. It was still sitting on the railing in the garage back home! I stopped in my tracks and exhaled deeply.

“What’s the matter?” my Dutch pilgrim friend asked me, huffing and puffing as I was.

“I forgot to bring my stone,” I confessed my failure.

“Don’t despair,” my co-pilgrim wanted to advise. “The Camino will give you an answer.”

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Several days later two significant things happened. The first was while I was walking down a slope towards the northern Basque town of Guernica, I thought I should take with me a couple stones from this path, as a keepsake from walking the Camino. So, I selected two small pebbles from under my feet where I stood beholding the town and valley below.

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That same day, my knee seized up, and I walked the remainder of my Camino in pain. Three days later, coughing and feeling very sick, I was on a plane homebound. Diagnosed with pneumonia back in Ottawa, I had to come to terms with my failure of not having reached my goal.

Not only had I not reached Santiago and Fisterra, I had done nothing with my stone which I had forgotten anyway. By forgetting the stone, had I already destined myself not to finish the pilgrimage? These dark thoughts swirled in my mind.

After having recovered a few weeks later, my wife and I flew to Lisbon for a week of vacation to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Originally, the plan had been for her to join me at the end of my pilgrimage, where I would meet her in Lisbon. Nevertheless, this time, I did bring my stone from home, renamed my ‘glory’ stone.

My glory stone represented all my aspirations, desires, longings which I knew deep down the Camino had taught me to let go of. I had to surrender even my human yearning and goals to God.

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And so, at Cabo Da Roca near Lisbon, Portugal – the farthest most western point of land on continental Europe – I threw my glory stone into the Atlantic Ocean facing the setting sun. I had to practice letting glory go.

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It seems I was still bound to finish some kind of pilgrimage during my sabbatical. I didn’t have enough time to go back to Spain and finish the Camino de Santiago. But I did have enough time to walk the entire length of the longest contiguous sand beach in North America – fifty kilometres on Long Beach Peninsula in Washington State. There, my journey of letting go continued.

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There, on “Cape Disappointment” – fittingly named – I brought the two pebbles that I picked up in Spain on the last day I walked on the Camino. One glorious afternoon, I scrambled down into Dead Man’s Cove – also fittingly named – on Cape Disappointment. After reflecting on my disappointments of late, I realized on my journey of life not only did I need to yield all my dreams but also all my regrets and suffering. And so, I threw those stones of disappointment into the Pacific Ocean. I let these go.

 

I realized life is not lived well when we obsessively hold on to all those things that cause us grief. I had to offer these to God as well. Later, while I sat on a park bench near the lighthouse on Cape Disappointment looking over the Pacific, I met a couple of Americans visiting from Portland. In our conversation, we were able to affirm that “all great spirituality is about learning to let go.”[5]

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But I didn’t leave my pilgrimage empty handed. When I climbed out of Dead Man’s Cove that day, I picked up from the sand a smooth, round stone. Now, any rocks on the Peninsula are rare. Most of the fifty-kilometre stretch is sand, land created from the outflow of the mighty Columbia River as it spills into the Pacific Ocean. Most rocks you see on the Peninsula have been trucked in. So, I was delighted to take with me back home, a rare thing.

And hope is a rare commodity in this world of pessimism, denial, and despair. This is my “stone of hope”, that I hold forever, amidst all the human aspirations swirling in my life and all the disappointments and failures which I regularly need to practice letting go of.

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We hold not only that which we need to let go of, but we also hold hope throughout our lives. “We do not simply resign ourselves to the give-ness of the world, for we have planted within us a great hope that God’s kingdom will come on earth, as in heaven. This means we are a people who look to the future with trust and hope, confident that God is working God’s purposes out and that God’s realm is even now breaking into our world.”[6]

At this point in your journey of life, which stones are you holding — of dreams, of disappointments, of hope? Which ones do you need to let go of? Which do you need to hold on to? I suspect it is true when the likes of Saint Paul, and all the wise teachers over the ages, writes: “Hope does not disappoint us.” [7]

[1] cited in Ruthanna B. Hooke in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 1” (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.280

[2] 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

[3] Isaiah 40:8

[4] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Thursday, January 18, 2018.

