Snowed under: Lent 3

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On the Lenten journey, what is just starting to emerge from deep within you? As the snow melts, do you see the Christ buried in your heart? Will you let Jesus come out?

With us, snowed-in

I wasn’t able to remove the Christmas manger scene from our front yard in time, before the snowstorms left everything buried. As we’ve approached Lent, the joke in our household is that Jesus, like us, is snowed-in.

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It likely won’t be until late April now when I will be able to remove the tableau from the frozen earth and its snowy cover. When will Jesus be set free from the tomblike confines of winter’s grip?

When exactly, no one knows. Meteorologists are calling for a cooler-than-normal late April /early May. It might be a while.

The Jesus story, for us, begins in winter around the winter solstice on Christmas Day. We begin again our Lenten pilgrimage in the throes of winter, when snow and ice cover everything. When will the sky brighten and warmer temperatures heat the ground again? When does the journey end?

The poet, Mary Oliver, who died in January of this year, wrote primarily about winter. In several pieces she twins snow with wisdom, the capacity to live with questions in silence, surrendering to its beauty. “I love this world,” she wrote, “but not for its answers.”[1]

I’ve considered Christianity to be a winter faith. We, as people of faith, live with many questions that are largely unanswerable. Why do we still live in a world beset by injustice, intolerance, hatred—despite all good effort in the name of Jesus to the contrary? Why death and disease? When will we find the answers to our deepest questions? Why? Why? Why? Winter is a time for questions.

And so, we continue to search, wander, and wonder with Jesus snowed-in, by our side.

But, is Jesus in over his head?

The temptation of Jesus—as this story is famously called—happens near the beginning of his divine calling and ministry.[2]He goes into the wilderness, the desert, for forty days. He goes into a place of harsh simplicity, stripped of all creaturely comforts, to serve a holy purpose.

We wonder, will he survive the challenge?

Given his life purpose on earth, he meets with what could be his greatest vulnerability—the seduction of power and its forceful implications. The man who is the Son of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Almighty and Everlasting, the man whom people would look to for guidance and leadership, the man who many would lift onto a pedestal—would Jesus succumb to everyone’s expectation?

Would Jesus yield to the temptation that he, the Messiah, will now lead the revolt to free the suppressed and oppressed Judeans out from Roman occupation? Would he be the political rallying point around which the crowds would mobilize and generate an effective, political movement?

And, in fact, the evil one touches on this potential weakness. Notice in different ways each of the three temptations seduce Jesus to grab hold of power that would make him this kind of King: One who satisfies his every appetite and hunger using whatever means at his disposal; one who creates God in one’s own image by forcing God’s hands, one who offers blind obedience to those still ‘above’ them while climbing the ladder of ‘success’.

But that’s not what Jesus was going to be about. We know that. In order to embrace his true identity, what happens?

Jesus is first led by the Spirit into this vulnerable place, not away from it. He was to first meet this human, shadow side.

The point of Lenten discipline, whatever it may be for you, is to be led into that shadow place in our own lives that we, on our own, don’t want and even can’t go. The Spirit leads us to face that which we normally distract ourselves from, where we normally deny, avoid. What is that vulnerability for you?

What does the light and Spirit reveal in the dark corners of your life? Is it a fear? Is it a conversation you know needs to happen? Is it confronting a situation you have been trying to avoid? Is it coming to terms with what is really going on deep down in your heart?

How does Jesus respond to his temptation? How does he return to his identity in God?

The scriptural quotations he cites are signs of his true identity—his ‘touchstone’, if you will. The scriptures point to his true self. By citing the scripture, he reminds himself, he aligns himself, he allies himself, with what grounds him in who he is. By citing scripture he relies not on his own humanity and resources of his own making, but rather on God.

This text provides rich support for our own journeys of Lent. As we wander into the wilderness of our lives and continue to trudge through the snow wary of still slipping on the ice, as we wonder with our questions, we meet our own shadow sides. And are called to stay rooted in who and whose we are.

And what is your touchstone for remembering your identity in Christ? Is it scripture? Is it the bread and cup of the sacrament? Is it a song? Is it an act of repeated service for another? Is it a prayer?

