Ordinary Time

We understandably seek an extraordinary experience of the divine. The stories we like to tell each other over coffee, for example, are those strange, inexplicable even miraculous moments of life. It’s as if we can know God only through these extreme, irregular events: How by some fluke we avoided an accident waiting to happen, or how we were so fortunate to win a prize, or how we happened to be in the right place at the right time to witness something incredible. 

These expectations of experiencing something spectacular of the divine translate into our religious observance. We will come to church at Christmas and Easter – when all the stops are pulled to put on a good show – in order to fulfill our longing for God, for something better than the norm, something more entertaining and stimulating. Aren’t epiphanies supposed to catch our attention after all?

It is so tempting to set religion apart from the ordinary, making of it a sort of “fairyland amusement park.” This leads to an ancient heresy of the church – the split between God and human, the ordinary and the holy, the sacred and profane.[1]And when this split entrenches in our minds, how is it, we wonder, that we would deserve such a God? A God who is made known only to an elite few who will have these extraordinary, divine epiphanies more than we ever can.

But today we find ourselves in ‘ordinary’ time of the church year. According to the church calendar, these times are marked by the colour green. The largest chunk of ordinary time follows the numerous Sundays after Pentecost, running through the whole summer and into late Fall.

But, ordinary time also has a place early in the year, a shorter chunk of time between Christmas and Easter. Combined with the season after Pentecost, ‘ordinary’ time makes up mostof our time – thirty-three or thirty-four weeks of every year.[2]It is not, therefore, the time during which the church is engaged in preparations for, or celebrations of, the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus.

It is the time during which we are called, like Simon and Andrew in the Gospel for today, to follow Jesus. Not because of the star that announced his birth. Neither because of the excitement conjured by the promise of a trip to Jerusalem. But simply because Jesus said, “Follow me.”[3]

It’s ironic that in church history and doctrine we have minimized Jesus’ life and ministry in comparison to his birth and death. Some of the ancient creeds jump directly from Jesus’ birth to his death. But the reason for which Jesus lived on earth cannot be minimized. “Though it is not untrue to say that Jesus came to earth to die, it is more true to the Gospels to say that he came first to live.”[4]

In fact, Jesus’ death is truly significant only in connection with that which he lived for and proclaimed – God’s kingdom. We pray every week, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth. While we go about living, here.

In these weeks between Christmas and Easter we are reminded that, for all their wonders, neither of these great celebrations is sufficient to sustain us in the hard work of following Jesus in our ordinary lives. How can we do that?

In addressing this question let’s be aware again not to be always so taken by the WOW factor —the exceptional even unbelievable nature of the disciples’ response:

“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”[5]

Again, we may tend to focus only on the extraordinary act of obedience on the part of the disciples. All we see and read here is this immediate response by Simon and Andrew to follow Jesus. They don’t think about it, they don’t talk to anyone before agreeing. They just drop everything and go. Wow!

But what has been going on leading up to this moment, this encounter between Jesus and the disciples he calls? You get the feeling that there has been something brewing beneath the surface, even of their consciousness, which then presents in this radical behaviour. What has been going on in their lives preceding this moment? And, over the long haul of their ordinary living?

Saint Augustine from the fourth century opens the first book of his Confessionswith the prayer and statement that “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”[6]It might very well be that even those four fishers had restless hearts – so restless that when they heard Jesus’ call to them, they could do nothing else but leave everything behind and follow. 

Perhaps they were simply responding to what had already been imprinted on their souls from birth—the knowledge of the voice of God—so that when they heard the voice, all they could do was obey. Their hearts were already prepared over time, to respond to that moment of invitation.

Our hearts have been prepared through every experience of our lives, prepared to hear God’s voice when it happens. Our lives, every ordinary moment, is holy ground in which God is working in us to be prepared for when that moment of realization comes.

