The mystic magi journey: discovering a new way of seeing

The word, ‘mystery’, Paul mentions four times in the text assigned for the Day of Epiphany.[1]He calls receiving God’s grace “the mystery of Christ.”

A mystery is not something that ought to scare us. Like how we feel when reading a whodunit and murder-mystery novels so popular. We have lived in a culture that sees mystery as something bad, something to avoid, something that is opposed to a life of faith. If something is mysterious, it can’t be of God.

That, what appears on the surface, at first sight, is division, discord, disharmony, a profound and inherent disconnection in our lives and in the world.

A negative view of mystery also implies that to know God means there is nothing more to know. To claim some cerebral notions of God—we call this doctrine—and to conform our knowing with others means there is no longer anything to learn. Change, growth, diverse thinking—the consequence of something that is difficult to understand—these have been an undesired mystery.

The journey of the magi suggests we need to take another look at “the mystery of Christ.” The prophet Isaiah, from another text assigned for the Day of Epiphany,[2]encourages us all to “lift up your eyes and look around … then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.” There is apparently a great benefit in seeing anew.

Isaiah speaks as if this ‘seeing’ is more than a mere observation of what is immediately in front of you. This spiritual seeing is about perceiving a deeper reality. Some would say it is seeing with the eye of the heart, or the mind’s eye. Sight, here, is not just a biological function of the eyes, but involves deeper more subtle capacities within us.

From the perspective of faith, mystery means, “endless knowability.”[3]Mystery is not something we cannot ever know; or, conversely, some riddle that we must solve once-and-for-all. Rather, mystery is a journey of learning more, growing, a continual expansion of our awareness, knowledge and perception.

The reason Matthew includes the story of the magi in his rendition of the birth of Jesus is to describe what is true for anyone on the journey of life and faith. 

For one thing, we never arrive at the fullness of truth on this journey we are on. That was the credo of the old science, that somehow once we figure something out, it never needs to be revisited or rethought. This approach affected the way of the church; that is, once you are confirmed or become adult or affirm your faith or join the membership … well, you’ve arrived. You are saved. And you don’t need to do anything more. Or change, or grow in faith, or explore different dimensions of the faithful life.

To say, “I don’t know”, in response to a question meant there is something wrong with you and your faith or your understanding. To confess “I don’t know” according to the credo of the old science was an admission of weakness, that something was not just right, or complete, with your faith. And this was shameful.

And yet, Paul challenges such arrogance (ironically since he was an arrogant guy himself) by focusing our attention on the “boundlessriches in Christ” whose intent is “to make everyonesee … the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” [emphasis mine]

The magi of old studied the stars to gain understanding of God’s creation which included the boundless reaches of the universe. They sought the incarnation of God’s grace in Christ, and so followed the star. But when they arrived at the site of the nativity in Bethlehem—the apparent destination—was their journey over? Truly?

Far from it. Not only did they have to deal with Herod and his wiles, they continued by a different road. On earth, what is the destination of your faith? The destination of our yearning, searching, and endless knowing doesn’t mean the journey is over and done. And we have nowhere else to go. We continue on, seeking new expressions of God’s grace and God’s presence in Christ.

In a TV series called “See”, starring Aquaman superhero Jason Momoa, a post-apocalyptic humanity is blind. No one can see. Everyone is completely visually impaired (with few exceptions). The producers and actors do an excellent job of conveying to the viewer how individuals and communities arrange their lives to move and live without sight.

In a powerful scene, a ragtag group led by Jason Momoa is forging down a forest path, his sword cutting the air in front of them. It all seems to be a tranquil setting when suddenly he shoots out his arm to stop them from moving one step farther.

“What wrong?” another asks.

He shakes his head lifting his unseeing eyes ahead. “It doesn’t feel right. It is not safe.” Being physically blind has developed other, intuitive, senses – smell, the feel of the air, sound—to paint a picture of the truth in front of him.

As it turns out, they were walking into a narrow canyon ideal for an ambush. The ambushers, of course, were also blind. But as soon as they heard the subtle sounds of someone walking far below them—the scrape of a foot on stone, the crunch of dried leaves or the snapping of twig, they would aim their cross bows in the direction of the sound and shoot with deadly accuracy. Jason Momoa’s group was saved by a knowing that was deeper and richer than mere physical sight.

God has given us capacities beyond what we have known. There are unfathomable depths to our being in this universe and an immeasurable limit to our understanding. In describing a life of faith, Paul writes that we have confidence walking our journey of faith, “not by sight.”[4]There is more to it than a visual, observable certainty.

When someone asks you a question about your faith, and you find yourself saying, “I don’t know”, you need not say it as an admission of weakness. You can say, “I don’t know” with confidence because you are still on a journey of learning and discovery. Scientists today who study the stars will suggest with confidence that the universe is always expanding. New stars and solar systems are being discovered. We are endlessly knowing. The journey isn’t over. It never is.

And, what is more, scientists today will readily admit that there is indeed something at work in the universe that goes beyond the mere, yet important, crunching of numbers. Something they cannot put their analytical fingers on, yet something people of faith have been claiming since the beginning of time:

That our lives have purpose and meaning beyond the collision and interaction of molecules. That everything that happens in our lives is somehow intertwined, that there exists an almost imperceptible connection between ourselves, our past and our future, a connection that is leading somewhere, a connection that brings healing and wholeness to our lives.