[5] Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation, cac.org

[6] Ruthanna B. Hooke, ibid.

7 – Romans 5:5

Driving me crazy

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There are times in life that come our way to remind us that something is ending. And even though at some deeper level we know it to be true, we hesitate to face that ending, whatever it is — the end of an era, the end of the life of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the end of a career, the end of youthful health and energy, etc.

How do we face these movements in life?

In planning our family vacation to Italy a couple summers ago, we decided to rent a car. Our host family lived in Naples. So, right off the plane, we jumped in our small Fiat, yours truly engaged the manual shift, and we immersed ourselves in the mayhem of driving in Naples.

What added to the heightened anxiety of driving in the sprawling metropolis, was that I had to follow our friends from downtown to the suburbs – no short jaunt ‘round the corner.

Not only did I have to deal with the speedy and crazy driving conditions, I had to slice through the haze of jetlag in my mind, and pay attention. I had to keep up to our host family already long acclimatized to the riotous driving culture there.

What is more, shortly after recovering from the stress and thrill of that first-day drive from the airport, the next day, in our separate cars we took to the winding and narrow road along the Amalfi Coast. To get there, we had to cross Naples first. Been there done that. No small feat.

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Then, once on the rocky Amalfi coastline, my face was practically pasted on the front windshield. I had to make constant reflexive maneuvers rounding blind, hairpin bends. At relatively high speeds I squeezed our little Fiat between oncoming Vespa scooters, ginormous tour buses and sleek, racing, tinted-windowed Audi sedans. All the while wiping the spittle from the glass in front of my mouth emitting profanity after profanity.

 

Caution thrown to the wind, I threw myself into it without thinking too much. Reactive, assertive and confident driving skills required! Since I didn’t exactly know the route we would take, I had to focus on what was directly in front of me. I had to pay attention and respond not only to the immediate conditions I found myself in. I also had to keep an eye on the dark blue Hyundai some car lengths in front, leading the way.

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Following someone in another car, requires certain skills best developed in the context of faith. Let me explain.

First, you have to trust. You must trust that the One you are following knows what they are doing and where they are going. You have to believe that following them faithfully will take you to where you want to go. At some gut level, you have to relinquish your claim to knowing better. And trust the other. And believe that they believe in you and your skill, too.

Second, you have to pay attention. You have to stay aware of your surroundings, even though the distractions and obstacles are frightening. As with driving in general, you can’t be looking inside the car or admiring the scenery to the side or behind you. Rather, you have to remain focused on the road ahead. Better yet, for as smooth a ride as possible, you have to envision yourself already being a certain distance down the road.

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Third, you need to act on in-the-moment decisions. Following another car is a whole different way of driving then when you are on your own. On your own, you can stop whenever you want, you can go however fast or slow you want to go, and you are not accountable in any way to another vehicle on the road.

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All that changes as soon as you say, “I will follow you.” If you don’t want to get lost, you have to keep up. You have to do it. You have to match the velocity of the lead car, whether they speed up or slow down. You have to drive in a way that will keep you within eyesight of the lead, which will affect how you negotiate traffic signals, lane changes, roundabouts, traffic jams, and toll gates.

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Finally, in order to follow another successfully, you have to take the primary focus off yourself. And fix it on whom you are following. There is no time to dwell on your past mistakes – the guy you cut off coming onto the expressway, your cursing a fellow driver weaving across multi lanes going 130 kilometres an hour, or the slight yet growing pressure you feel on your bladder from all the espresso you drank earlier in the day.

There is no time for self-indulgence of this kind. There is no time for regret, guilt or self-absorbed mental gymnastics. There is no time to stop to lick the wounds of obsessive introspection.

Because your energy is required now for the task at hand: trust, focus, action.

Jesus describes at least two opposing lifestyles in the Gospel reading for today.[1] The sheep are on Christ’s right hand – they are the good guys. The goats are on Jesus’ left hand – they are the bad guys. I suspect we can relate to being both a goat and a sheep at different times and conditions of our lives.

Either way, both groups are surprised to hear Jesus’ answer to their question: “When did we see you …?”[2] Both groups failed to see Jesus in the faces of the stranger, sick, hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned.

