Prayer as Growth – Advent sermon series 1

In the movie, “Good Boys”, three young friends explore the meaning of friendship and growth. On the journey towards maturity, Max, Lucas, and Thor discover what it means to be in a healthy relationship that can change over time.

Everything is going fine until each boy begins to pursue individual goals. At the same time, they realize that what one of them wants to do is not necessarily what the others like to do. It looks like they are going their separate ways. And the friendship group appears to dissolve.

When Lucas sits down with his parents in tears, bemoaning the breakup of his friendships, his parents offer some sage advice. They recall an old pet Lucas used to have – a hermit crab. But, when Lucas was much younger he wasn’t told how exactly his hermit crab had left them. His parents, now, tell him the truth:

The hermit crab had to find a new shell, they say. And died on its way to the beach. They explain that a hermit crab eventually outgrows its shell. And must find another shell that is larger into which it can continue to grow. If it doesn’t find a larger shell, it will die one way or another.

Lucas makes the connection that he is growing, and may need to find a larger shell to grow into – a larger social group, new friends, other activities. Leaning on this truth, Lucas is freed from the self-blame for the recent troubles with Max and Thor. It is normal and healthy to go through these growing pains in relationship. As it turns out, the boys learn to find a new way of relating with one another – a way that respects each other’s unique talents and personalities.

Throughout his letter to the Romans, Paul describes a healthy relationship to God.[1]And as we grow in this relationship, we change. And the way we relate to God changes.

In this first part of the series of sermons in Advent on prayer, I would like to underscore this theme: Prayer as growth, in our relationship with God.

There are times in our lives, events and circumstances, that give us this sense that our whole person–our deepest desires, the core of who we are–is actually waking up. At first some experiences may not feel particularly enlivening. Ironically, it is often difficult, challenging times in life that cause this re-birthing within us.

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: “Wake from sleep, now is the moment! Shed your clothes of darkness and ignorance and be clothed with Christ.”[2]This imperative is a common theme in Paul’s writings; to the Ephesians he writes: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead!”[3]

And in our Gospel text today, Matthew records Jesus’ instruction to “Keep awake!” especially at the time when you are in the darkness of not knowing, or in grief, or loss or some kind of suffering. This is the time to wake up, for God is doing a new thing for you.[4]Do you not perceive it? It is time to get up. It is time to slough off the old and make room for the new. It is time “to live into the reality of the new age about to dawn.”[5]

We hear the call at this start of a new church year and the first Sunday in Advent. We hear this call to spiritual renewal as we seek to deepen our lives of faith and wait upon the coming of the Lord into our lives. The call to renewal starts with prayer.

I started by saying there are occasions in our lives that become opportunities—divine invitation, you could say—to try a different way of praying.  Like spokes on a large wagon wheel, there are different ways to pray—intercessory praying, devotional prayer, prayers with lots of words, prayers without using any words, imaginative prayers, body prayers, sacraments, song, music, art.

A variety of prayer forms give us ways of growing and deepening our relationship with God in Christ. Because at the centre of every wheel—even one with several spokes—is the hub, which is Christ. The ever-present, living Lord, moves with us and in us down the road of life.

As we grow older, for many of us, the only real question is: Why doesn’t  God answer my prayers? Because of this conundrum alone, many of us frequently just stop praying and hope for the best. Hopefully on our life’s path, when we meet others we listen to them and discover that no two of us have exactly the same spiritual journey.[6]So, why would we believe there is only one way to pray or only one way of understanding what happens in prayer?

We are each like the hermit crab, seeking to find a larger shell to grow into.

But how can we be encouraged to find a larger shell? How can we even believe that we are growing, that our broken lives so weak and stained by life’s hardships be the place wherein Christ makes his home and through which Jesus’ light shines? How is this even possible?

I heard this week the story of someone recently walking through the woods. Without yet any snow on the ground to brighten things here in Ottawa, the landscape is shrouded in browns and darkish colours. Blah. While walking the forest path, she stopped at large, oak tree which still held its leaves.

But the leaves weren’t full and vibrant with life as you would see in late Spring. They were curled at the edges, no longer pulsing with life-sustaining chlorophyll. Like crumpled, dried paper, these leaves hung there, lifeless and dead. Just waiting for the inevitable drop to the ground.

In that instant, the clouds high above suddenly broke. And streams of sunlight immediately penetrated the darkened woods and shone upon these listless leaves. In that moment of brilliance the leaves were clothed in the light. They were animated in the sunshine and restored to an incredible vision of renewed life. They absorbed and reflected the light. Their previously deadened state was transformed.