A connection leading us somewhere eternally good.


[1]Ephesians 3:1-12

[2]Isaiah 60:1-6

[3]Richard Rohr, “Mystery is Endless Knowability” Paradox(Daily Meditations, www.cac.org, Tuesday, August 23, 2016)

[4]2 Corinthians 5:7

Even among the lost

I hear Simon’s despair, tainted with frustration and even anger, when he reacts to Jesus’ instruction to put the nets in deep water to catch the fish in Lake Galilee.[1]

“Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” He’s trying to make a point that there is no use to doing what Jesus asks of them. After all, they did all they could do. They employed all their resources, knowledge and effort into catching fish that night. But to no avail. Understandably frustrated, Simon scoffs at the futility of doing what Jesus asks. As if he knows better. There is not point to it all.

This is not the first time we hear Jesus say or do something that mystifies us. Earlier in this season after Epiphany, we witnessed Jesus being baptized. Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River often confounds our sensibility. Why does Jesus need to be baptized? Aren’t we the ones that need to be baptized? Not God!

So often we find salvation in what we do, and the meaning we attribute to what we do. In the church, we often do exactly what the crowds at the Jordan did: We come to worship, pray the printed confessions of sin, receive Communion and hope that these liturgical acts will wash away our sins. And make life right.

Then, we also have other programs for self-improvement, such as trying a new diet, cutting down on drinking and smoking, or finding someone who will love us just right. But these things are all futile for making real change in our lives, for making our lives right.

But Jesus walks into our lives just as he waded into the Jordan to be baptized by John. If Jesus was to walk into our lives today, he could just as well arrive at our job interviews, wedding receptions, or retirement parties. He could just as well stand in the long lines with us at the Tim Horton’s or sports venues. Jesus could just as well join us in all our driving around town to this and that – and the next futile thing we are trying to do in order to make life right.

Yes, I could feel the futility behind Simon’s statement—but we fished all night and caught nothing. Would Jesus step even into that despair?

When work seems futile. When other people frustrate us. When life seems pointless. When what we do appears to have little purpose, meaning or utility. When we fail. When despair sinks in.

Or, not far removed in the face of uncertainty, we clamber and clamor for the next shiny, new thing. We distract ourselves. We fall into mindless routine or stimulating addiction, to occupy our minds or numb them. And escape reality. Even just below the surface of seeming industry, there broils a fearsome anxiety.

Yes, I hear Simon’s despair. But I also see Jesus, right there.

What is Jesus up to here? Getting baptized. Going fishing with his friends. Going to weddings. Hanging out in the streets. What is Jesus up to here, living the life we all live?

For some reason, Jesus is taking on our lost condition. Jesus participates in our lives, doing what we do, engaging our routines, our work, our lifestyles. And, as we become more aware of Jesus closeness to us in our successes and our failures, we discover the Gospel truth: that salvation comes not because of our activity, our brains, our efforts. Salvation comes through a loving Savior who finds us and takes on our lost condition.

So maybe our job is not to explain the mystery, but simply to obey the seemingly pointless, futile instruction from Jesus. And act on it, as Simon did. “Yet, if you say so, I will let down the nets.”[2]

Visit the sick. Befriend the poor, the outcast, the refugee. Accompany the vulnerable, the weak, the dying.

After selling their large house where they called home for decades, Jack and Betty moved to a smaller two-bedroom apartment in town. Once settled in, they invited Craig, a church friend, to dinner in their new home. Craig was happy to oblige.

After all, on Sunday mornings they would sit together in worship. They didn’t say a lot. Betty might say something odd, but her countenance was so bright. Jack seemed always bothered by something, like he was scowling. But the couple was always together. And they liked each other.

Craig tells the story of his experience visiting Jack and Betty. He writes,

“Once I arrived at their apartment on the appointed evening, it didn’t take me long to realize that Betty had Alzheimer’s disease. It now seemed so obvious that I felt foolish for missing it earlier. Jack never let her out of his sight. It was then that I realized that he hadn’t been scowling for the last couple of years. He was just worried.

“Before I even had my coat off, Betty took me by the hand and led me to the painting above the sofa that depicted their stately old home. She became a bit more lucid as the stories of the old place tumbled out of her soul. I felt her squeeze my hand as she talked … [as if she were trying to say], ‘There is more to me than you see now.’ … Jack stood behind us and allowed his worry to ease a bit with a tender smile.

“Dinner was interesting. Betty couldn’t be allowed near the stove, and Jack wasn’t about to learn to cook. So he had asked their housekeeper to make them an extra-large omelet before she left that afternoon. When we were ready to eat, Jack put the egg dish in the microwave, then cut it into thirds and served it on Betty’s best china. For desert he brought out Klondike bars that we ate using the good silverware, which wasn’t easy. Several times during the meal, Betty got up and wandered around the apartment a bit. I was impressed by Jack’s ability to maintain our conversation, which was always of secondary importance to him, while always watching his wife.

“Throughout the evening I kept thinking that I needed to say something useful. After all … [isn’t that what we’re supposed to do with others?] But how profound could I be with Betty, whose mind was too clouded for conversation? What would I even say to Jack…? I could try, ‘Keep up the good work’ or ‘This must be really hard,’ but that would be so inane.

