The life-giving gap

Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?” (James 3:11)

The writer, James, makes a case for integrity and authenticity in the Christian life. For us moderns, living in a day and age where how we look, our reputations, our social standings and our bank accounts seem to speak louder than anything else about who we truly are and what we truly want. Is our joy at living based on these ‘worldly’ values, when we are honest about it? 

It becomes particularly challenging for us Christians, whose value system is acutely counter-cultural. It becomes a real war, actually, to embrace the true source of our lives in a world of celebrity politicians and glory-seeking suburbanites. And I think, for the most part, we live a bifurcated existence. We say one thing — I believe in the God who asks us to bear our cross and follow him (Mark 8:34) — but so easily slip into a lifestyle that is really narcissistic, self-centred and selfish. The easy way.

It’s a rhetorical question. “Does a spring pour forth both fresh and brackish water?” In James’ mind, of course not. A spring will either bring forth, on balance, mostly fresh or mostly dirty water. The meter will lean one way or the other. 

Which way do you lean? In your work? In the way you invest? In how you spend your money? In how you spend your free time? With whom? In what and how you communicate?

In the Gospel for today (Mark 8:27-38), Jesus says some difficult, counter-cultural things about what kind of way Jesus — the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings, God incarnate, Almighty and Everlasting God — will travel the journey of life. And it is this God who beckons us to follow: in order “to undergo great suffering” (Mark 8:31). Really? That doesn’t sound right for a person claiming godly power!

In an upwardly mobile culture we are suddenly and shockingly presented with a downwardly mobile God. Naturally and understandably, through the lens of worldly value, we shudder. Peter rebukes Jesus. And it is in response to Peter’s communication that Jesus accuses Peter of being Satan.

The first lesson from Isaiah, the third chapter in the Epistle James and the Gospel reading for today are a call to discipline our speech — how we talk, and for what purpose. I would broaden this to say: How we communicate. The words we use. The body language we employ. They say that 70% of communication is non-verbal. I believe this truth is what prompted Francis of Assisi to say: “Preach the Gospel; Use words only when necessary!” It’s a cliche, but it’s true: Our actions speak louder than words.

We are called to pay attention not only to the words we use — important though they are, but our actions, our tone, our presence with another. We are called to pay attention to these details in assessing the quality of our relationships. Not to do so, to ignore and dismiss our attention to these aspects of relating, is evil. Not to hold ourselves accountable to what we say and how we say it to another is a satanic time-bomb waiting to happen.

The eighth commandment reads: Do not bear false witness against your neighbour (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5). This means, what we say about them. Of course, first we have to look around and ask: Who is our neighbour? On Meadowlands Drive West, in Nepean, Ottawa, and in Canada. Who are our neighbours today? Do we know their names? Who are they? And then, what do we say about them, to them?

In his explanation of all the Ten Commandments, Martin Luther makes clear these are not simply about ‘not-doing’ — not gossiping, not slandering — but even more important what positive behaviour we do for the sake of the neighbour. He writes that it is imperative that Christians should do all they can to protect the good name and social standing of their neighbours — and he lifts up particularly the “sins of the tongue” in this context. (Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” in the Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb & Timothy Wengert, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p.420)

I can’t help here to think of the millions of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria. I can’t help here but think of the many ways Muslims are disparaged in the media in the West not only in the press, but also in those malicious forwarded emails that circulate “like a hydra with multiple heads: so pernicious and so difficult to stop” (Kristin Johnston Largen, “Inter-religious Learning and Teaching” Fortress Press, 2014, p.57).

James concedes to our human predicament. In the end, no matter how hard we try to do right by this, “no one can tame the tongue” (3:8). It’s as if the narrative of Scripture accepts the impossible capability of us, on our own, to get it all right all of the time. Even though Peter is in one moment ‘Satanic’ he is, in the next, the rock upon which the church will be built against whom “the gates of Hades will not prevail” (Matthew 16:18). Martin Luther’s well-known paradox can help us frame this apparent contradiction: We are simultaneously saints AND sinners (simul justus et pecator). 