In the darkness of predawn, it is indeed hard to believe there is anything but the night. But arise, awake! The light is coming. And when the son comes as it does every morning, we are transformed and renewed in the light. And our lives reflect again God’s grace and love.

 

[1]Patrick J. Howell in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.18.

[2]Romans 13:11-14; ibid., p.16.

[3]Ephesians 5:14.

[4]Matthew 24:42; Isaiah 43:19.

[5]Howell, ibid., p.14.

[6]Ray Leonardini, Finding God Within: Contemplative Prayer for Prisoners (New York: Lantern Books, 2018), p.1,41.

Behold, I bring you joy!

The Gospel — good news — of God comes to us, as it did two thousand years ago, not on a bright, sunny day. Not as the sun’s rays stream down from a cloudless sky.  The word, both spoken and the Word made flesh, came into the world at night. God’s love became incarnate right in the darkest of times. This message was conveyed by a heavenly host in the dark: “Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy …”[1]

Today, in the season of Advent at literally the darkest time of year, we observe the Sunday of Joy: Gaudete Sunday, traditionally called. With the shepherds who keep watch at night, on this long, dark journey of waiting, and preparing and watching—the message of joy pierces our longing, our yearning and even our despair.

Joy is a consistent theme among new Testament characters:

“Rejoice!” is the angel’s greeting to Mary.[2]In her song of praise, Mary proclaims: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.[3]When Jesus begins his ministry, John the Baptist cries out: “For this reason, my joy has been fulfilled.”[4]To his disciples Jesus’ message brings joy: “I have said these things to you, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”[5]And, Jesus promises: “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.”[6]Even amid persecution his disciples continued to be “filled with joy.”[7]

The New Testament abounds with the language of joy.

Shortly after his election, Pope Francis challenged the church, “Why should wenot also enter into this great stream of joy?”[8]

How do you respond to such an invitation for your life to reflect this joy?

You may react as do I. On the surface, such a juxtaposition seems unnatural, even offensive. For, how can we feel joy in the midst of sadness? How can we feel joy when we have such a long way to go, still? How can we “Rejoice! Again I say rejoice!”[9]when confronting the darkest night of our soul—where we are most vulnerable and where it hurts the most? We may object to the phony feel of this call to be joyful, dismissing it as a fake and artificial expression that denies the hard realities of life.

We are not alone on this journey. We join the followers of Christ from the beginning who in their own ways traversed this uncertain territory that somehow brought them from suffering to a place of true joy. What did they do? How did they do it?

An early Christian theologian, Justin Martyr, in his First Apology, explained Christian faith and believers in this way; listen to his words:

“We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies …”

What accounted for this radical change in the life of first centuries Christians? Even Emperor Julian—who was the last non-Christian ruler of the Roman Empire and against Christianity—wrote:

“Christianity has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers and through their care of the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar and that the godless Galileans (Christians) care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help we should render them.”[10]

Clearly, the early Christians were known as people who cared for the stranger in need. And not at a time when Christianity was privileged in society. Not at a bright, glorious time in Christian history when Christianity was growing around the globe in leaps and bounds. Not when Christianity occupied throne-rooms and halls of power in governments. Not in the world’s measures of success.

Rather, this care for the other was given when Christians were persecuted and driven underground. Their greatest witness to the living Lord came at the darkest time for Christians.

Maybe those early Christians understood a truth about the Christian path: That our most vulnerable prayer is the path to our deepest relationship with God.[11]When we cry out simply, yet from the heart: “Help!”; when our tears soak the pillow and we can’t see a way through but know that somehow God is somewhere in this; when poverty, violence and death continue to populate the media and the world around us, we lament and shake our fist in anger towards the heavens. Why, God?

Pay attention in this darkness. Keep watch. For, our most vulnerable prayer is the path to our deepest relationship with God.

“Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy …”

For a week in April 2015 Archbishop Desmond Tutu visited the Dalai Lama in India. Their dialogue and interactions became “The Book of Joy”. In it, they write: “Suffering is inevitable. But how we respond to that suffering is our choice. Not even oppression or occupation can take away this freedom to choose our response.”

In “The Book of Joy” they outline the four qualities of the heart that lead to joy: forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity. At the end of the book, they offer this blessing:

“God, who is forever pouring out God’s whole being from all eternity, wants you to flourish. God wants you to be filled with joy and excitement and ever longing to be able to find what is so beautiful in God’s creation: the compassion of so many, the caring, the sharing.