“After dinner, we left the old dining-room table and made our way back to the living room sofa, where I sat next to Betty. Jack took the chair across from us. I began to talk, trying to speak of …[relevant] things, but I wasn’t doing well. [As a Christian friend, from church] I knew that I was called there to be a blessing to them and … to witness to Christ’s presence among them. But how? I felt like a pilot circling above the clouds, looking for an opening to land. Soon Betty got up and wandered off again.

“When she returned, she stood behind the chair where Jack was seated and put her trembling hand on his shoulder. And as only old lovers know how to do, he reached up to take her hand as if it were the first and millionth time he had done it. I stopped talking as they both smiled at me.

“Well, there it was – the blessed presence of Christ. Then I knew that I wasn’t there to say a thing. My calling was to behold and be amazed. It was as if their mutual smile said, ‘Don’t you dare pity us. We are blessed.’ Beneath the gentle act of holding a trembling hand lies the mystery of … [love].

“In the end, this is as good as the calling to love can be. …There is just the holding of hands …”[3]

There is neither brow-wrinkled explanation nor fear-induced despair.

There is just the smile of God in the face of another.

 

 

[1]Luke 5:4-5

[2]Luke 5:5

[3]M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor As Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009) p.97,103-105

A spirituality of fierce landscapes

The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. (Psalm 97:1-2)

Which is mountain? And which is cloud?

Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other. When cooler air temperatures carried by strong wind collide with a warm land mass in wide open, exposed landscapes, what we see is not always clear. The lines between the two are not certain.

I am reminded of Moses meeting God in a could atop Mount Sinai in the wilderness. I imagine the dove dropping from the heavens and God’s voice booming at Jesus’ baptism. I sympathize with the disciples seeing Jesus change before their very eyes atop the Mount of Transfiguration. Biblical stories of God colliding and communicating with creation and humanity in a volatile mix of potent energies, some clashing and some joining in a mysterious dance of meaning and purpose.

And we’re not always sure what to make of it. Can we trust what we see? Is our perspective clouded? What is real?

Mountains convey a sense of certitude and stability, a rock and fortress we can count on and lean on. What are the rocks in our lives? Those things, beliefs and people that anchor us in the construct of our lives?

Clouds are ethereal. We cannot grasp the cloud. It is there and yet it isn’t. It is not solid. It is a vapour that we can see, yes, but that which we cannot contain. A cloud is free to form and reform, free to move, free to be and not to be. After all, it belongs in the sky. What are the clouds in our lives? Events, circumstances and situations that have arisen quite outside the realm of our control, good and bad?

Then, as we reflect on the journey of our lives, with all the twists, turns and unexpected happenings, which has more sway in the course of our lives? The mountain? Or, the cloud?

While the mountains of our lives give us a sense of security and well-being, comfort and confidence — all important in life — what role do the clouds play? The bible shows that God speaks through the cloud, even when our main characters find themselves on top of the mountains! Despite all the securities we afford in our lives, those things we strive for to make us feel in control, God clouds those places.

Not that God is against those things, per se. But that the only way God can get into our hearts and bring meaningful change is from the cloud. An anonymous fourteenth century spiritual writer called her work, “The Cloud of Unknowing”, to talk about a way of prayer in which God encounters us in the depths of our hearts.

It may feel, at times, like we don’t know much. It may feel, in these out-of-our-control experiences of life, that we don’t know anything. And we ask, “Why me?”, and “Why this?”

It is in the cloud of our unknowing, nevertheless, where our re-birth and renewal begins. It is here, in the cloud, where all we need to do is not turn around and go home. In the cloud of unknowing, we must not give up. It is called faith.

Faith, to know, that in the fiercest landscapes of our lives where everything seems uncertain, there is hope. We are held in a greater, larger purpose of which we cannot see the whole, big picture right now. We are held in a loving Mystery. And that’s ok.

Because the very reason we can ask the questions, struggle in the uncertainties and take the next, tentative, step on the path is because the sun gives the light for all this to be possible in the first place.

There’s a hole, PART 2: For a purpose

I am a hole in a flute / that the Christ’s breath moves through – / listen to this /music.            -Hafiz

If you comprehend it, it is not God. -St. Augustine

Unlike the pounding of the surf a stone’s toss away, the ponding on the nearby creek made the surface of its water look pristine. A narrow creek made its lazy, winding way down the escarpment from Highway 21 and aimed to run into Lake Huron after finally crossing the stretch of sand on the beach at Point Clarke.

One of our favourite pastimes on those lazy summer days was to play around the area where the creek and lake met. As children, my brother and I would build castles, dig trenches and re-direct the flow of the creek’s water.

For a real challenge, we would try to dam up the creek’s flow, which took some planning, and extra material like drift wood and larger stones to block any outflow attempts. Once we contained it, the creek turned slowly into a large pond, comfortably remaining – for the time being – behind its fortress sand walls.

I’ve already talked about how in God’s creation, it is meant to be that each of us has a hole in our heart (see “There’s a hole, PART 1: Meant to be”). Moreover, it is God’s good intention that this hole is there for a purpose.

Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthian church a confession that in all his accomplishments for the expansion of the Gospel across the Mediterranean, he was given a thorn in his side.[1]The proverbial ‘hole’. It is not important, although many have tried, to figure out what this thorn actually was.

We don’t know. Maybe that’s the point. It’s not important that we know, only that this thorn was given him in order to keep him humble. The text says that the thorn was given Paul to keep him from being ‘elated’ – to keep his ego in check, perhaps because he tended toward being too full of himself, over confident in his own ability.