We may be our greatest enemy in recognizing the work of God in our ordinary routines, as we go about our lives—washing dishes, or walking to the office, or talking on the phone. We can give up the search for extraordinary experiences to validate our relationship with God and service in Jesus’ name. It is obvious. It is right here. In our ordinary lives. Salvation happens in everyday, ordinary experience.[7]

An old man was making rope. Someone came to him and asked him, “What is it necessary to be saved?” Without looking up from his work, he replied, “You are looking at it.”[8]

An episode on one of the nature documentary channels was about the elephant seals of Argentina. The show focused on a mother and her seal pup, who had just been born. Soon after birthing her baby, the mother, now famished, abandoned the pup on the shore so she could go feed in the rich waters off the coast. 

After feeding, she returned to a different part of the beach and began to call for her baby. Other mothers had done the same, and all had returned at a similar time. It was hard to believe they would find each other. 

The camera then followed the mother as she called to her pup and listened for the response. Following each other’s voices and scents, soon the mother and her pup were reunited. The host of the show explained that, from the moment of birth, the sound and scent of the pup are imprinted in the mother’s memory; and, the sound and scent of the mother are imprinted in the pup’s memory.[9]

That’s how it is between God and each of us. We are imprinted with a memory, a longing for God. And God is imprinted with a memory, a longing for us. And even if it takes a lifetime, we will find each other.

No bright stars. No earthquakes. Just a voice that strikes our ear amid the ordinariness of our lives and announces that God has found us and God is among us.


[1]Gregory Mayers, Listen to the Desert; Secrets of Spiritual Maturity from the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Chicago: ACTA Publications, 1996), p.105

[2]David Toole in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.284-286

[3]Matthew 4:19

[4]Troy A. Miller in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., ibid., p.287

[5]Matthew 4:20

[6]Cited in Rodger Y. Nishioka, Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.286

[7]Gregory Mayers, ibid., p.105

[8]Ibid., p.97

[9]Rodger Y. Nishioka, Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.284-286

“¡Presente!”

Each of the four blessings is matched with a corresponding ‘woe’[1] First, Jesus says that blessed are they who are poor, who are hungry, who weep now and whom people hate. But, unlike Matthew’s version of the beatitudes[2], Luke doesn’t stop there. Luke doesn’t let us off easily.

Lest we become too enamoured with spiritualizing virtues or escape into some pie-in-the-sky notion of faith, Luke’s version of Jesus’ sermon only sets us up for being gobsmacked upside the head. In a stunning reversal to each blessing Jesus brings a ‘woe’—to those who are rich, who are full, who laugh now and about whom people speak well.

But wait—a secure financial future, a full stomach, a light heart, and a good reputation – aren’t these all values we want and seek? Aren’t these the things around which we structure our lives to obtain? Don’t these describe to a ‘t’ our five-year, ten-year and twenty-five-year goals?

A surface reading of this scripture can leave us picking sides. Am I on the ‘blessing’ side or the ‘woe’ side of the equation. Either / Or. Will we dare go deeper?

And, at the deeper currents of our awareness — when we are honest with ourselves — don’t we already know? Don’t we already know the truth of it—that, at best, wealth, a full stomach, a light heart and a good reputation are mixed blessings? They come at a great cost to health and relational well-being. They are temporary, fleeting. They can come and they can go.

Contrary to popular belief, rather than being evidence of God’s favour, prosperity can actually endanger our relationship with God, as was the case with the rich fool and Zacchaeus—both characters unique to Luke’s Gospel.[3]

What is common to both characters? Both came to Jesus rich men with full stomachs and their reputations intact. When they came to Jesus, both the rich fool and Zacchaeus were perfectly able to take care of themselves, to say the least.

The common trait they share as prosperous men of first century Palestine, is their self-sufficiency. This state is what separates them from God. And has them trapped. they are self-sufficient.

Elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel, we read that those who lay up treasures for themselves are not—and cannot be—rich toward God[4]because when we can take perfectly good care of ourselves, it is altogether too easy for us not to trust God. So, what jeopardizes the wealthy Christian’s relationship with God is the subtle temptation to think that we can go it alone and take care of ourselves.[5]

This underlying belief applies not only to our personal lives—and what we decide to do with our wealth, our investments, our properties our material blessing— but, also to the way we do church.

Will we be a community that lives only unto ourselves, or for the sake of others? Meeting the challenges of church today, how do we move forward? What decisions will we make with the resources we have? Will we abide by the code of self-sufficiency and go it alone? Or, will we seek out effective partners, neighbours and others on the journey of faith? Will we say God is only here inside thesewalls alone? Or, will we seek God’s work out there in the world?