“And God says, Please, my child, help me. Help me to spread love and laughter and joy and compassion. And you know what, my child? As you do this—hey, presto—you discover joy. Joy, which you had not sought, comes as the gift, as almost the reward for this non-self-regarding caring for others.”[12]

Perhaps, then, there is a way in and through the darkness.

“Behold, joy!”

 

[1][1]Luke 2:8-10

[2]Luke 1:28

[3]Luke 1:47

[4]John 3:29

[5]John 15:11

[6]John 16:22

[7]Acts 13:52

[8]Cited in Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation (Center of Action & Contemplation, 25 Nov 2018) http://www.cac.org

[9]Philippians 4:4

[10]Cited by the Rev. Riitta Hepomaki inThe Eastern Synod Lutheran (Kitchener: Eastern Synod ELCIC, Volume 44, September 25, 2015), p.1

[11]@lutherans.connect, “Faith in the Night”, DAY 1, Advent 2018

[12]Cited in Richard Rohr, ibid., 29 November 2018

The will of God – creation,incarnation,passion – March 25

In both Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ and, more recently, Mark Burnett’s ‘The Bible’, the devil stands by watching Jesus’ moments of agony.

Contemporary Jesuit writer, James Martin, SJ, describes three temptations facing Jesus during his Passion: The temptation of accommodation; the temptation of annihilation, and the temptation of abandonment.[1]

Jesus could have accommodated his opposition by not offending his listeners and telling them what they wanted to hear thereby avoiding his fate. When the Pharisees tested him time after time, Jesus could have appeased them.[2] But he didn’t.

Jesus could also have simply wiped out/annihilated his opponents by rallying the rebellious Jews against the Roman oppressors. Moreover, he could have called on divine power to protect him through force and violence.[3] But he didn’t.

Finally, Jesus could have left his ministry behind and the life God chose for him – abandoned it – in favor of a more conventional life. He could have settled down in the quiet sea-side town of Capernaum and taken on his earthly father’s carpentry business. But he didn’t.

Instead of doing all these things, he chose the path of surrendering to what came before him. He remained true to himself and his path.

Jesus chose the path of love and obedience. Jesus understood that the only way for God to fully embrace the human life and therefore the only way for God to love us, was the path of suffering and death. How did he come to align his will with God’s will? In the garden of Gethsemane, he prayed, “Not my will, but thy will be done.”[4] He prayed this as an affirmation that his deepest desires aligned with God’s purposes. “With you, all things are possible,” he prayed in his hour of anguish.

Indeed, what is God’s will? How do we discern God’s will for our lives? And when we are faced with the right path to follow, are we not also tempted to accommodate, to annihilate or to abandon? Early Christians, even before they were identified as such, were called, “Followers of the Way”, or “People of the Way”.[5] Jesus said, “I am the Way, the truth and the life…”[6]

This is the path of Jesus that we follow – a path that does not accommodate, annihilate nor avoid the reality of situation on the way to new life and resurrection. Life and death, light and dark, suffering and healing – the opposites are not excluded nor denied in the life of discipleship. It’s more both/and, than either/or.

March 25th is a significant date in Christian tradition, did you know? What we realize on the Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday is a liturgical convergence, an integration of meaning in the events of Holy Week, rather than a dissection and deconstruction into separate parts.

Some Christian denominations on March 25 celebrate the Annunciation – the day the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was pregnant with the Holy Spirit – nine months before Christmas Day. It is also the day ancient Christian believed Jesus was crucified. Finally, while now the calendar puts it on March 21, this time was associated with the creation of the world, on the Spring Equinox, the day when the day is divided equally between light and dark.

Creation, Incarnation (Christmas) and Passion (Crucifixion) – all collapse and converge on this day in Christian tradition.[7] The larger purpose of God come together to offer significant meaning on this one day: We recall the separation of day and night in Genesis during creation; the entering of God into the world in the person of Jesus; and, finally, the passion of Jesus brings to concrete and vivid reality the cross as the way to resurrection.

We live as we worship, and worship as we live.

Amidst the collisions of light and dark, hope and despair, love and suffering in our own lives, how do we discern God’s will for our lives? What are we supposed to do? Often when we ask these questions we assume that we have to figure it out. As if God’s will exists somewhere out there, detached or opposed to us, like clues we have to solve and decipher – a problem or mystery.