How does the ego get the better of yourself? What is your compulsion? What drives you to achieve some illusion of perfection in your life? So, you don’t need to trust what is beyond your life, what is ineffable, what cannot be fully understood that is the Great Mystery (a.k.a. God)?

Let me show you an example of compulsion to achieve that which is beyond our capacity: On my fishing trip with colleagues last May to Algonquin Park, we tried everything to beat the ice on the lake. Despite the predominance of the ice-covered lake, we tried desperately to fight the odds against us catching some fish even to the point of risking our safety to break up the ice ourselves in our canoes.

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Yup, that’s me. And, yup, you guessed it: We caught no fish. The irony is that on the last day of our camp out, the wind and the sun did its job. When we woke that last day, we looked over a lake completely free of the ice.

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Was God sending us a message? Weren’t we the butt end of some divine humour?

The hole in our heart has a divine purpose: To keep us from being too sure of ourselves, over-confident in our ability and our capacity to have it all figured out. If we didn’t have this hole, might we put all our trust in our own autonomy, our independence, to lead our life without any need at all to trust anyone else let alone God.

Beyond Paul in the New Testament, the stories in the bible are about God lessening, even stopping, the compulsive drive of main characters, so the wind of God’s Spirit could draw them more gently and more effectively (Gideon and Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures are good examples).[2]

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus instructs his disciples in going into the world to do God’s mission, “to take nothing for their journey … no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.”[3]

God’s consolation is simple yet profound: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness,” God tells Paul.[4]The making perfect here is not about getting rid of that vulnerability. Rather, whatever weakness we bear stays with us in order for us to complete our purpose as human beings. We are made complete in God’s love because of our hole, thorn, weakness – not without it.

In one of Martin Luther’s famous works entitled, “The Bondage of the Will”, he emphatically declared that we, as humans, can never work out our own salvation for ourselves. We will continually fail, even when, or especially when, we believe we are doing good in the world.

While some might find this realization depressing – and it would be helpful to know why that is, for yourself – perhaps the “bondage of the will” can be freeing. Because we don’t need to be driven to inaction because we are afraid of making a mistake. We don’t need to get stuck in the mud under the fear of imperfection. As Christians, we can be free to do good work in the world, imperfectly, knowing that what we do is for the benefit of others and not for ourselves.[5]

Author Brian McLaren in his recent book: “The Great Spiritual Migration”, describes this time in history as a transition in the church from “organized religion” to “organizing religion.”[6]

A Church in the flow of God’s Spirit pertains not only to wind and water over the earth, but also to spiritual movement. To purpose and mission. To going where we need to go as a people. To re-focus again on loving God, self and others as the primal energy of the church. To bring to life once again the old verse: “They will know we are Christians by our love …” … and not by our buildings, property, and concern for security, certainty and self-preservation.

Can we let go of these things for the sake of God’s mission, for the sake of the Gospel of life and love in Christ? As the prophet Amos so well put it, using the water imagery: “Let justice role down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream … “[7]

By the time we had finally engineered the dam on the tiny creek aiming towards Lake Huron, the sun was setting and we had to go home. Inevitably, the next morning one of three things would have happened in our absence:

Either the creek would have found the weak spot in the sandy fortress wall we built, and escape through a tiny crack; or, increasing wind conditions over Lake Huron overnight would have created larger waves whose surf reached and destroyed the walls of our dam; or, someone would have been walking along the beach and, for the fun of it, just poked a tiny hole to watch as a slow trickle quickly turned into a strong, flowing stream.

In each case, a small hole was required in order for the creek to fulfill its mission and reach its destination – despite all the efforts of playful human beings to keep it contained.

After all, nothing was going to stop the flow. God’s Spirit and purpose will flow on because and through the holes in our lives.

[1]2 Corinthians 12:7-10

[2]Richard Rohr, “Dancing Standing Still; Healing the World from a Place of Prayer” (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2014), p.18.

[3]Mark 6:8-9

[4]2 Corinthians 12:9

[5]Ross Murray, Senior Director, GLAAD Media Institute, LinkedIn July 2018.

[6]Brian McLaren, “The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian” (Massachusetts: Convergent Books, 2017)

[7]Amos 5:24

Fresh air

I am glad to be back to breathe the air in the Ottawa Valley. That is why I live here, truth be told. Even before the plane landed at Ottawa airport last evening, I could feel it in the air.

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There’s nothing in the world like catching the sweet breeze blowing down over James Bay, through the budding pine and spruce trees of the Laurentian’s and over the pristine waters of the Ottawa River.

Not only was the hotel room where my brother and I stayed sealed off to the outside, the air in Washington DC was heavy, stale and full of particle contaminants that caused us some coughing, wheezing and rubbing our itching eyes. You don’t have to be an environmentalist to know the Potomac River basin is ….well, not the Ottawa River and Valley.

Ottawa and Washington DC are both the capital cities of their respective nations. Each reflects by its monuments, memorials and geography the character of the nation it represents. One of the purposes of nationalism, like the rivers that surround the two capital cities, is to separate one from the other. Indeed, the work of creating divisions continues in earnest to this day.

In fact, walls are being built not only in the United States, but all over the world as the USA Today front page reported a couple of days ago.[1]Protectionism and isolationism fueled by fear are on the rise.

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So, the voices of a different vision need to be heard, once again.