What with all the competing values and programs for success beating down the doors of our hearts and minds, to follow the Christ of the cross is not easy. It’s not a technique or strategy that we can simply employ. In light of the beatitudes from Luke, the way of Christ cannot be an add-on. It cannot work that way, as another activity to add to the schedule of our already busy lives.

It comes to us as a complete package. It’s a call to transformation – a whole-life make-over. I understand the hesitation. Because life in the fast lane has its perks. Maybe we don’t want to give them up. Not easily, anyway. Seeking after self-sufficiency is too much of a lucrative deal for our egos.

Therefore the message of the Gospel can really be a downer! After all, how can we ever live faithfully when immersed in our world and its values?

But, perhaps, the message of All Saints provides an antidote to the despair and the grief. And give us hope for the journey. After all, the Gospel is not just about how to get into heaven after you die, but actually more about how to live in the kingdom of heaven on earth before you die. Not just the saints of heaven. But the saints on earth.

I want to close with a brief reflection on the meaning of a couple of words. First, ‘blessing’. “Blessed” is sometimes translated as “Happy”. I prefer the translation of the first word in the Psalms[6]which incidentally is also often translated to “Happy are they …”:

The Hebrew word here is ‘ashar, which means, literally, “to find the right road.” So, in offering the beatitudes, Jesus is saying: “You are on the right road when you are poor, when you hunger, when you weep, when you let go, when you don’t hold it all to yourself.” I prefer this translation because it implies a direction rather than a moral state. It acknowledges a journey of becoming. And any path of growth and transformation will include honest struggling and striving and letting go.

It is human to struggle with these things. On one hand, we do need to learn early in life how to take care of ourselves. Learning vital skills around self-care are important. Along the journey of maturity and growth, however, we must also learn how to balance this skill towards attention to others.

The second word is ‘presence’. This word doesn’t appear in the biblical texts for today, but it is implied in our ritual of All Saints. In Spanish, you hear the word said aloud: “¡Presente!”—which literally means “here” or “present”. There is a long tradition in Latin American movements for justice of invoking the memory of those who have lost their lives in the struggle.

At political gatherings their names were read out loud, one after another, not unlike we read the names of the saints earlier. After each name the crowd says together: “¡Presente!” as if to say: “You are not gone, you are here with us. You are not forgotten, and we continue the struggle in your name.”

It is human to struggle in the mission of God on earth. But we are not alone. Not only are the saints of heaven among us in spirit and in love, God is with us each step of the way. On the journey of life …

“Blessed are you who are poor – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who hunger – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who weep – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who are despised – because you are not alone!”

“¡Presente!” “¡Presente!” “¡Presente!”

 

[1]Luke 6:20-31

[2]Matthew 5:1-12

[3]Luke 12:16-21; 19:1-10; E. Elizabeth Johnson 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.239-241.

[4]Luke 12:21

[5]E. Elizabeth Johnson, ibid., p.241

[6]Psalm 1:1

Blessed, to trust

Jesus’ words to Thomas are meant for us. Yes, they were first said to Thomas over two thousand years ago in the upper room in Jerusalem days after Jesus’ resurrection. Yes, they were intended to increase his faith in light of his doubting and fear. Yes, the early church and disciples heard these words for them, too.

When Thomas confesses his faith in the risen Lord, Jesus says: “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”[1]They are for us.

Let’s slow down and savour these words. Let’s look at three sections of this short sentence.

First, “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

When do we not see? What are the times in life when God is unrecognizable?

In the face of great suffering or great love,

in the presence of death and dying,

and facing the difficult questions of living such as: Why do children suffer disease, poverty, persecution? Why do people who don’t deserve it, suffer? When the usual, easy answers don’t fit.

When we stand in the presence of a great mystery.

When everything points to everything except what is good.

When all words and ideologies fail.

Then, “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

What are the qualities of these people who have ‘not seen’? These are people …

Who sometimes doubt.

Who are not certain.

Who don’t have all the facts.