And yet, Christians have for centuries believed that God’s will was discerned within their  very own lives. Our own desires help reveal God’s desires for us. We look for signs of those desires in our own lives.[8] From ancient days, the Psalmist prayed: “May God grant you your heart’s desire and fulfill your plans.”[9]

Here are some pointers:

  1. Sometimes an obligation is an obligation, and you need to do it in order to be a good and moral person. But be careful your life is not simply one in which you only respond to shoulds or pushes that may not be coming from God. “When you feel pushed to do something – I should do this, I should do that – out of a sense of crushing and lifeless obligation or a desire to please everyone, it may not be coming from God.”[10] God’s ‘pulls’ are gentle invitations that beckon in love – that do not accommodate, annihilate nor abandon the reality you face.
  2. The desires of our heart are not the surface pushes and pulls of wishes and wants, neither are they tied to our compulsive, impulsive selves. The desires of our hearts are discovered deep within us. When getting water from the lake or river into a jar, we need to let all the sediment – twigs, leaves, sand – settle to the bottom. We can’t examine or use it right away. Even just waiting for a few minutes is really not good enough. We have to wait a good day, leaving it alone, still. Then, the water is at its best. Truly, it is the best of ourselves that will reveal our truest and deepest desires.
  3. Finally, the desires of our hearts as the way to discerning God’s will for us, are realized in the most ordinary tasks of the day. What God wills for us is presented in the problems, situations, people and events of our daily lives. God’s will for us is not found in any abstract principle disconnected from the reality of our simple, ordinary lives. If you want to find God’s will and God’s path for your life, start with the realities of your day-to-day, and discover the path of love and attention within the specifics of every moment you face.

Pray for what you desire, as the way of discovering God’s will for your life. Your will and God’s will may very well be closer than you imagined. When we follow in the Way of Christ, we discover that God is Immanuel – God is with us.

 

[1] James Martin, SJ, “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything; A Spirituality for Real Life” (New York: HarperCollins, 2010) p.299.

[2] Matthew 22:15-22; John 2:13-22

[3] John 18:36; Luke 23:39

[4] Mark 14:36

[5] Acts 24:14.

[6] John 14:6

[7] Beth Bevis in Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe, eds., “God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter” (Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2015), p.155-157.

[8] James Martin, SJ, ibid., p.279-283.

[9] Psalms 20:4

[10] James Martin SJ, ibid., p.329.

It’s ok to fall (1): Jesus lets us

There’s a bouncy feel to the rhythm of Mark’s story-telling. I can track the Gospel of Mark on a chart in terms of highs and lows:

The highs are the remarkable, miraculous, inexplicable even sensational events witnessed by story-tellers. Beginning with the baptism of Jesus in the first chapter (v.9-11) — voices from heaven, clouds parting, dove descending.

Then, mid-way through the Gospel Jesus goes atop a mountain and turns into this divine, ethereal being before the disciples’ eyes (Mark 9:2-9). Giants from Hebrew history — Moses and Elijah — appear out of thin air, clouds roil and again a voice from heaven. And, in the last chapter (16:9-20), of course, the brief but significant mention of Jesus’ glorious resurrection from the dead. These are definitely ‘highs’.

The lows are a bit more tricky. They represent the down-side of Jesus’ ministry — the temptation after forty impoverished days in the desert, the scrutiny of the Pharisees, all culminating in the Passion of Christ: his betrayal, arrest, torture, crucifixion, death and burial. Some original manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark end on a ‘low’: “So [the disciples] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (v.8).

Talk about bouncy, like what often happens with the outdoor temperature when seasons change!

These lows are tricky, because, as we shall see, they are not really ‘lows’. At least, they are not the final word in the story of faith. There is always an upside past the low. The troubling truth is that the high will not happen without the necessary, preceding low. In other words, before we rise we must know to fall.

I told this story already once before but it bears repeating. It illustrates the point rather well. And it is a summer-time, water-play story — and my imagination goes there frequently at this frozen time of year.

I was learning to water-ski. In fact, it was the first time I ever tried it, at age thirty. Jessica and I visited with some friends who had a cottage on a small lake nestled in the Bruce Peninsula north of Owen Sound.

It was a good lake to learn on. Few cottagers, even fewer boaters. A quiet, round lake. And my friend, John who drove the boat, assured me that we would just circle the lake a few times and when I wanted to stop, just to wave my arm and he would bring me close to shore.

John’s family, gathered with Jessica at shore to watch me. They assured me that it was normal to fall the first time on skis. In fact, they said they didn’t remember anyone ever being able to lift up and out of the water the first time without falling, when the boat accelerated. I think my friends were getting ready for a long afternoon of fits, stops and starts.

Well, were they in for a surprise. Including myself. Well, not really. Because, darn it all, I would employ all my strength and stamina NOT TO FALL!!!!

