Because you are a sky full of stars

I love the NHL TV ad where they show just the first seconds of an on-ice interview moments after a team has won the coveted prize — the holy grail of hockey — the Stanley Cup. After over 20-some games played, four consecutive series won, the campaign is finally over in victory, the question: “How does this feel?”

And so the ad runs through several players over the years, responding to this same question. It’s the consistent response that makes the point. None of them have words to describe the feeling. Uhh. Ummm. (sigh). (sob). Whew! (shake head). etc. is all they can manage. Words simply cannot describe the majesty and awe and joy of the moment.

Such is the attitude surrounding the Psalm appointed for this Trinity Sunday on which we also celebrate an Affirmation of Baptism (Confirmation).

Early 20th century American scientist, Dr. Carver, was asked by some writer late in his life what he thought was the most indispensable thing for science in the modern age. Carver replied, “The capacity for awe.” And mere words fall far short of capturing an awe-filled moment.

When the Psalmist asks, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:4), this is not intended to be so much an intellectual question. This is not so much a matter of curiosity, that is being expressed. It is not so much a problematic question.

Rather it is a question of mystery and marvel. “What are human beings that you are mindful of them . . .?” A question of mystery is not satisfied with logical tidiness. This question eludes our intellectual grasp because the enormity of moment grasps us.

Psalm 8 is not a scientific response to the wonder of creation, and the wonder of human life. It is a hymn — an evening hymn — a vesper song. It is an expression of faith — an act of worship — a moment of praise. It takes place in the temple, not the laboratory. It springs from the heart rather than the mind. It is wonderment, not wondering. It is awe, not assessment. It is exaltation not experimentation. It is affirmation not analysis. It is celebration, not curiosity. (Carl Schultz, Houghton College, “What Are Human Beings?”, campus.houghton.edu)

But not just at the best of times. It is when we get that phone call in the middle of the night, when tragedy strikes, when we hear for the first time “bad news”, and when things suddenly go from bad to worse. There’s a similar dynamic at play within our hearts; it’s as if we are standing before a mystery that we simply cannot ‘manage’ scientifically. When words fail us, and we feel we cannot do anything.

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” O God? This prayer can also be a prayer that puts us in our place, literally and figuratively. We are but a speck of dust in the magnitude of all that is. Who are we? A speck of dust? We can feel like that sometimes, too.

But here’s the catch. There’s a fellow in the Old Testament that I think you may of heard of. His name is Job. He was a man of God. But he lost everything. His family dies. He suffers pain and disease. His friends ridicule him. He loses his house and property.

And when he complains to God, he cites this very Psalm. In the 7th chapter of Job, he quotes the exact words from Psalm 8 as he shakes his fist at God: “What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them … (v.17)”. And then, “Will you not look away from me for a while, leave me alone…?” (v.19).

Here’s the point of this Psalm quote in Job: God pays attention to us. In those glorious moments of life, but especially also when we are at our lowest. God pays attention to us specks of carbon in the universe. Let your soul rest in this awareness — of a God who will not leave us alone, even when we are completely defeated.

My favourite summer past-time is watching sunsets over the ocean or Great Lake. When I sit or stand still on the beach at the water’s edge observing this large burning orb dip into the fluid horizon — if you had a camera on me, you would say I am gawking at the sunset. I’m not saying anything. My eyes are wide open.

I encourage you this summer if you experience an awe-filled moment — on the farm, in the forest, on the beach or mountainside, even at home — pay attention to the glory of God before you. Pause, just for a minute. Because in that very moment, God is gawking at you.

It is because God pays attention to us, that we find, as Job eventually did, the strength to move on. It is because God pays attention to us when we are joy-filled as well as down-and-out, that we find, eventually, the strength to carry on. It is because God considers each one of us a beautiful and precious creation — because God is gawking at each of us — that our hearts are filled and we can live life fully.

During this Confirmation year, we made a few road trips: to visit Lutherlyn Camp and Conference Centre in the Fall, and other Lutheran, Anglican and even Jewish congregations in Ottawa. Olivia would usually drive in my car. And something we always did while we travelled was listen to music.

Indeed music — as the Doghouse Band from Pembroke today reminds us so wonderfully — music is an expression that defies analysis because music goes straight to the soul, to the heart. Martin Luther said that when you sing, you pray twice. J.S. Bach came to be known as the Fifth Evangelist (after Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) precisely because his music expressed the Gospel even better than words on a page.

The pop group, Coldplay, just last month came out with their latest album. One song in particular has been getting a lot of airtime on radio. Now, they’re a secular band, but these lyrics are deeply theological, if you pay attention to them. They are a prayer, to God:

“‘Cause you’re a sky, ’cause you’re a sky full of stars /I’m gonna give you my heart
‘Cause you’re a sky, ’cause you’re a sky full of stars /’Cause you light up the path …

‘Cause in a sky, ’cause in a sky full of stars /I think I saw You

‘Cause you’re a sky, ’cause you’re a sky full of stars /I wanna die in your arms
‘Cause you get lighter the more it gets dark /I’m gonna give you my heart….”

It’s ’cause who God is and what God does, that we have any hope and any strength in all of creation to be all that we were made to be. It’s ’cause who God is that we can give Him our heart.

God gawks at us. God pays attention to us. And because of that, we can move on, no matter what.

Transforming vision

One of the most impressive cinematic visual effects in recent years comes from the “Transformers” film, when for the first time we see how a yellow Camaro is transformed before our very eyes into the character, Bumblebee – the mechanical, robot-like giant. Every part of the sports car shifts, rotates, elevates, turns and clicks into a new position in matter of seconds, revealing a completely different being – from car to robot.