The only difference is that the sheep already happened to be serving those in need, before they heard this news, before they had a chance to think about it too much, strategize and create impressive mission plans. That group was visiting the sick and tending to the needs of others as a matter of course, moved by a simple compassion for the needy. Doing so was part of their regular routine of life.

On the other hand, the goats apparently never thought nor believed that their very salvation depended on helping others, going to the poor, attending to the weak and vulnerable in society. Instead, they must have made life predominantly a game of ‘who can get the most stuff and be most comfortable and take care of their own first.’ Their faith must have been assigned to a God who existed only in their minds, in abstraction, a matter reserved only for intellectual discourse,polite company, and board room strategy sessions.

At this turning point in the calendar year, we shift gears and look ahead. We leave behind the relative calm and ease of the long summer season after Pentecost, and enter the fray of the holiday season. How we drive through and around the many distractions, noise, pace and twisting corners of our lives in the coming months will reveal a lot about who we follow or whether we are following anyone at all, let alone Jesus.

So, let’s not forget where Jesus goes. Let’s not forget what he was all about, whom he visited, whom he cared for and where he spent his time. This is our focus. Let’s trust that Jesus knows what he is talking about and the path he takes, even though God’s reign feels countercultural and unpopular in a season of getting more stuff and self-indulgent sentimentality.

Perhaps we will need to practice looking for Jesus on the streets, in the hospices, the safe-injection sites, the social housing units, the shelters, the refugee lines and immigrant ghettos in our city.

Let’s trust that Jesus’ way will lead to our resurrection and transformation in this life as much as in the next. Let’s pay attention to our surroundings and the various ways God encourages us on the way. Let’s not remain idle, nor get stuck in self-centred living. Let’s not coast nor ride the clutch too much. Because we’ll stall the car. And stopping is not good on the highway of life. In fact, it’s dangerous.

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Instead, let’s act faithfully in small, concrete ways that make a difference for the better in the lives of others in need.  Let’s do so assertively and confidently, knowing that we don’t travel alone; there are others in the car with us and on the highway around us. Because despite our many failings, and the mistakes we will make along the way, God continues to have faith in us.

There is too much at stake. And no time to lose. Still today, in our country – Canada – and in our nation’s capital, Ottawa, there are still over 10,000 households needing adequate, safe and affordable housing.[3] And, 15% of the population in the whole province of Ontario still lives in some kind of housing need.

Where is Jesus? The bible makes it very clear. The better question is: Will you follow?

Recently I came across this anonymous quote about the merits of volunteering in ways that can reflect the reign of Christ in our lives and in our world:

Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections … [once every four years], but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.

When you volunteer for good causes you add value to the vision of God in earth. The Reign of Christ is about the kind of world God wants us to live in. Where is Jesus? Will you follow?

We end today a church season. This annual observance can remind us that endings only herald a new beginning just around the corner.

[1] Matthew 25:31-46

[2] verses 37 and 44

[3] check out http://www.multifaithhousing.ca

Faith in the dark

Sixteenth century Reformer Martin Luther claimed we are “justified by faith”. That means, we are in a right relationship with God because of the gift of faith in us.

Anyone and everyone, therefore, can live in faith. And there is nothing anyone of us can do to earn good favor with God.

Faith, to Luther, was to trust in God and God’s promises, despite your circumstance or any evidence to the contrary. What validates faith in you is not your external situation or material well-being, but God’s purposes, intentions, and promises for your life and the life of others.

Nevertheless, faith is not something you have. It is still something you do, but not to save ourselves. How do we deal with this paradox?

A brother once asked an older monk in a desert community, “Which is holier, someone who leads a solitary life for six days a week, giving himself much pain; or, another who simply takes care of the sick?”

The old man smiled and replied, “Even if the one who withdraws for six days were to hang himself up by his nostrils, he could not equal the one who serves the sick.”[1]

Self-denial and isolation never substitute for an active faith born out of love for our neighbour.

“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” Jesus answers the trick question posed to him by the Pharisees, “And give to God what belongs to God.”[2] The giving-to-God part, we get. But giving to Caesar?