Who can’t provide an easy explanation.

Who don’t have proof.

Who have done without.

Who have to trust someone else, and ask for help.

Who have to trust …

“Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

Finally, what does it mean to believe? To believe and to trust, are very similar. The two words appear on the faith cube. You might wonder why the authors of this toy decided to keep the two words separate even though they might, to our minds, mean essentially the same thing.

IMG_6887

And yet, it is worthy to ponder the subtle distinction between the two. Martin Luther understood faith as meaning the addition of the two concepts: Belief + Trust, not as opposing realities but complementing in distinct ways.

Belief is a function mainly of the mind. When we discuss doctrines, creeds. When we debate interpretations of scriptures and statements of faith. To believe is to access the cognitive capacity of our brains. It is, in the lingo of psycho-babble, the left brain analytical side that relishes in rational thought. To believe, in short, is to think through it.

Trust, on the other hand (or, on the other side of the brain), is more intuitive. Trust does not require a full explanation. Trust does not need all the facts and arguments in favor or against. Trust is a function mainly of the heart. Trust lowers the center of intelligence down from the brain to the heart.

Trust is relational. Trust understands our need for the other, to be open to the other, to take risks for and with the other. Trust calls us out of ourselves, to get out of the isolation of all our mental activity – to reach out to the other.

“Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

Jesus affirms for Thomas and the disciples that to follow in the Way of Christ, especially to generations and people like us thousands of years after the fact, that we need to trust others, and trust ourselves. To believe in Jesus, is to believe the witness of generations of Christians before us, to trust their witness, and to walk in the way precisely when easy explanations and scientific proof fall short.

We don’t ‘trust blindly’. That is often the criticism of trust, when it feels like we would be making an irrational decision not based in fact or evidence.

But we are trusting the most capable and the truest part of ourselves when we let go of our cognitive compulsions and let go into the love that sustains the heart.

The opposite of love is not hate. It is fear. “Perfect love casts out fear,” we read from the author of the second reading today[2]. We need to confess that it is fear that keeps us stuck in our heads, and keeps us stuck on the ground. Major decisions in our lives, decisions that changed the course of our lives, decisions that were important to us – were they born out of fear or love? Were they more a movement of the heart or head? Or some combination of both?

A music analogy …

I have been learning a new musical instrument these last couple of years. Classical guitar. Which is different, a little bit, from the acoustic guitar that you often see in churches today, and listen to in popular music.

In comparison, the classical guitar uses nylon strings, which tend to produce a softer, delicate, more harp-like sound. The fingerboard is wider on the classical guitar, and the body – the bell – of the instrument is smaller. When you hold the classical guitar, the curve of the body, which is more pronounced, sits on your left knee (if you are right-handed). And rather than strum chords, you pluck separate notes on the classical guitar. It’s a beautiful-sounding instrument.

But as with learning to play any instrument, and staying with it, there is a progression that needs to happen from the head to the heart. Listen to what Barry Green, renowned double bass player, writes about when teaching another musician how to play vibrato on their instrument. Vibrato is rolling your finger back and forth over your string when playing a note.

“On my Pacific tour,” he writes, “I coached Edith, a bass player from the New Zealand Symphony. She had tried to use her vibrato in a number of different places in a slow, expressive sonata by Vivaldi and couldn’t decide where it ‘worked’ best. None of her experiments quite had the right feel to them.

“I wanted Edith to discover the best places for vibrato by herself, so I asked her to play the piece without making any effort to put in a vibrato. I asked her to imagine that her fingers, not her brain, would tell her what to do, and suggested that she only use vibrato when her fingers ‘screamed at her’ to do so.  Since she would not have decided in advance which notes needed the vibrato, I was confident that her hands would be free to supply it unconsciously.

“Her performance improved immediately: Both her sound and her vibrato were smoother and richer.”[3]

Obviously to gain this level of playing, Edith had to practice and practice and practice. She had to become technically proficient in playing the bass. But to begin to enjoy playing and hearing the sounds you are creating on your instrument, to discover the resiliency of performing and the joy of making music, the usual questions provided by the mind must be eclipsed by the heart.

