The roominess of God

Perhaps even more so that the images of the gate, sheep pens and pastures green, the metaphor of a room speaks more relevantly to us, today. Jesus says that he goes ahead to his “Father’s house” to prepare a room for each one of us (John 14:1-3).

Given the average rental costs of a one-bedroom apartment in Ottawa today is close to $1000/month; given that real estate values in Canada today are scrutinized by some economists as being over-priced, where the average single-dwelling house is almost $400,000 — the physical space we call home and the rooms we inhabit are, to say the least, costly.

We place a high value on our housing. And therefore our ears are piqued to hear a comforting word of promise from the lips of Jesus: at the end of the journey, each of us has a place in God’s house.

I remember my first trans-Atlantic plane-ride as a 10-year old when my family travelled to visit family in Germany. It was a long day and short night complete with sounds and sights and senses I had never yet experienced. Sensory overload!

When we arrived at my aunt’s house in Germany, exhausted yet exhilarated, she immediately showed us to our rooms. And even though it was the start of a new day, I appreciated the chance to be all by myself, in my own room prepared just for me, on the ground, still and silent. The peace and comfort of my room was a welcomed contrast to the hyper-stimulation of the long journey there.

One of the things I learned from the experience of long-distance travelling is that time gets all mixed up. My sense of the passage of time gets either accelerated or elongated when crossing multiple time zones in a day. And that can be disconcerting to the body. We call it jet lag. And there’s nothing like a place we can put down our suitcase and put up our feet to cope with the dis-orienting trouble of travel.

Jesus promises his disciples who face the trouble of loss — the loss of his physical, bodily presence with them — he promises them that God the Father has room for them. Indeed, God is ‘roomy’.

But, as some thinkers emphasize, God’s roominess has more to do with the time God has for us (Robert Jensen in Colin Gunton, “The Doctrine of Creation”, 1997, p.24). Time can be defined as: room in God’s own life. God is roomy, in that God’s eternity is not separated from our time on earth and its boundary of death; rather, God’s roominess is God having all the time he needs. The Psalmist expressed this concept of time, poetically: “For a thousand years in your sight, O God, are like yesterday when it is past” (90:4).

What troubles Jesus’ disciples is the very real sense that their time with Jesus has come to an end. Indeed we have the same trouble vis-a-vis our loved ones. Time, we perceive, is brief. Its brevity robs us of those we love.

The plots of most of the stories we enjoy reading and watching on the big screen today excite us because they are charged with the scarcity of time. The main characters are up against a deadline. If time runs out before they complete their quest, then all is lost forever. The dramatic thriller normally has a climax where the proverbial ticking time-bomb must be deactivated before total devastation.

The scarcity of time stokes our fear, and guides our decisions. We hear this a lot in our daily conversations. Marketing gurus capitalize on our fear of running out of time: “This special offer ends today!” “Get yours before time runs out!” We also hear this line of argument expressed in popular religion — “Before time runs out on your life, accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour — or else!” The result of living this kind of approach is fear-based.

It also assumes, in the end, when time runs out, it’s all up to us. We forget in all the fear and anxiety, that Jesus had all the time in the world for his disciples. Remember, Philip was one of the first of all of his disciples to follow Jesus (John 1:43). And yet here we see Philip, who had spent three years with Jesus, not getting it. Philip still does not really know Jesus, who tells him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” (John 14:9)

And it’s to those very disciples, like Philip, Thomas and Peter who doubt, who deny, who sometimes express their belief boldly, and sometimes don’t — it’s to those very disciples Jesus promises nonetheless: God has a room for you in his house. Jesus, despite their unbelief, comforts them in their grief at his leaving them, and promises them God’s eternal presence.

Who among us knows Jesus? Does knowing Jesus coincide with an inward assent to church doctrine or written creed? Or, is it more than that? Martin Luther, in his Small Catechism explanation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed, writes, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him.” What John is getting at in his Gospel is that believing is expressed more as an outward and active commitment to a person, the person being Jesus (Cynthia Jarvis in Feasting on the Word Year A Vol 2, p.467).

We know God by God’s initiative in Jesus Christ. We are not the actors; God is not known to us because Jesus is dependent on the exercise of our cognitive abilities. No one has ever seen God; we know God only by Jesus’ self-revelation to us in love and grace.

In the Large Catechism, Martin Luther, in response to the First Commandment — “I am The Lord your God, you shall have no other God’s before me” — Luther poses the question: What does it mean to have a God? He answers that God is what you hang your heart upon.

Hang your heart upon Jesus. When the journey of life goes haywire and you are disoriented by grief, loss or great personal challenge.

Hang your heart upon Jesus, when time appears to be running out.

Hang your heart upon Jesus, trusting that his presence is in you when you reach out into the homeless world to house those who do not have a room.

Hang your heart upon Jesus, being the hands and feet of Christ, sharing his love for those in want.

Hang your heart upon Jesus, who leads the way, and is in us through life and death.

Because God has a room for you. And God has all the time in the world, for you.

A sob story

When Martin Luther said that “the fewer the words the better the prayer”, I wonder if that could also be applied to reading the bible. In Luther’s summary of prayer, he implies that a deeper, more meaningful, connection with God is made when we get more of ourselves out of the way; namely, our words.