One of the most recently constructed memorials in Washington is on the shores of the Potomac River — the Martin Luther King Memorial.

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“No one is free,” said Martin Luther King, “until we are all free.” In other words:

What I want for myself can’t happen, until it can be so for everyone. If there is anyone who suffers in whatever way,

If there is anyone who is not free, in whatever way,

If there are people who are bound, captive to whatever vice, to whatever imprisonment of the soul or in prison because something they have done…

I am going to be healed of whatever ails me, only when I seek the healing of the other, the freeing of the other, the liberation of the other. The church holds up a different vision from that of the divisive, individualistic and exclusive nature of white nationalism in the world today.

You can see, I hope, why the consciousness of the church not only at Faith Lutheran, not only in Ottawa, or in the Eastern Synod or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, but in the United States of America and worldwide is moving to see not a division between things, not building walls between two perceived opposites, but building unity between them.

Not a division between politics and pastoral care,

Not a division between care for the soul and social justice,

Not a division between reaching out and reaching in,

Not a division between speaking out against injustice of whatever kind and speaking to the choir,

Not a division between contemplation and action.

Not an either-or, but a both-and.

Last week when Ken stood here and told you about the different ways we can support the financial health of the congregation, he introduced his well-delivered announcement by saying — “you’ve heard we in the church were never to talk about money, politics and sex (well, he didn’t actually say the last word, but I know you all were thinking it!).

And then a couple weeks before that, Mark stood here and told you about his upcoming trip to Ecuador to build homes in a community destroyed by an earthquake some years ago. And in his well-worded speech he said (I paraphrase): “In this mission trip the group he was going with was not doing mere charity, dollars sent to a far-off location, but directly helping them on the ground and making a real difference in the lives of those who suffer.” Check it out. He said it. I believe he has it all on a piece of paper.

I alone am not telling you all this. Your own members are. Your own church family is slowly but surely breaking down the walls that have divided, distanced and incubated our conversations in the church.

Limited our conversation. Limited our imagination. Limited the ways of God. NOT talking about these things, well, how has that worked out for the church in recent times?

NOT talking about the things that really matter in our daily life, NOT being open and honest, sharing the deepest secrets and burdens of our lives, NOT feeling safe in a community of faith to be who we humanly are, warts and all, imperfect, suffering, in need of God’s love. NOT being like that — how has that worked for the church? How has that worked for you?

It is not easy in the church (although everyone else in our real lives are talking about them!) to talk about money, politics and sex. It is not easy to talk about the real things that matter in this life. And so, the church for many decades has avoided having these conversations. Why? Because we were afraid? Because talking about sex, politics and money would put a mirror in front of us, exposing areas of our life that needed even a bit of God’s light shining upon it?

It’s not easy to talk about these things. I know. I feel it too. But I always thought that that’s what faith was supposed to be about — to confess, be honest, be real, and just do the work of God. How can we do the work of God when we can’t even be honest, and real, and confess ourselves to one another?

We can echo the prophet Isaiah’s complaint to the Lord: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips …”[2]

But he doesn’t stop there. His confession is not just about himself. Faithfulness is not merely individualistic. We don’t come to church to make an individual contract with the Lord.

Isaiah continues in his confession: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”

Faithfulness drives towards the communal, the community, the well-being of the world. “No one is free, until we are all free.” Not just me, but we!

When we don’t include, welcome and affirm people who are different from us, we are a people of unclean lips.

When we refuse to include conversations about sexuality, money and political action, we are a people of unclean lips.

When we remain quiet in the face of injustice, we are a people of unclean lips.

In other words, this confession of Isaiah implies that he feels he should just ‘shut up and sit down.’ Not say anything. Because he is bad. And Israel is bad.

Maybe you feel this too. Not unlike Isaiah when confronted with a vision of God, you feel, deep down, the church is bad, and has nothing worthwhile to say in the public sphere. Millennials believe that. Just ask your children or your friend’s children. In the past, we church-going Canadians have conveniently said, “That sort of stuff is the government’s job.” We effectively, therefore, excuse ourselves from any social action in the name of Jesus. And continue the dividing.

Martin Luther King also said that in the church it’s alright to talk about the New Jerusalem (pointing to heaven, the afterlife), yes, but one day we also have to talk about the New York or the new Ottawa, the new community in the here and now.

What did Isaiah see in his vision?

Two details in this vision I want to focus on:

First, “the house was filled with smoke.”[3]

Here’s Isaiah who sees God in all God’s glory. How can I understand this vision by analyzing: Why the six wings folded over on various parts of the seraphim? What’s with that?

But the smoke fills the space. Usually, the image of smoke — like the cloud — in the bible is codeword for, “Can’t get this.” I can’t explain what’s going on in the presence of God. I can’t bring all the statistics, analysis, data and information the world can offer, to explain this rationally. But that’s ok. Because that’s not the point.

In 2018, in the wake of the internet revolution, did you know that more than 7 billion humans use the internet; and, that’s 7 and a half percent more, over 2016. Google now processes more than 40 thousand searches EVERY second. And remember, that’s only Google. Include all the other search engines out there, worldwide there are 5 billion searches EVERY day.[4]

We don’t need any more information! The church’s solutions are not found in accruing more data to solve our problems!

Because things happen in life that we can’t understand. The truth about God cannot be conveyed in data streams and pie charts and three point sermons.