Giving to Caesar ties us to this earth – to its politics, to its confusion, despair and hardship. Giving to Caesar, after all, was not popular among the Jews resisting Roman occupation in 2nd century Palestine. Giving to Caesar was fraught with political controversy – as it is today in the parlance of paying taxes. Giving to Caesar is not something we would normally associate with being faithful, being Christian.

But it is. Why? It certainly is not a perfect activity free from blemish and beyond reproach. But we do it anyway.

It is not a perfect thing to do faith. But when has it ever been? We give, in faith. We act, in faith. We love, in faith. Even though our response in faith is never perfect.

In faith, we always walk in the darkness. We see, using Paul’s language, “a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Medieval Spanish theologian, John of the Cross, called it “luminous darkness”. Because the darkness is also part of God’s creation. We need darkness in order to see the light.

Classical literature and art suggests the spiritual significance of darkness in one’s journey of life and faith. Parsifal’s quest for the Holy Grail begins by entering the forest at “the darkest place.” Dante begins his paradise journey “alone in a dark wood,” and it continues through purgatory and hell. Darkness is often the language of faithful, committed, spiritual people, a language and reality that cannot really be separated from light.[3]

Even in the beginning, as recorded in Genesis, the Bible brings the two together. In the first verses of Genesis, God names every day of creation “good”.[4] Except the first two days – the days when darkness is separated from light and when heaven is separated from earth. Darkness and light must not be separated. The real world, as Jesus teaches, is always a field of weeds and wheat and we can never presume to eliminate the weeds.[5] Light and dark belong together. You can’t have one without the other, to do faith.

In the Hebrew reading for today, the prophet Isaiah renders God’s words: “I create darkness”. God says that God will “give you the treasures of darkness … hidden in secret places.”[6]

This is the way of living without all the answers, living with ambiguity, living without denying or pretending away or even avoiding the contradictions of your life.

This is the way through the desert.

When King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon around 539 B.C.E. he let the exiled Israelites living there go back home to re-build Jerusalem. After living by the rivers of Babylon for decades, the people of Israel had a decision to make in response to their newfound freedom: Would they stay? Some did. But many – a remnant, we call them – decided to make the long trek through the desert back home.

What is more, King Cyrus of Persia did not even know God.[7] And yet, he was chosen by God to fulfill God’s purposes. God would even “go ahead”[8] of Cyrus to clear the way for God’s mission.

The way through the desert is not the way of certainty, security and safety, to be sure. The way through the desert is not an easy way. But the dark way, often in biblical times encountered in the harsh climate of the desert, is the way home. It is the way of healing, transformation and the new, good thing God is doing for us and in us and the world.

The Israelites could not avoid the desert even though they were freed from exile. They had to trust not only the dark way, they had to trust the foreigner and pagan King Cyrus to believe what he was doing for them, to believe he was in truth an instrument of God.

Talk about contradiction and ambiguity in faith! Would we, today, confer such a trust in someone outside the traditional community of faith? Would we, for example, take to heart Gord Downie’s medium of pop rock to advocate for better relationships with Indigenous People? Would we trust the revelation of God’s purposes in people of other religions, newcomers to Canada who bring with them different cultures from ours? Could these people and others also be instruments of God and God’s purposes, for us today?

The Israelites were faced with such a conundrum. And we know what they decided to do. They had to walk home in the desert, in the darkness, and trust that even through Cyrus, God’s unknowing servant, the mighty God of Israel was moving behind the scenes of everything that was transpiring.[9]

The way to healing and resolution of whatever troubles you today is a desert way of darkness. Yet, as someone once said, “In every cross we bear, therein lies a great treasure.”

A group of white settlers learned the hard way in the fall of 1849 as they set out from the Utah Territory toward gold fields in the San Joaquin Valley of California.

Taking a shortcut recommended to them by the leader of a passing pack train, they headed into a 140-mile long stretch of desert waste known to us today as Death Valley. It was a tragic mistake.

Twenty-seven wagons started into that long desert valley east of the Sierra Nevada. Only one of them came out. A survivor of that misguided party spoke of the dreadful sameness of the terrain, the awfulness of the Panamint Mountains, remembering only hunger and thirst and an awful silence.

Two months later, as the only surviving wagon topped the westernmost crest of the distant mountains, one of the settlers looked back on the place that had nearly claimed them all, and said: “Goodbye, Death Valley.” That’s how the site received its name.