In her poems about winter Madeleine L’Engle writes a word of hope for the journey:

“Snow does not obscure the shape of things. It outlines them, like an icy highlighter, revealing the deep structure of the world. We walk through the woods, seeing differently, and, when we glimpse the hidden structure, we ask questions even as we experience its stark beauty.”[3]

Writer-theologian, Diana Butler Bass takes it further: “Strangely I have found in my own life that it is only through a wintery spirituality that I am able to affirm summer and sunshine. A friend wrote me recently, ‘Winter reveals structure’. Only as the structure is firmly there are we able to dress it with the lovely trappings of spring, budding leaves, rosy blossoms. Winter is the quiet, fallow time when earth prepares for the rebirth of spring.”

The word, Lent, means ‘springtime’. While the Lenten journey begins in the frozen winter, we can say in faith that the purpose of the journey is to bring us to Spring. Because by the end of the Lenten season, the snow will be gone revealing the soft, verdant earth underneath where new life is just budding to sprout.

In the end, the disciplines of Lent, the questions we now pose and with which we struggle on the journey, these are gifts from God. They point us to God’s presence in our lives and in our world. In the end, that is what faithful observance of Lent is—“a grace-filled return to the Lord our God.”[4]

Who begins with us, snowed-in and under.

 

[1]Cited in Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage: A Winter Faith (January 18, 2019)

[2]Luke 4:1-13

[3]Madeleine L’Engle cited in Diana Butler Bass, ibid.

[4]Kimberly M. Van Driel, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Vol 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.25.

Lent

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All we need to do during this season of Lent, is just slow down a bit.

Displaying a delightful play on words, this photo of Dorchester Ave in Ottawa suggests in the French language what drivers must do in the bilingual city of Ottawa when navigating narrow streets: “Slow down!”

A meaning of the word Lent, is slow. It is a season when we slow down to aerate the lawn of our lives, so to speak. In so doing, we create bigger and longer spaces amidst the hurly-burly of living. We take stock of our lives, reflect on the purpose of our living and contemplate our lives as part of a bigger picture.

During Lent, we (re) connect and correct. We connect with others in an organized fashion to focus on others in meeting their needs And, we connect with the Other that is the destination and goal of life — the living Christ.

In community and in relation to the other, we also experience a correction. We say the market makes occasional corrections to re-establish a sustainable pattern for growth in the value of stocks over the long term. So, our lives must experience regularly a season of correction, for the long term.

We make this Lenten pilgrimage both for connection and correction, in the hope that by the time Easter arrives we can experience renewed balance and a pattern for sustainable growth and joy in living.

But, it starts by slowing down the pace. Evening stopping, pausing, for a moment or two. Take a deep breath.

Lentement, s’il vous plait.

Langsam, bitte.

Slowly, please.

There’s a wild-ness to God’s mercy

“Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths …

All your paths, O Lord, are steadfast, love and faithfulness

To those who hold on to your promise …”

(Psalm 25:4,10)

When I walked fifty kilometers on the sand last summer on Long Beach Peninsula on the coast of the Pacific Ocean in Washington State, I was obviously forging my own path.

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Even though the beach was not busy any time I walked it, it was also obvious to me that many had travelled this route – by foot and vehicle, since cars are allowed to drive portions on this way.

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I couldn’t trust these other paths, however, since I was by myself I had no idea how long the footprints or car tracks had been there. And with the dramatic shift of tides on the beach every twelve-or-so-hours, I could easily lose a path someone else made.

And, you might presume that my 130-kilometer hike on the Camino in Spain  a month earlier would have been harder on my feet. While I did not get one blister in Spain – no problems there whatsoever with my feet – walking on Long Beach Peninsula was brutal by comparison.

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Often, we make assumptions about our faith journeys. We presume things about following the way of Jesus that are, simply, untrue. And only experience can verify. The first myth is that this path is easy – a walk along the Rideau Canal among the tulips on a sunny, quiet Sunday in May.

I’m watching  Mark Burnett’s TV production of “The Bible” this Lent. And I was impressed by the actor playing Moses, who when he parts the Red Sea with water spraying all around in the tumult, mayhem and stress of the moment – when the Egyptian army is bearing down on the Israelites – he calls to them, “Follow Me!”