Smoke in the house. Mystery. Might it be, that Isaiah and the bible is trying to say: We don’t need to understand everything. We don’t need to know how it makes sense for people of different races, colour, ethnic background, different social economic status, expressing a different sexuality, different ages, different abilities can form one, unified community. We don’t need to know how that can be.

Today is Trinity Sunday. I am not going to stand here and try to explain to you how three different persons can constitute one God. Because I don’t know. All I know is that those different persons are in a unified relationship. Relationship.

The third person, especially, confounds our Lutheran sensibilities. We’ve figured God the Creator. We’ve figured out God the Son, well, as much as we can. But the Holy Spirit throws a wrench into any rationalizations. A mystery, to be sure!

How does it all fit together? How can we analyze this even more? Shouldn’t we first have a detailed plan? Shouldn’t we try to draw a diagram?

We don’t need to know! All we have are the visions. The dreams. The imagination that describes in poetry and colourful words flashes and fragments of God’s kingdom and truth. We don’t need to know. We don’t need to reconcile all the contradictions. We don’t need to make sense of it. We don’t need to provide all the answers. We don’t need to put God in a box, nor explain God to anyone. God doesn’t need that from us.

Why?

Because even though Isaiah is a man of unclean lips (God doesn’t deny it!), even though God’s people have unclean lips, even though we are imperfect individuals in an imperfect church, that isn’t going to stop God. In Section Five of a recent Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis called “Reclaiming Jesus” church leaders from across the United States wrote: “We support democracy, not because we believe in human perfection, but because we do not.”[5]

The realm of politics is imperfect. Who would think? Yet, our imperfection is the very reason politics happens. It is not something to avoid, it is something to embrace.

What does God do? Despite Isaiah’s complaints and resistance (just like all the rest of the people in the bible!) …

Despite us!

God reaches down from God’s throne and touches Isaiah’s lips with God’s holiness. God doesn’t steer uncomfortably away from the place of Isaiah’s greatest embarrassment, sin, weakness, brokenness, uncleanliness. God doesn’t avoid the uncomfortable places of our lives. God doesn’t even say anything to that uncleanliness.

God touches it. In the place of our greatest fear, shame, guilt, when we present ourselves in God’s almighty, mysterious presence, honestly and openly — not denying nor avoiding — we place ourselves in a position to be touched by God in the very place of our greatest weakness, to be healed, to be transformed, to be made new.

Even in the vision, the temple and the seraphim cannot contain the ‘bigness of God’. “The train of God’s robe filled the temple.”[6]The image is not meant to convey facts, figures, numbers, measurements, information.. Only our post-enlightenment, rational minds want to go there. But we can’t explain the vision of God. God’s kingdom doesn’t sit comfortably in our rationally justified common-sense policies.

God’s presence enfolds and goes to the edges and bunches up in the corner feeling like it needs to be stretched even beyond the walls of temple.

Whom shall I send? God asks.

Isaiah, transformed by God’s touch, can then say, “Here I am, send me.”[7]

Will we?

The Holy Spirit blows where it will. The wind does not stop at the border. The wind does not end at any walls we build to divide. The Holy Spirit brings fresh air into the stagnant, recycled, stuffy air of our temples. The Holy Spirit blows, fresh air at last, sending us into the world with God’s love, grace and power to change.

I don’t know how the fresh air of the Ottawa Valley is cleaner and sweeter than the air I breathed south of the border, really. But I don’t need to know how. I just know.

And give thanks.

[1]USA Today, May 24, 2018

[2]Isaiah 6:5

[3]Isaiah 6:4

[4]Bernard Marr, Forbes.com, May 21, 2018

[5]ReclaimingJesus.org

[6]Isaiah 6:1

[7]Isaiah 6:8

Easter: what is life-giving

When Sherlock Holmes and John Watson go tent camping for the first time, the two detectives unexpectedly encounter a ‘mystery.’

They hike deep into the woods all day until they find the ideal place to pitch their tent. They start a roaring campfire, roast marshmallows, tell favorite stories, sing some tunes and as the last embers flicker in the fire pit they pack it in for the night.

In the wee hours before dawn, Watson wakes the snoring Sherlock. “Look, Holmes, look at the billions of stars in the sky! What a glorious sight! Praise to the Creator!” Watson’s eyes remain transfixed on the expanse above them. “What would you say about this wonder, my friend?”

“I would like to know,” Sherlock mumbles, looking around their campsite, “who stole our tent.”

Were Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson victims of a prank, an April Fool’s Day practical joke?

Nevertheless, consistent with their personalities, each chose to notice a different aspect of their reality: Watson immediately taken in by the glorious night sky – probably something both sleuths weren’t accustomed to seeing in their busy, urban lives.

Sherlock, on the other hand, ever the deducing genius, notices what is amiss, and automatically goes into ‘fix it’ mode, seeking solutions to the trickiest, mind-stumping riddles of life.

In their shared situation one beholds life, joy and beauty; the other, the problem, and its attendant logical, calculated explanation. One looks up, the other, down.

What do you notice? And dwell on? Are you looking up? Or, still down?

The joyous, life-giving message of Easter does not deny nor avoid the harsh realities of living. The Christian’s journey on the road of life does not float over the potholes, ignore the accidents, nor glibly get a free pass over the traffic jams.

Yet, Easter declares something greater than all the suffering, pain and death has happened, and continues to happen every moment we dare to notice.