This ‘word’ today may make us feel uncomfortable. It does, me. And, probably for good reason. Yet, there is good news. God speaks into this confused darkness of our lives. God speaks the Word of creation into this murky existence (Genesis 1). A Word of forgiveness, mercy and compassion. 

And the Word that God speaks sets up the endless harmonic of sounds in the world. And as we speak, and try to speak truthfully, perhaps what we are doing is far less hanging labels around the necks of the things of the world. And instead we try to find those divine harmonics and speak and act ‘in tune’ with that Word first spoken into silence and darkness.

The image I like of creation is that God first makes a great cave. And then breathes into it. Speaks into it. A Word. And from the cave the echoes come back. Differently pitched. Differently aimed. A world of Word. And we find our place in that world listening to those harmonics, trying to speak and act in tune with them. Not to speak and act from our will or our passion for control. But to speak because we want to join in what an earlier generation would have called the ‘music of the spheres’. (Rowan Williams, “The Spirit in the Desert” Meditatio Talk Series 2015 B Apr-June CD).

Those of us preachers and public speakers, especially need to think more about this. Paul says that the Body of Christ is made up of all parts, each important in their own right (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) — you are a hand, you a leg, you the eyes, you the foot. This morning, I am the mouth! And, like James, Paul also says that greater scrutiny and possible judgement will be brought upon those who speak (2 Peter 2:3;Colossians 2:20;1 Timothy 1:2-4). A timely word, perhaps, in a season of political campaign, mindless rhetoric and questionable election promises.

How do we speak in such a way that is authentic and true? Only by looking for the harmonics that that Word of God sets up. By refusing the mass pressures of culture. By becoming in our speaking as in our living a kind of invitation into the gracious harmonics of God’s world, into the resonances and echoes that are set up by that primordial utterance of God into the cave of creation.

Simone Weil used the concept of ‘hesitation’ to describe how to communicate in a healthy way For her, part of the essence of spiritual maturity was leaving the ‘life-giving gap’ between you, the act, and the other person (quoted in Rowan Williams, ibid.). Learning not so much to project straight away our ego compulsions into the other person; learning not so much to move right away into solving a problem on our own terms. But drawing away momentarily to listen for the sake of the other. And for the sake of the truth.

At the end of the day, we are called to check the compulsion to speak. And move back into a momentary stillness into which God’s draws us, and out of which God calls us to speak and to act with integrity and authenticity.

We would make James proud.

Gospel morality

It was a cold afternoon in March. The windchill made it feel like -20’C. And I was worried. You see, I like to keep my feet warm. I dislike the feeling of cold feet. And too late I remembered that one of the realities of visiting a Mosque was taking off your shoes.

I would be in the Ottawa Mosque for several hours. And all I had donned on my feet last Sunday morning was a thin pair of black dress socks for morning worship. I tried to rationalize my way into a comfortable scenario: The annual meeting of the Multi-Faith Housing Initiative would likely be held in the basement of the Mosque — so perhaps the tradition of removing footware in a place of worship would not apply downstairs.

But sure enough as soon as I entered the building, the first thing to greet me was racks upon racks of shelving for shoes. No one was to pass that point — going upstairs or down — without taking off their shoes. As the doors came closed, a blast of chilling wind brushed against my pant leg, giving a frigid foretaste of what I was in for this afternoon.

Wearing my black suit with clerical collar and large pectoral cross hanging from my neck I made my way downstairs. Suddenly two young children dashed beside me on their way into the carpeted meeting room. They stopped, turned around and smiled largely.

Obviously familiar with their worship space surroundings, they proceeded to give me a brief, welcoming introduction to their home: Here are the washrooms; There is the kitchen; Those are the chairs for the meeting. I started to relax. And after a couple of hours, my feet were still warm on the deeply cushioned carpet. 

When we read these very long stories from the Gospel of John, it may be worthwhile to consider some details about the literary context. That is to say, let’s receive this text looking at the whole, larger perspective. For example, in the story of the healing of the blind man (John 9:1-41), only the first seven verses describe the actual healing miracle. The remaining thirty-four verses describe the debate that surrounded this man’s healing.