Considering the lengthy Gospel texts from John assigned for these Sundays in Lent, I am immediately drawn to what is conventionally known as the shortest verse in the bible: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35 ESV/KJV). Coming to this point in the reading (John 11:1-45) is like stumbling on a diamond in the rough, landing at an oasis in the midst of the Gospel’s drawn-out narrative. At verse 35, I am permitted to pause, even for a breath.

The phrase is abrupt, unpolished and unrefined. In its simplicity nevertheless is revealed a precious nugget of understanding Jesus – his person and purpose.

Last summer, photos of the “crying cop” went viral following a tense stand-off between protestors and police. During the protest, which became violent, police clashed with crowds who objected to human rights abuses by the government of President Aquino in the Philippines.

The police officer, Joselito Sevilla, was among hundreds of armed military police facing the protestors. As the photo shows, he’s a big, intimidating man. And yet, for most of the protest, he made the peace sign, and wept. Many commentators have reflected on what brought about those tears – and the message sent by his unexpected behavior.

A king is not saved by his great army;

A warrior is not delivered by his great strength.

The war horse is a vain hope for victory,

And by its great might it cannot be saved. (Psalm 33:16-17)

If not by physical might, strength and intimidating power, then by what?

Jesus’ dear friend, Lazarus, teaches Jesus to cry. The Gospel writer makes clear that some of Jesus’ closest friends were Mary, Martha and Lazarus (John 11:3,5). Friendships of love (translated in this text from the Greek, philio) literally bring Jesus down to earth, and make him human, as well.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is portrayed as a divine being sent by God. Repeatedly John emphasizes Jesus’ direct relationship with God the Father. For example, in this story, Jesus looks heavenward and prays, “Father, I thank you for having heard me …” (v.41-42). But it is an act of humanity that starts the rock rolling, again literally, to the cross.

There is so much in this story that links the death and rising of Lazarus to the anticipated death and resurrection of Jesus – symbols like the stone sealing the burial tomb, and then rolling away. It was the raising of Lazarus that initiated the plot to kill Jesus (v.46-53: “From that day on they planned to put him to death”).

The shortest verse in the bible precipitates the greatest divine act in all of history. Jesus’ humanity – his compassion and his ability to feel loss and grief as we all do – is the anchor in the unfolding divine drama.

What does it mean to cry? There is power in tears.

Emotional tears often result in peace. Crying erases the competitive edge between people. Divisions are dissolved. Hearts of cold stone melt and crumble. Biologist Oren Hasson suggests that humans evolved emotional tears as a way to show others that we were vulnerable, that we would prefer to make peace (http://chealth.canoe.ca/channel_section_details.asp?text_id=5742&channel_id=11&relation_id=27878).

When most people see a crying face, don’t we feel an urge to ask what is wrong, to offer help or empathy? Hasson claims that “emotional tears signaled our willingness to trust and become bonded into supportive, protective communities. And crying when we felt fearful or vulnerable or when we felt a sense of unity could then have developed into the kind of emotional crying we all do now and then.”

He goes on to distinguish between good and bad crying. A good cry happens when criers receive support from those around them. Moreover, criers get a boost if they come to a realization, a new understanding, or resolution regarding the thing that made them cry.

Crying cleanses. It releases what’s pent up. It lets go. And therefore, spiritual guides over the millennia have identified what they have called, “the gift of tears”. Shedding tears has become a valuable spiritual gift not only in the contemporary world of pastoral care and counselling, but as an experience of God’s deep love for all people in the midst of human misery and suffering (http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/20717226?uid=3739448&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=3737720&uid=4&sid=21103926560643). Pope Francis recently extolled the ‘gift of tears’ as an appropriate expression of prayer for approaching great mysteries of life (National Catholic Report, September 16, 2013).

Authentic tears welling from the heart promote peace where humans are bound by division and hatred. Lazarus was raised because Jesus’ tears evoked a faithful response by those gathered around the tomb with him. People responded to Jesus’ request for help to “take away the stone” (v.39) and “unbind him and let him go” (v.44). Jesus’ own vulnerability leads to the building of a community, where each one of us is called upon to unbind and set free wherever people – including ourselves – are shackled by chains of hatred, fear, rage or shame.

It was Jesus’ actions, in the end, that got this ball rolling. It’s his action of raising Lazarus that results in the Passion. It’s his crying that evokes the response of the crowd to help move the stone and unbind Lazarus.

Martha, too, says all the right things. Before Jesus does anything in this story, she is confessing Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God (v.27). But it’s not enough. She also has to experience, personally, the power of Christ’s humanity and divinity. The experience of Jesus’ presence counts here, not just all the right words, doctrines and confessions of faith that one says.

It’s not enough to say we believe. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus admonished his followers (Matthew 7:21). We have to ACT in ways that reflect the truth and presence of Jesus. Even if it means being vulnerable, and crying in the presence of others.

And in that perceived weakness, we will witness the loving power of God. It is the power of God shown in human weakness (1 Corinthians). It is the cross of Jesus where death will be overcome. It is an act of supreme love that conquers the powers of the world.