Jesus is alive! Amidst the hardships. Despite the necessary suffering. Jesus is alive! Right in the middle of the mess. Even in our complicated, self-contradicting lives. Despite our mistakes and our failures. The life of God in Christ resides within and all around us. Martin Luther famously said, the sun shines even on all the manure piles in our lives. Sherlock Holmes AND John Watson. Both/And.

The question is, do we now, as Easter people, notice the Life? Do we see, as Watson does – the victim of obvious theft – the stars in the glorious sky? Do we pause amidst the hectic, hurly-burly of life to, actually, smell the roses and give thanks? Can we believe that the Light that has come into the world now shines in the darkness? A darkness that can never overcome the Light?(1)

Can we assert that our hurt has become home for our greatest hope?

The good news of resurrection hope is that we don’t see this alone. The life and light of Christ shines in the Body of the living Christ — the church today. We are here for each other and for the world in order to discover and celebrate the presence of God in and around us.

We are not alone in discovering the gift of Life in us. In truth, the life of Christ resides in each and every one of us, despite the imperfection of the church and this community. When one of us falls, the other lifts up. We don’t have to suffer alone in the misery of alienation, feeling useless, or being crushed by failure. As if we must carry this burden alone, and heroically solve all by ourselves.

Easter means that now, “Faith does not occur in isolation. Despite the rugged individualism of our culture, faith is not just something private between God and me. Rather, faith is, by its very definition, communal.”(2)

God gives life. That’s God’s job. Where is God’s in yours? In the world? Where do you see it? Because, it’s there!

A woman asked her local Lutheran pastor for advice. “Pastor”, she says, “I have a boy who is six months old. And I’m curious to know what he will be when he grows up.”

The Lutheran pastor says, “Place before him three things: A bottle of beer, a looney, and a Bible. If he picks the beer, he’ll be a bartender. If he picks the looney, a business man. And if he picks the Bible, a pastor.” So, the mother thanked him and went home.

The next week she returned. “Well,” said the pastor, “which one did he pick: the beer, the looney, or the Bible?”

She said, “He picked all three!”
“Ah,” said the pastor, “a Lutheran!”(3)

Of course, we can substitute any Christian, here, not just Lutherans. The point is, living in the resurrection of Jesus means our lives reflect, resonate and echo the life of the living God. We rejoice and sing Alleluias for the beauty in life, despite the difficulties, through our human desires, and amidst the realities of life.

Now, we can see the life in the world – its beauty and glory – without denying the real. Even though someone may very well have stolen our proverbial tent, this cannot stop or take away the Life that is in us and all around us. Forever.

May our lives reflect a sense of wonder, trust in one another and in ourselves, and hope for God’s glorious future. Good news, indeed!

 

1 — John 1:5

2 — Stephen R. Montgomery in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.166.

3 — Adapted from James Martin , SJ, “The Jesuit Guide To Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life” (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), p.317.

Cape Disappointment

How do we learn to deal with disappointment?

When health concerns mount? When there are cutbacks in the company you work for? When a relationship breaks down? When someone betrays you? When you fail to meet your goal? When you lose something precious?

How, as people of faith, do we learn to deal with disappointment? When what has happened does not make sense, when we can’t understand ‘why’?

In 1788 Captain John Meares named the spot of land overlooking the confluence of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean, Cape Disappointment. He was disappointed that the Columbia River was simply thus, a river, instead of the fabled Northwest Passage which he was intending to find.

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Mr. Meares was obviously well off-course to his goal. We know today that the Columbia River begins its journey at Columbia Lake in central British Columbia, Canada, and winds itself south hundreds of kilometres into the states of Washington and Oregon before spilling into the Pacific.

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In keeping with the rather downer of name, the lighthouse on Cape Disappointment overlooks the hundreds of shipwreck sites off the coast. The United States Coast Guard recognizes this large area of water as the most dangerous among all the river outlets along the continental shores of the United States.

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Both the strong outflow of the broad and mighty Columbia competes with the powerful tides and winds generated by the largest ocean on earth. Crisscrossing currents of water create constantly shifting sand bars and opposite flow wave action that can confuse, disorient and ultimately undo any mariner navigating this passage.

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Add to this mayhem the fog which has an uncanny knack of coming in unexpectedly on the north breeze, disappearing under the burning sunshine as quickly as it appears. I stood bewildered in such a fog jam on the beach one day, unable to comprehend how a perfectly cloudless sky in beautiful sunshine can change so quickly. Signs are staked at entrances to the shores along the thirty-eight mile stretch of contiguous sand beach north of the Cape warning unsuspecting swimmers of rip currents and unstable sand conditions above and below the surf.

In short, while ascetically beautiful to the eyes, this small part of the world contains hidden, life-threatening dangers beneath the surface of things. Disappointing is an understatement when considering the potentially dire consequences of a mariner’s failed attempt at moving around the Cape, let alone dealing with the failure of not arriving at one’s goal.

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In the first reading for today[1], God responds to Jonah by asking questions, rhetorical though they are. Jonah expresses his anger at God for sparing the “great” city of Nineveh. God’s actions did not make sense to Jonah, even though Jonah confesses his belief in a gracious God who is “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”[2] He obviously did not think much about the people of Nineveh regardless of God’s mercy. Yet he is internally divided, unable to reconcile his belief with his feelings. He can’t figure it out. He is depressed. And wants to die.