It’s like an invitation to a roller coaster ride. Or worse! A part of me wants to say, “Thank you. But, no thank you. I’ll take that walk by the canal.”

These short verses from Mark’s Gospel focus on Jesus’ personal experience of change, leading to a simple message to his listeners to follow in his way. And his way leads through disruptive changes in one’s life. True growth is a wild journey, to say the least, to follow the path of Jesus by making our own through the desert of our lives.

Jesus’ baptism by John is something which Jesus experiences by himself. Mark gives no indication whatsoever that Jesus’ baptism is some public event witnessed by many. It is intended for Jesus alone. Jesus is set apart to experience a deeply personal, largely private, and divine event in his life.

“And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”[1]

This personally divine experience is not a pleasant, comforting event for Jesus. The word “torn apart” in Greek is used only at one other time in Mark’s short Gospel – at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, when the curtain in the temple was “torn apart.”[2] When Jesus experiences the blessing and call of his life, it’s not about gentle doves cooing from heaven. God does the ripping apart in both cases.

There’s a wild-ness and a danger in God’s grace. This is a disrupting affair. This is life and death stuff. You can only wonder whether Jesus didn’t see in a moment of churning clouds his own death – the end of the journey he was about to begin.

After Jesus’ baptism, the text takes a rapid shift, as Jesus is “immediately” driven into the desert. Mark does not go into the details of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. He does not reveal what it meant for Jesus to be with the “wild beasts”. His temptations are not described in detail, only that he was tempted by Satan. And, by the end of the time in the desert, the angels waited on him.

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Mark preserves these truths about anyone’s wilderness journeys: It is wild, for sure; and, no one else can make that human journey for us.

As Jesus was privy to his own struggle with the wild beasts, so is it with our journeys in the wilderness. Whenever we go through challenging times and transitions in our lives, whenever we experience the severity of life’s choices and consequences of our misdeeds, whenever we receive the blunt end of life’s punches in the death of loved ones, in the loss of any security, the pain of ill health – these are intensely personal demons we struggle with.

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No one else, really, can fully presume to understand this journey of ours. They are unique to us alone. Our temptations are unique to us as spiritual individuals on a human journey. We need, as individuals, to take ownership of our own wilderness journey.

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Some of you may have been surprised in the Ash Wednesday liturgy this year when I asked you to impose the ashes on your own forehead as I said the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

For those of you who were here last Wednesday, I hope you reflected on the subtle change’s significance. If you are entering this forty-day journey, embracing the path of Jesus in some way, through the desert of your life – however you define your wilderness journey – then you need to own it yourself. No one else can do for you. At the start of this interior and life-changing journey, you will own your own ‘ash’, you will enter the desert of your own heart.

This journey is a journey of repentance. Repentance means, “a change of mind.” This is the original, basic meaning of the word – more than a renewing of the mind as Paul puts it,[3] repentance entails a radical turn around in thinking. This is largely an interior journey, in your mind and heart. “Rend not your garments,” the prophet Joel preached, “Rend your hearts.”[4] Will you go there, this Lent?

Martin Luther defined repentance as a returning to your baptismal waters. Returning to God’s grace, God’s love, God’s unconditional forgiveness and mercy upon your heart.

The Lenten journey can be taken by holding on to the promise of your baptism.  The path we make is only possible by the waters of faith. In the end, the waters of grace, of eternal presence of God, will wash away our delusions and give us sustenance for the journey. If we must forge our own path, we are not alone nonetheless. For, another has gone before us. One who loves us.

In his description of the journey of the Lenten season, American theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, “After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.”

He, then, outlines several questions for Christians to ponder during Lent. Among them:

  1. When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?
  2. If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be – in twenty-five words or less?
  3. Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo?
  4. Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
  5. If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn’t, which side would get your money and why?
  6. Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?
  7. If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?

“To hear yourself try to answer questions like these,” Buechner goes on, “is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all. But if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”[5]

[1] Mark 1:10

[2] Mark 15:38; Stanley P. Saunders in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.47.

[3] Romans 12:2

[4] Joel 2:13

[5] Frederick Buechner, “Wishful Thinking” (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

Love got down and dirty

I am not a pet person. In the sense that we don’t own a pet and we don’t have any animals currently living in our home.