In other words, the mind will give instructions, constantly critique, and fan the flames of fear and self-consciousness – all of which undermine the making of a beautiful sound. We need the mind’s work, to an extent. But we also need to be able to let go of what the mental activity can get rather compulsive about. We need to grow up, as people of faith.

Albert Einstein, the most eminent scientist of the twentieth century, you would think would defend the prominence of the mind over the heart, the rational over the intuitive. So, this quote from him might surprise you; he said: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Take his phrase, ‘intuitive mind’ to mean the ‘intelligence of the heart’.

Intuition relies on the capacity of trusting: Trusting the love, this capacity and capability within you, trusting the other who is willing to help, assuming the good intentions of others rather than immediately judging them – these are the attributes of one who has maturing faith. Especially, faith in God.

“Blessed are they who have not seen, yet have come to believe.”

 

[1]John 20:29

[2]1 John 4:18

[3]Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey, “The Inner Game of Music: The classical guide to reaching a new level of musical performance,” (New York: Doubleday & Company /Pan Books, 1986), p.113.

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.

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

The unknown journal of Ebenezer Scrooge

After attending the National Arts Centre (Ottawa) theatre performance of Charles Dickens’ classic tale “A Christmas Carol” last week, I wondered: What if Scrooge kept a daily journal? So, in my journal this week, I wrote this imaginative piece entitled, The Unknown Journal of Ebenezer Scrooge:

“It started out as a good idea. Keeping a daily journal was easy for a man who kept meticulous financial records. His ledgers were perfectly lined, his pen craft impeccable.

“Ebenezer Scrooge was on a mission to clean up all of life’s messiness. He wanted to resolve all his problems. He wanted to tie up all the loose ends and complete any unfinished business:

“The brackets on his library shelves downstairs needed reinforcing. The kitchen silverware needed polishing. The large knocker on his apartment door needed sanding and some fresh paint.

The door’s deteriorating condition had recently created spectral images on his imagination in the fading light of day. Like on this Christmas Eve when coming home from work, he saw the face of his long-deceased partner, Mr. Morley, embedded in the decorative door knocker.

“Then, there was the unresolved issue of his assistant Bob Cratchit’s pay in the New Year. Scrooge waffled between giving him a decrease, or keeping it at the same level. The money was tight. And, Scrooge was still beset by disturbing dreams about Tiny Tim – Cratchit’s youngest boy. He wanted to understand what to do with the feelings of despair swirling about these nocturnal predations of the mind.

“All these he would diligently record. These matters, after all, needed his scrupulous and perfectionist ministrations once he would have the time, or by unsuspecting fortune he was granted insight and resource to solve.

“Scrooge lifted his journal onto his lap, feeling the rough leather-bound book. He was surprised by how heavy it felt. Curious about the turn of his thoughts, he flipped to previous days in the month. Then quickly he turned to the first half of his nearly-finished tome, recording events in the last year. Finally, he opened to the first few pages when he started the journal several years ago now.

“Back then, the door knob still needed fixing, the shelf brackets still needed reinforcing. The silverware was never polished enough. And worry about money figured into most of his notations throughout. Nothing changed.

“What is more, a persistent, dark pessimism shrouded his lists of unfinished, unresolved, ‘problems.’ His writing reflected a clear, negative tendency. Something was always missing, incomplete, imperfect. There was never enough. Scarcity, he realized with startling awareness, was a constant undercurrent in his approach to life. And had been, for a long, long time.

“Scrooge pulled on his night shirt and climbed onto his giant canopy bed. As he pulled the covers tight around his chin, he wondered if he should bother keeping a journal at all. The lights dimmed. And he thought he heard the rattle of chains ….”

Charles Dicken’s epic story survives the ages and continues to inspire people at Christmastime because there is something in all of us that can relate to it. The light of Christ coming into the world exposes the darker contours of our souls. In the weeks, and now days, leading to the Christmas celebration, we may feel and struggle with the tensions in our own hearts: Between generosity and self-preservation, between a joyous liberation of spirit and the confining constriction of fear.