But there’s another name the Spanish used to describe this God-forsaken land. They referred to it as ‘la Palma de la Mano de Dios’, the very palm of God’s hand.[10]

Could it be that even in the midst of the most dangerous climate and terrain on earth, where it’s 134 degrees (57 degrees Celsius) in the shade exposed to winds in excess of one hundred miles (160 kilometers) an hour, wanderers have found God? It is God, actually, who finds us, in the darkest most arid times and places of our own lives.

It is during these times and places where people become accustomed to risk, vulnerability and brokenness that they build an unshakable trust in the other? It is during these dark times and places where you confront your inevitable loss of control and the specter of your own eventual demise head on. It is in these moments where we have to wait for God, ask God for help, and learn to trust God over and above anything we may be able to accomplish by the might of our own hand.

In the dark, desert journeys of our lives especially, we remain inscribed in palms of God’s hands.[11] La Palma de la Mano de Dios. You may not understand all the contradictions and ambiguities of your life, right now. You may not be able to figure out all the inconsistencies and paradoxes of life. You may not be able to resolve the problems of your life or in the world.

But, believe this: There is Someone who does. As you wander in the darkness of faith, never forget that God is bringing to resolution and completion all the confusion and contradiction of your life and the life of the world.

And, it is all good.

 

[1] Belden C. Lane, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality” (.202

[2] Matthew 22:21

[3] Richard Rohr, “Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation” (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2016), p.39.

[4] Genesis 1:3-8

[5] Matthew 13:24-30

[6] Isaiah 45:3,7

[7] Isaiah 45:4-5

[8] Isaiah 45:2

[9] Carolyn J. Sharp in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year A Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.175

[10] Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.231-232.

[11] Isaiah 49:16

Thanksgiving builds commUNItY

Sometimes what I see in nature represents how I feel. For example: “The dark, thunder clouds looked angry,” we say. Or, “The deer leapt with joy across the meadow.”

Nature has a way of evoking feelings within us. When I stopped in this cove on Cape Disappointment, I couldn’t help but feel praise for the creator God, and thankful for the beauty of life.

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This particular photo conveys to me first a state of peace. After all, not far from this lone pine the swirling waters, changing tides and ravaging winds off the Cape constantly threaten to uproot the tree. And yet, the tree lives on looking very peaceful.

But more than that, thankful. The tree shoots to the sky, to the life-giving sun. It’s not just hugging the rock in defensive self-protection. It offers its praise to the Creator by aiming and growing upward, giving a faithful witness to all that will see this tree.

For me, a life lived grounded and united in peace, praise and thanksgiving to God, is indeed a life lived in the gracious community of God.

During this month when we reflect on the legacy of the 16th century Reformation and celebrate together the 500th year of Reformation, we cannot avoid nor deny the sad reality of conflict and division. It seems you cannot fully appreciate the nature of things, including the church, unless you acknowledge the role of conflict among people of all times and places.

This is why it is noteworthy that Luke in the Gospel text assigned for Thanksgiving Day tells this story, which is not found anywhere else in the New Testament.[1] What is unique about this healing story is the response of thanksgiving by a Samaritan. Jesus sets this “foreigner” apart from the others who were also healed.[2]

The Samaritan was the only one who “turned back” to give thanks to Jesus.[3] So, there is much more going on here than a physical, medical cure of a disease.

Since ancient times, a political and religious rift was growing between Israel and Samaria. Samaria became “foreign” after breaking off from the Davidic monarchy and the establishment of Samaria as the capital of the northern kingdom.[4] Then, after the Babylonian exile, tensions mounted between the people of Samaria and the Jews who returned to rebuild Jerusalem.[5]

Luke includes this story in his Gospel to emphasize the importance of looking to the positive witness of the outsider. In other words, the normal divisions separating us in our religious and cultural identities matter little in the larger scheme of things. Especially when it comes to the expression of faith.

Those who are different are often the very people we need to look to for a positive example of faithful living.