However, we do enjoy visiting with the pets of others. And, if we did have a dog at home, I would probably consider a terrier. The word, terrier, is derived from the Latin word terra, meaning, earth.

And, I’ve heard, a terrier will eat dirt. And dig holes in the dirt. It is a solid dog with short legs. It is scruffy and tough. A terrier is, indeed, an ‘earth dog’, living very close to the ground.

Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent. This long season of the church year, some forty days’ pilgrimage, leads us somewhere. It is not an aimless wandering. Though it may sometimes feel like it.

The forty days is largely symbolic, let’s be honest. Though the Lenten season is an ancient Christian tradition going back in its variations to at least the fourth century after Christ, our observance of it today is slight, for the most part.

How can we re-discover its meaning?

At the beginning of any journey – I prefer to see the progress of life and faith as a journey – I want to see in my mind’s eye at least, the destination – the finish line so to speak.

Before I set out on the Camino pilgrimage in Spain last Spring – some 800 kilometres long – I needed to know my destination, which was the city of Santiago. Not only did knowing the destination help me navigate the trail, it motivated me on the way.

What is the finish line of the Lenten journey? Easter, of course.

I said the observance of the faith journey is marked by symbol or ritual. These rituals in the church take the form of sacraments, such as baptism and Holy Communion. At Easter – the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection – we not only receive the promise of our ongoing transformation and new life in Christ, we have arrived at the destination of the Lenten journey of our healing, our forgiveness, our change.

Because of Easter, we can do Lent. The disciplines of Lent would be groundless without the Easter promise guiding our way. The joy of Easter is the destination – the very point – of the long Lenten discipline.

That is why baptisms and confirmations happen during Easter. This so-called first sacrament of the church, baptism, involves using water to make the sign of the cross on baptized forehead.  In some churches, the congregation gathers literally by the river to participate in a baptismal celebration.

Diana Butler Bass grew up as an evangelical Christian. She remembers that more often than not, “The water would be murky, seemingly impure rather than sanctified … The pastor would dunk the newcomer anyway, a drenching testimony of sin washed away and new birth in Christ.” But she wondered “how one could be washed of sin when the water itself was not safe to drink.”[1]

It seems, we cannot avoid getting dirty on the road to Easter and new life. In truth, is there not something good about dirt?

Some years ago, Diana Butler Bass spent the forty days of Lent focusing her discipline on priming her vegetable and flower garden in Spring. Obviously, she lived farther south than where we are. During Lent, she readied the garden, worked the soil, coaxed dirt to life. And, she concluded,

“Dirt was not dirty – it was beautiful. God made it. I was tending it. Caring for soil is hard work. The last thing I wanted to imagine was it being washed away. I was fighting for the dirt. I wanted more dirt, better dirt, richer dirt. I was adding stuff to it to make it mealier. I wanted dirtier dirt.”[2]

Yet, I would agree with Butler Bass, the symbols of the church have become sterile over the centuries. We have become germ-a-phobic, averse to dirt. And this, to our spiritual peril.

“In many dictionaries, the definition of ‘soil’ as a noun is typically scientific” – a particular kind of earth, a portion of the earth’s surface, the ground, etc.”

But the second definition, as a verb, turns sinister: ‘to soil: to make unclean, dirty or filthy; to smirch, smudge, or stain; to sully or tarnish, as with disgrace; defile morally. Its synonyms are ‘blacken, taint, debase, pollute.’ The term ‘dirt’ is perhaps even worse than ‘soil’. ‘Dirt’ comes from Middle English … meaning ‘mud, dung, or excrement’; or related ‘smutty or morally unclean.”

It’s easy to understand the theological leap from dirt and soil to sin and evil.[3] This is why we need Ash Wednesday in our faith journey. We need to feel the dirt on our foreheads in the sign of the cross as much as we make the sign of the cross with baptismal water, impure as it sometimes is.

This may seem like “a tempest in a linguistic teapot”[4] except for the fact that the bible points in another direction:

“Biblical creation stories abound with praise for the soil: God creates the ground and calls it good. Then the land brings forth life, and God calls it good. Humankind is made from the dust; God breathes life into the soil and Adam is born, this ‘soil creature’, and God sees that as very good.[5]

Humans beings are, literally, made from the humus, the ground. We are, simply, animated dirt.