If God says anything toward Jonah’s healing, it starts with a question: “Is it right for you to be angry?” And when God provides a bush to protect and save Jonah’s life, a bush that then dies, Jonah is angry again. What does God say to Jonah’s outburst? Another question. “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And to top it off, the entire book of Jonah ends rather abruptly, again with a question from God.[3] Questions. Not pat, cut-and-dry answers. Questions.

I wonder if we have tended to make God and religion into something and someone to give us quick and final answers. We demand ‘what’ from God when all along Jesus, in the wisdom tradition, is primarily teaching ‘how’. Out of the total of the one hundred and eighty-three questions that are asked of him in the Gospel, Jesus only directly answers three of them.[4] In the New Testament, Jesus’ very first words spoken to his disciples was a question: “What are you looking for?”[5]

Jesus turns the tables on the disciples, as he does time and time again. Rather than give them what they are looking for in a neat and tidy package of an easy answer, he throws it back at them. What do you want?

The first call of Jesus in our lives is a call to be honest with ourselves. Before we can do anything, we need to be true to ourselves. And commit to that lifelong struggle to move beyond our intellect and its insatiable compulsions for answers, towards actions that reflect a trusting heart. Because following Jesus in this world does not, most of the time, make a whole lot of intellectual sense. If we are being faithful.

It is not our job to know everything. God knows all. We don’t have to. Ours is a call to hold, not rid ourselves of, all the messy contradictions of our lives. Abraham, Jacob, Rebekah, Moses, David, Job, Esther, Jonah, Elijah, the disciples, Paul – they were not people who had all the easy answers to life’s complex questions. But they were trusting, obedient, and they acted. Sure, they objected to God at times. Yes, they made mistakes. If anything, the story of Jonah ought to reinforce the importance of a real, personal, topsy-turvy relationship with God. That is the stand-out characteristic of all the faithful.

During the years following the Council of Nicea in the fourth century, a common heresy re-emerged under the leadership of Eunomius, a bishop in Cappadocia (in modern day Turkey). Eunomius argued that we can understand the nature of God simply and clearly. Reflecting on what was the mystery of the Trinity, he implied that God was perfectly accessible to human intelligence.[6]

The Cappadocian Fathers, as they are called, reacted to Eunomius. Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa along with John Chrysostom insisted on the incomprehensibility of God to the human mind, and the necessary limits of theological discourse. Their position became the orthodox, Christian stance, ever since.

I wonder, ever since the Reformation, the industrial, scientific revolutions and enlightenment era of the last few centuries in especially the western world, haven’t we slipped back into this heresy once again? Pretending, even though we may not be aware of it, that we should have answers to all of life’s important questions.

It is our natural humanity to strive to know everything. But if we are honest, our minds certainly cannot grasp fully such incomprehensible realities as the mysteries of love, suffering, death and God. Here, we must trust and let go of all our pretenses. “For,” in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”[7]

Disappointment in life is a doorway to a deeper awareness of God’s truth and presence in our lives. Our varied expressions of worship, of living out God’s call, our prayer lives – all these are not so much, then, a matter of petition, of doctrine, of rule-setting-and-following, of solving the discrepancies and inconsistencies of the bible and theological discourse.

Rather, our complex lives with all the joys and disappointments become the tableau, the canvas, upon which we discover we are not alone. And that God is ever present and faithful, regardless of what we do or think. You can’t make God love you one ounce more – by all your right thinking and having all the right answers – than God already loves you right now.

Often, the disappointments of our lives bring us to this realization more than all of our accomplishments and successes. Because if we are going to get anywhere in our lives, we need to hope and believe, despite the disappointing circumstances of our lives.

Cape Disappointment marks another very important place in the history of North America. It is not just a place that signifies disappointment, tragedy and danger. It is also the very spot where the famous Lewis and Clark expedition reached the Pacific Ocean in November of 1805. Yes, Lewis & Clark met with many a disappointment and setback along the 3700-mile route up the Missouri River, across the American Midwest, over the Rocky and Cascade mountains and down the Columbia River Gorge that took them a year-and-a-half to accomplish.

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On the journey, were they ever absolutely certain they would make it? As it was, they must have taken their disappointments in stride. For on an uncharacteristically calm day in a stormy November, they made their final push around the western Cape and finally met the limitless horizon.

Significantly, the Lewis and Clark Expedition was called the Corps of Discovery. Today, a 10-mile-long, well-groomed paved path winds through the dunes of Long Beach Peninsula and up into the forest of the Cape. It is called the “Path of Discovery”.

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Cape Disappointment is intricately tied to the Corps of Discovery, where both failure and success are entwined in a rich and diverse history of exploration. The spirit of questing celebrated on these shores includes and transcends both the unique events of human tragedy and human achievement. You cannot have one without the other. In one place. In one human being. Each of us is invited to the journey that includes, embraces and transcends disappointment and failure.

At some point along the journey, you need to have hope in order to continue. Even in the midst of all our unknowing, we can believe and trust in the solution, before it happens.

It’s called faith.

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[1] Jonah 3:10—4:11, NRSV, Proper 20A/Ordinary 25A/Pentecost+16

[2] Jonah 4:2

[3] Jonah 4:4,9,11, NRSV

[4] Richard Rohr, “Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation” (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2004), p.112

[5] John 1:38, NRSV

[6] Belden C. Lane, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.105

[7] Isaiah 55:8, NRSV

photos by Martin Malina IMG_5940