This summer a friend of mine visited the German town of Dinkelsbühl in Bavaria. During the Reformation Era in the 16th and 17th centuries, this town was the first of only a small number at the time who identified as bi-confessional; that is, roughly equal numbers of Roman Catholic and Protestant citizens were allowed to live and practice their faith, with equal rights for both sides.

After the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, a few years after Martin Luther’s death, land in Germany was divided into Protestant or Catholic regions. The religious adherence of a population in any region was determined by the religion of the ruling prince in that area.

Except for Dinkelsbühl. The Peace of Westphalia a century later enshrined the bi-confessional identity of this town by establishing a joint Catholic-Protestant government and administrative system, and ensured a precise and equal distribution between Catholic and Protestant civic officials.

When you consider the animosity, violence and warfare characteristic of those centuries between Catholics and Protestants, never-mind the twentieth century history in Ireland and the unfortunately enduring oppositional attitudes between Protestants and Catholics today – this is truly remarkable.

Bucking the dominant culture of dualistic either/or, right/wrong, in/out, black/white thinking, the leaders and citizens of Dinkelsbühl chose to follow a different path. We don’t need to point to present day efforts of ecumenism and unity building. Right in the middle of the conflict of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries there were already efforts then to see a different way:

To see the good in the other. To search out and focus on common understandings first. To seek mutual understanding. Amidst everything around conspiring against such counter-cultural vision.

The point of decision for the Samaritan leper came when he realized he was healed, on the path as they went.[6] It’s important to picture this in your mind. Jesus didn’t snap his fingers and, voila! Yes, the lepers brought their belief in Jesus to the encounter, asking him for healing. Jesus then told them to go to the priest for certification of their healing.

It was on the way – after they had committed to doing something, even before any proof of their healing was given, amidst their still debilitating illness – they went. In doing something, on the way, they were healed. Healing is a process.

It was on this journey when the healed Samaritan had to make a decision.  He could have followed the other nine who were clearly pursuing their self-interest. Against the conforming pressures of the majority, he turned back to follow his heart, full of thanksgiving. We may wonder whether he was also motivated by avoiding potential ridicule and discrimination as a Samaritan appearing before Jewish authority in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, the Samaritan made thanksgiving a priority. It is to him that Jesus ascribes the affirmation: “Your faith has made you well”; or, as other translations have it: “Your faith has saved you.”[7]

Faith without gratitude is no faith at all. There is something life-giving about thanksgiving. Grateful people are more hopeful. Indeed, there is evidence now of a correlation between gratitude and the immune system. People who are grateful have a health edge. For example, an attitude of gratitude, reduces stress. So, your mother was right when she made you call your grandmother and thank her for the birthday card.[8]

A true expression of faith is complete when it includes thanksgiving. Coming to worship on Sundays is not validated because “you get something out of it.” Attending worship is not about the self-centered search for “what is in it for me?” Worship is not “me-first” exercise. Let’s be clear.

Rather, coming to worship is about offering thanksgiving, first and foremost. Sunday worship is an opportunity to give thanks to the God who gives all, for all. It is no wonder that the Holy Communion is traditionally called “The Holy Eucharist”, translated from the Greek as “The Great Thanksgiving”. We come to the table to offer our gifts of thanksgiving to God. Every week.

Thanksgiving changes the character of a community and its work. Stewardship is transformed from fundraising to the glad gratitude of joyful givers. The mission of the church changes from ethical duty to the work of grateful hands and hearts. Prayer includes not only our intercessions and supplications, but also our thanksgiving and praise of God’s good gifts to us at the Table.[9]  Thanksgiving builds bridges among people who are different.

We come to Communion to offer thanks to God not because we are good, but because God is good. And we see God reflected in all of creation, in all people, in the good they are.

We pray the legacy of the next 500 years of Reformation reflects the growth of unity among a people that are grateful for the good gifts God brings to us all.

Amen.

 

[1] Oliver Larry Yarbrough in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year C, Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.169

[2] Luke 17:17-19

[3] Luke 17:15

[4] 1 Kings 12, 16

[5] Nehemiah 4, Yarbrough ibid., p.167

[6] Luke 17:14-15

[7] Luke 17:19, Yarbrough, ibid., p.169

[8] John M. Buchanan, ibid., p.169

[9] Kimberley Bracken Long, ibid., p.168