In the famous Gospel story of the sower and the seed – where some seed falls on rocky ground, other seed on fertile, deep soil, other seed on the path, and other seed on shallow soil – Jesus explains that the seed is God’s love and the soil is us. The moral of the story?

“We are not soil-y enough! Spiritually, we would be better off more soiled rather than less. Being soiled is actually the point. You could say: ‘God loves dirt more than plants, soil more than what it yields. God is a dirt farmer, not a vegetable gardener.’ Soil is not sin. Soil is sacred, holy, and good. When we care for it, we are doing God’s work. Soil is life. And it is time for us — Ash Wednesday is a good time, symbolically at least — to reclaim the dirt.”[6] Why?

God became humus. God’s love got down and dirty. In the person of Jesus, God’s love was shown – in a human being. God is, according to Paul Tillich, not apart from us “but who is the very core and ground of all that is.”[7]

God is part of us, because of Christ Jesus and the incarnation. I read that every day more than sixty tons of cosmic dust fall to the earth. These are microscopic elements we can’t see, travelling in space from the farthest reaches of the universe. This cosmic dust enters our atmosphere where it mixes with existing soil on earth and enters the food chain.

Imagine, this cosmic dust is a source of ongoing creation. We eat and breathe it. Quite literally, human beings are made and being made of ‘stardust’. As the biblical story reflects: the divine and the soil, the Creator and created, are part of the same, theological ecosystem.

The Easter baptismal celebration is the end goal. We see it now, from the perspective of the starting line: Ash Wednesday. Tonight, we also make the sign of the cross on our foreheads, not with water – pure or murky. But with ash. We start by embracing the soil in and of our own lives.

Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust. The traditional words spoken at the start of Lent, and significantly, when our bodies return to the ground. A reminder, viscerally by the imposition of ash on our foreheads, that we are not only mortal, but that we belong to the earth. A reminder of our own need for repentance and new life.

At very least, we have to say it starts with dirt. We are dirt. Really. We therefore have to care for the dirt that is us, and in the earth, on this journey.

“We are not tourists here,” writes philosopher Mary Midgly, “We are at home in the world, because we were made for it,”[8] a world God so loved.

[1] Diana Butler Bass, “Grounded: Finding God in the World; A Spiritual Revolution” (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015), p.53.

[2] Ibid., p.53-54.

[3] Ibid., p.54.

[4] Ibid., p.54.

[5] Ibid., p.57.

[6] Ibid., p.58.

[7] Cited in ibid., p.31

[8] Cited in ibid., p.64

What is our purpose? -A little rant

I was privileged to meet Karen Hamilton this past week. She is the general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches. She was in Ottawa giving some speeches and meeting with various church groups.

When I saw her she gave an address to the Christian Council of the Capital Area (CCCA) about ecumenism, inter-church relations and the problem of human trafficking in Canada these days.

She told some stories illustrating how churches, to a large degree, have lost sight of their purpose and meaning. Karen lives in Toronto, so she is well acquainted with municipal politics; and we all know, Toronto has had its fair share of vibrant, local politics in the past year.

She is friends with a local, Toronto councillor who has a background in theology but is well-entrenched in the secular world. With some frustration he told Karen recently that the single-most issue over which church groups petition Toronto city hall, repeatedly, is …. can you guess?

And let me just clarify — this is not an issue only espoused by one denomination, or one particular group of Christians. This is an issue that a broad spectrum of churches go to city hall over. Any more guesses?

Parking. And, presumably parking around their properties and buildings. Are you surprised? I was. Now, it’s not to say parking doesn’t deserve some attention. But for the secular world to have this dominant picture of what Christians spend so much of their time and galvanizing energy and petitioning politicians over … parking?

You’d think the church, if it were to venture into the public realm to make a stand and petition local government, would be more interested in issues other than parking. I agree with Karen Hamilton when she says the church does have an ‘optics’ problem. What kind of witness are we bearing in the world? Are we surprised that this institution for which we care is struggling?

After reading the Gospel text for the Third Sunday in Lent (John 2:13-22) I wonder how many tables at our annual /vestry meetings Jesus would overturn if he would walk into our places of worship and see what really motivates our “Christianity”?