Into these tensions, the Lord’s message is clear. The Gospel pushes us into the realm of light – under the spotlight of God’s vision. All is revealed.  We have nothing to hide, and nothing for which we have to strive and toil and protect. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”[1]

During Advent, we hear again the story of Elizabeth’s meeting with her cousin Mary. Both are pregnant, expecting the birth of babies. Even the babies feel the excitement of their mothers, “leaping with joy” in the womb.[2] The Magnificat, which we read responsively this morning, is Mary’s song of joy in response to the message of the Lord’s promise to her. Joy is a central theme both in the four weeks of preparation leading to Christmas, and also an important characteristic of faith.

It is God’s will for us to enjoy the good things in life. Without denying nor avoiding the hard, challenging and often disappointing events of life, we are called to see the good, and rest in the joy of living. Jesus came, after all, that we might have life “abundantly”.[3] The dominant disposition of faith is joy.

Paul writes in our second lesson some of the earliest script in the New Testament.[4] Written around 50 C.E. the Christians in Thessalonica are merely a generation removed from Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension. They are waiting for the immanent return of Jesus. And this letter is written to a people with a growing anxiety. The proverbial elephant in the room is growing larger with each passing year: Why hasn’t Jesus yet returned in glory?

So, in essence, Paul is addressing a relevant question of faith – even to us some two thousand years later: What do we do in the tension of living between the promise of Jesus’ coming again, and the harsh reality of ‘not yet’?

Paul’s answer revolves around the inner attitudes of thanksgiving and joy. “Give thanks in all circumstances,” he admonishes the faithful.[5] Even when things don’t seem just right. Even when there doesn’t seem to be enough. Even when there are still things to be done, problems to solve, imperfections to address.

The true message of Christmas does a frontal attack on our inherent pessimism. This wake-up call can be disarming. The inaugural Prayer of the Day for Advent calls us to be pure and blameless at the coming of the Lord.[6] Even our liturgies can make us feel worse. For, how can we give thanks in all circumstances when we are hurting so much, are so fearful or angry?

By the end of the story, Ebenezer Scrooge has a conversion of heart. He becomes generous, joyful, free, helping others. How does it happen? A man steeped in his own negativity makes an almost incredible U-turn by the end because of the intervention of the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. An intervention of divine proportions breaks into and breaks apart the shroud of pessimism encasing his heart.

Even when we find ourselves stuck in the mire of circumstance, we can begin by appreciating that all of life, especially the good things, are a pure gift of God. Even amidst the direst of circumstances, are there not pinpricks of light, nuggets of grace, whispers of love that pierce our field of vision?

We can, in this appreciation, learn to let go, and release our claim on our lives which are not our own. They are gift. With open hearts, we learn to walk lightly in faith, trusting that God will indeed complete the good work begun in each of our hearts “by the day of Jesus Christ.”[7] All our days are God’s. Our very breath is a gift of life from the Creator.

And what is more, Paul’s earliest message to the Christian church, a message that will endure until the day of Jesus Christ, is one of grace. “The one who calls you is faithful,” Paul tells us, “and God will do this.”[8] On our own strength, and by our own will, we may very well not be able to engineer our own perfection, or the perfection of our lives.

By ourselves, we cannot make the world a better place. By ourselves, we cannot solve all the world’s problems.

But together, God can through us. God did; God does; And God will.

[1] John 1:9

[2] Luke 1:41

[3] John 10:10

[4] 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

[5] 1 Thessalonians 5:18

[6] First Sunday of Advent, Year B in “Evangelical Lutheran Worship” (Augsburg Fortress, 2006), p.18

[7] Philippians 1:6

[8] 1 Thessalonians 5:24

The good crowd

I was ten years old when my parents shuffled me and my brother into one of the front rows of the main, outdoor theatre in the small, Bavarian town. The crowd pushed and shoved for privileged seating to watch the story of Jesus’s last days acted out daily by the town’s folk every ten years.

In fact, the crowd on the large stage did not appear any different than the tourists who got up very early in the morning for tickets to the Oberammergau Passion play.  

This coming Holy Week is rich with story. And when we read the stories about the last days of Jesus — full of drama, plot, and character — we will naturally identify with elements of the story-telling. Our worship is designed to help us identify, for example, with the crowds.