I was sitting with my skis submerged in the water, when John hit the gas and I felt the first tug. I gripped the tow rope handle with all my power and pulled myself out of the water, and voila! I was skiing! I briefly heard the cheering of my friends on the shore behind me before we were out on the open water and the waves were peeling off the sides of my skis. I enjoyed it for a few minutes.

But then, my back started cramping up, and my thighs began to seize up. We were around the lake a dozen times before I fully realized I was in some incredible pain. But I never wiped out once! It wasn’t until afterward that I came to the conclusion — after impressing everyone, I think — that I never relaxed into the experience. I was so tight because I didn’t want to fall.

And yet, I needed to fall. I needed to just let go into the water to know how it felt. My enjoyment of the experience was dampened because of an unrealistic, and inhuman (I might add) expectation of myself. Even though I never fell waterskiing that first time, even though I was ‘perfect’ at it — have I ever wanted to go again? No.

When I recall, as a child, those times that I truly enjoyed playing in the water — it was those times whenever a huge wave caught me off balance and threw me head over heels onto the beach. Those were the times I jumped up and ran back in with glee. It’s the same thing with water slides, and why we will run back up the steps all afternoon long. There is something important about sliding under the surface of the water, losing control, falling into grace, letting go into the sometimes tumultuous waters of our baptism.

This is the first movement of anyone’s true, journey of faith. The pull of the current is downward. Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, writes: “How surely gravity’s law, strong as an ocean current, takes hold of even the smallest thing and pulls it toward the heart of the world … This is what the things can teach us: to fall, patiently to trust our heaviness” (cited in Richard Rohr, “Falling Upward”, Jossey Bass, San Francisco, 2011, p.153).

What I am learning over time is that we are the cause of our sinning more than anything or anyone else. Because it is natural to fall, from time to time. But we don’t allow ourselves, give ourselves permission, to do just that. We resist, deny, suppress this movement downward. Part of the Lenten journey, I believe, is to reflect on why it is we don’t allow ourselves to just let go into the arms of God, and simply trust.

Admittedly our human nature is such, that we would rather avoid the low and shoot straight for the high. I get that. It is also true, we are up against a giant. We build our lives up against the fear of falling. We are a success-oriented culture. We construct our fortress of security, we incessantly compare ourselves to others and measure our self-worth against some notion of success plastered on the front covers of magazines and echoed through the voices of our sports’ heroes and business tycoons. We are an upwardly mobile culture, valuing even yearning for this trending in our own lives. ‘Up’ is the only way to go! What else is there to do?

So, beware of this prejudice against falling before we start! I ask you to consider all these real and important concerns we have in our culture against falling — whether they are physical, emotional, spiritual — and hold them before you, carefully, during the coming “down” season.

The glorious, divine vision of Jesus is hard to explain. It is a miracle way beyond human understanding. We may say that this event was meant to encourage and empower Jesus for his coming journey to the cross. We may say that we need to be reminded again of the divine nature of Jesus. We may say that what this text tells us is to be obedient, and “listen” to, Jesus, the Holy One of God.

But I like how the story ends. Mark, in his brevity nonetheless, does take intentional note of the movement of the disciples with Jesus “down the mountain” (v.9). This is the sounding bell for Lent. We are now ready to begin the journey downward, into the valley. We are now on a downward trajectory.

And the real question is: What will we do with that? Will we distract ourselves even more? Will we intensify our addictive behaviour and buy more toys to keep the pain at bay? Will we pretend that ‘all is well’ when it is not?

Or, will we face our fears, confront our internal poverty and our crisis, with courage? And I say, with courage, because there is reason to hope when we stand on the edge of the abyss. There is reason to persevere through the fall.

In Matthew’s version of the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration (17:1-8), describing with even more detail than Mark all that happened in this incredible mountain-top scene, the disciples who go with Jesus to see this heavenly vision and hear the voice of God from the bright, overshadowing cloud — what do they do? “When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear” (v.6). They fall to the ground. And not only that …

Jesus’ lets them. He doesn’t scold them for falling down by saying something like, “Hey, buck up; you are standing on holy ground before Elijah, Moses and my divine being! Don’t fall down and grovel in the dirt! Pull yourself together! You’re my disciples, after all! Show some respect!” No, he doesn’t.

Instead, Jesus let’s them be humbled before his divine presence. If but for a short moment, Jesus allows them their humanity. And then he says with encouraging, inviting words, “You don’t have to be afraid, get up” (v.7).

I hope you can join me in the coming Lenten journey, taking great comfort in the Good News of Jesus. I can almost hear Jesus’ loving voice whisper in my ear, next time I risk getting on water skis again, “It’s okay to fall, you know. You don’t have to be afraid.”