This leads me to wonder about what the Gospel writer, John, really wanted to emphasize. Perhaps the point of the Gospel is not so much on the miraculous and spectacular — which our culture of instant gratification would jump on. Perhaps there’s a deeper meaning here which can be easily overlooked by our obsessions with judgment, fear and need to explain everything.

First, as far as we are concerned, our connection and deepening relationship to God — which is a process of healing in and of itself — is a process. We see this progress in how the blind man grows step-by-step in his relationship to Jesus.

First, early on in the story, he addresses him, “the man called Jesus” (v.11). Then, he calls him, “a prophet” (v.17). And then, “a man of God” (v.33). Finally, at the end, the man healed by Jesus says to him, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped him (v.38). If anything, this Gospel story is not about explaining sin as much as it is about growing into a personal confession of God, in Jesus Christ. And this confession is not an immediate, conversion experience; it takes time. Our reconciliation with Jesus is a journey.

But, paradoxically, this journey is Christ-led; it is not our doing. We will notice that Jesus refuses to play the Pharisees’ game. The Pharisees are focused maintaining control over the religious enterprise — where they are the keepers of the law, the righteous. They maintain control by focusing on others’ sin, by issuing blame and judgment. And making it all about human works.

The Pharisees, and Jesus’ disciples who first ask the question, relate the man’s physical blindness to his sins, thus justifying his condition. The sins we commit are here understood as being the bad things we can somehow will ourselves to stop doing if we had a choice. This religious viewpoint basically implies that the quality of our faith depends fundamentally on our willpower.

Jesus has nothing to do with this. You can see why he was such a threat to the Pharisees. Because faith is not about us, in the end. It’s about God. I think that’s the meaning of Jesus’ statement that the man was born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (v.3). Our connection to God is primarily the result of God’s works, not ours. The purpose of our connection to God is to point to God, not ourselves.

The morality of the Gospel is fundamentally a question of how God relates to us, and how we are called to relate to one another. Gospel morality is not about whether or not we sin — because we do anyway no matter how hard we try not to. After all, the man didn’t choose to be blind; he couldn’t even take any personal responsibility for this condition.

Gospel morality is a question of how we respond to life’s challenges and events. Imagine dancing with a partner called, “Life Happens”: Do we ‘lead’ (like the disciple often did, and the Pharisees always did) with fear and/or judgment? Or, do we ‘lead’ with grace and thanksgiving?

How does God lead? The Gospel shows God’s favor towards us. The Gospel shows that “we did not choose Jesus; Jesus first chose us” (John 15:16). Jesus did not come “to condemn the world” but in order to save the world (John 3:17). Jesus, as God the Father, does not look on outward appearances (i.e. our frailty, our weakness, our sin), but on our heart (1 Samuel 16:7). God loved us, Saint Paul articulates, “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:6-8). God leads with grace, forgiveness, and love — despite all to the contrary in our lives.

The reality of our lives — and the truth of our lives — is not defined by what’s on the surface but by the constant presence, power and grace of God.

If there is a morality we speak of as Christians, it is a morality that trusts God above all when we lead with grace and thanksgiving. That is not to say there is no room for addressing cause for fear. But it is to claim that we will lead with grace.

Multi-Faith Housing Initiative is run by a diverse group of very capable, talented individuals from various faith communities. The executive committee led most of the meeting last Sunday — as you can imagine — typically clarifying detailed accounting, audit and administrative material. Women and men wore their business suits and looked officious, efficient and professional. Except for one thing.

What struck me as I watched them with their power-points, laptops and effective communication styles was they were all, to a person, in their stocking feet. That fact alone added a humbling effect to the gathering. It reminded me that despite all our differences — not denying them, but despite those differences — we were all standing on the same ground.

When Moses stood in the presence of God in the burning bush, God told him to take off his shoes, for he was standing on ‘holy ground’ (Exodus 3:5). Indeed we were all of us standing on holy ground united in our common purpose, humble before one another and God.

I was again reminded that although it may be easy to lead with judgment and fear in our diverse communities when uncertainty feels threatening, it is still better to lead with grace and thanksgiving — modelled to me by those young Muslim children who knew I wasn’t ‘one of them’ — but who nevertheless welcomed me with open arms.

“And whatever you do, in word and deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).