This morning, we sing “Hosanna” and wave our palm branches identifying with the enthusiastic crowd that first day when Jesus entered the city. “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees …” (Matthew 21:8). Some years in Holy Week we dramatized and therefore simplify the trial scenes. We have individuals and groups speaking the various parts of the story. So, for example, ‘the crowd’ is played by the whole congregation who chants those lines together, such as “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” (Matthew 27:23) and “He deserves death!” (Matthew 26:66).

Undergoing some mysterious metamorphosis sometime between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday, the crowd turns to the dark side. In a tradition that goes back centuries, Christians have most often portrayed the Jewish crowd around Jesus during his last days as rabidly and violently against him. We see it in Passion plays, the most famous of which is at Oberammergau in Bavaria. The evil crowd is also central to Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ.”

This over-interpretation has unfortunately led to harmful, anti-semitic justification against the Jewish people throughout the dark side of Christian history.

It may be easy to identify with these ‘bad’ crowds more than anyone else in the stories. Through the journey of Lent, we have struggled with the shadow self of our own lives, carrying our own cross so to speak, alongside Jesus. We have confessed our sin. Indeed, at the climax of Christ’s Passion, we pound nails into the cross on Good Friday. We so readily identify with the crowds, even saying that ‘we’ have crucified Jesus by our sin. It is little wonder why we come to these rather negative views, from Scripture.

What these portrayals fail to address, however, is this: Why, if the Jewish crowd was so against Jesus, was it necessary to arrest him in the darkness of night with the help of a traitor from among Jesus’s followers? Why not arrest him in broad daylight? And why do they need Judas?

What we discover is a positive, more balanced approach to the identity of the crowd. First we need to understand why the high-priestly authorities wanted to do away with Jesus.

“[The chief priests and Pharisees] wanted to arrest him …” (Matthew 21:46).

If the chief priests and Pharisees let him go on like this, everyone would believe in him, and the Romans would then intervene and execute them (John 11:48). Moreover, the authorities were not just afraid of the Roman Emperor, who was the recipient of Judean tax money and demanded political allegiance from those put in a position of power by the Emperor to keep the Pax Romana in the region. Insurrection in Judea would not be tolerated by Rome.

“… but they feared the crowds …”

Pilate and the high-priests also felt threatened by the whole crowd of people who, if they didn’t do something about Jesus, would eventually turn on them, which in 70AD (around the time most of the Gospels were written), did in fact happen. (1)

The Gospels reveal a clear disconnect between the high-priestly authorities who wish to execute Jesus, and the “whole crowd” who are “spellbound by his teachings” (Mark 11:18) and who “regarded him as a prophet” (Matthew 21:46).

This favourable support of Jesus by the predominantly Jewish crowd does not stop after the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday. It continues throughout the days leading to the Passover Festival in Jerusalem.

The crowds aren’t perfect, to be sure. Their motivations for supporting Jesus may very well have missed the mark, especially those who still sought in Jesus a violent solution to the end of Roman rule in Judea.

Yet, they are captivated by his teachings. There is some good, therein. The ‘whole crowd’ can be personified by each of us. Which part of ourselves identifies with the crowd that is for the most part good and supportive of Jesus, even during his last days on earth?

I ask this question, especially in the midst of the most penitential season of the church year. I ask this question, and make this point as a spiritual antidote to what can easily, and so often does, slide into self-hatred on account of all our sinfulness.

We must remember we live in Christ Jesus, and the living Christ lives in us through the Holy Spirit. There is some good therein. We don’t need to be so hard on ourselves.

“The secret of life,” say the American Indigenous people, “is in the shadows and not in the open sun; to see anything at all, you must look deeply into the shadow of a living thing.” (2)

We may begin Lent and Holy Week — indeed our Christian pilgrimage on earth — by confronting our shadow self. It’s important to do so. But by the end of Holy Week we cannot avoid the open sun and see the empty tomb. The ending is always as it was in the beginning when God created everything and everyone, and said that it was good. “It was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

 
1 — Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, “The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem” (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), esp. p.87-91

2 — cited in Joyce Rupp, “Walk In A Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons from the Camino” (New York: Orbis Books, 2005), p.161