But that’s just it: Every part of the car is necessary in the transformation. In other words, each piece of the car finds a place in the robot: the fender becomes the forehead; the headlights become the eyes; the tires become part of the joints in elbows and knees, etc. Nothing is discarded. The automobile – literally – is just changed, seen in a new light.

I suspect sometimes we resist the notion of our transformation because we anticipate or feel un-genuinely forced into becoming someone we are not. Especially in the church. On the other hand, we may resist the notion of our transformation because we are so convinced that there’s nothing good in our lives to begin with. So, what’s the point?

Because of these hang ups, we may give up. And we discard altogether the notion of ‘change’, defending the status quo of our lives even when we are not happy with the way things are. We justify philosophies that insist that human nature never changes; people will always be the same. And what is more, our nature is evil and beset forevermore with sin. If there is any good within us, it doesn’t last long and we cycle back into sinful patterns. Cynicism reigns supreme.

We can’t, however, ignore the witness of the Holy Scriptures. I don’t have to give you a complete catalogue of examples from the Gospels that shows how people around Jesus change. Whether directly the recipients of Jesus’ healing touch, which is obvious; or, the way the disciples – by the end of the journey with Jesus do exhibit moments of ‘aha’! Just read again the Easter stories such as the Emmaus walk (Luke 24:13ff), and the confident confessions of faith from the disciples – the likes of Nathanael, Peter, and Martha (Matthew 14:33;16:16; John 1:49;11:27).

It is evident from the witness of Scripture that if the disciples are not completely changed by the end of the story, they are certainly a journey that is changing their lives, forever (i.e. transformation).

But it takes time. It is a journey, after all. If the disciples are like the yellow Camaro in the film, “Transformers”, changing into Bumblebee, their transformation is more like what happens when you hit the slow motion button at that moment in the movie!

But what really changes? Are they still not the same person? After Jesus raised from the dead, the disciples went back to their day jobs – fishing by the Sea of Galilee; though they have seen and touched the risen Lord, were they not still the same people? When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, his facing shining after being in the presence of God – he was transformed, to be sure (Exodus 24:16-17;34:29); And yet he was still Moses – every part of him! When Jesus was transformed into a shining, glowing being on the Mount of Transfiguration, was he still not Jesus – every part of him (Matthew 17:1-9)?

An ex-soldier reflected with a concerned friend how war affects people in different ways: “Most soldiers get sick on the spot after killing someone for the first time; for others, it just whets their appetite for more.”

“Combat changes people,” the friend said trying to explain the traumatic effects of the battlefield on the human psyche.

“No,” the veteran replied. “Combat reveals who they truly are.”

Perhaps we have misunderstood this notion of ‘change’. In our linear, logical ways of thinking, we have perhaps overlooked a deeper dimension of our lives. Jesus changed, yes, on the mountain. But he didn’t really change. He was revealed, if but for a moment, as he truly is. Admittedly, as a mystery to us. And yet, we, with the disciples, get a glimpse of his divine nature, in this story. We don’t see a different Jesus. We just see a little more of who he really is: Someone beyond all human understanding, at very least.

This may not appear a satisfying answer for inquiring minds. Neither was it for Peter, James and John. At first, Peter belts out in pious bravado: “It is good Lord, that we are here!” (Matthew 17:4) It doesn’t take too long for Peter and his cohorts to fall trembling, flat on the ground, terrified of what they are seeing (Matthew 17:6).

How do we make sense of this incomprehensible God? What do we do when all our assumptions are shaken at their core? Who is God? Who is Jesus? What is happening, here, in my life?

I consider this story of the Transfiguration of the Lord a template, an allegory, for most experiences of our lives that we would view as ‘life-changing’ – good and bad experiences. Any event of our lives that brings us to our knees in fear and uncertainty: whenever we find ourselves wondering, “Why, Lord?” Or, on the other hand, whenever we are able to raise our hands in praise of God’s goodness, standing before a wondrous act of God.

In either case, the end of the story is more about God the Creator and Jesus, God’s Son. When the disciples are slain in fear on the ground after witnessing a most spectacular special-effect display of divine mystery and wonder, when Jesus notices the trauma of his friends ….

It’s as if, suddenly, all is quiet and all the ‘special effects’ of the Transfiguration melt into the background. Two things come into focus at the end to help the disciples gain their feet again: Jesus’ gentle words: “Do not be afraid”. And, his loving touch.

The disciples, who have just witnessed Jesus, as he truly is, are on the path of discovering who they, truly are in God’s eyes: Loved and touched by the hands of the Creator, soon to be crucified – a touch to ensure them that no matter what – even through death – they will never be alone. God is with them, “Emanuel” (Matthew 1:23), God with us.

We come into our true selves because of who Jesus is, as a reflection of the mystery of the divine. Like a tiny acorn holds the full capacity of being a giant tree, we hold the capacity of everything we yearn to become – because of Jesus. His light shines on us, warms our hearts, and causes our emergence.

It’s our relationship to Jesus, then, that defines our transformation. Listen to the words of Maryetta Anschutz who describes an artist’s creation: “An artist knows that everything he or she creates depends less on the subject matter and far more on the subject’s relationship to the light. In sculpture, photography, painting, or drawing, the artist simply depicts the reflection of light off an object or an idea.

“The still life of an apple can be flat, dull, and uninspiring, or it can evoke emotion, reaction, and transcendence. What evokes the response [the change] is not the object; it is how the artist presents it in the light …” (p.456, “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 1, eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, JKP Kentucky, 2010). We are transformed, each and every ordinary one of us, into the beauty that Christ sees in us, and that we are.

Perhaps the challenge and call upon our lives from this holy story, is first and foremost a call to exercise the vision of God. That is, we are challenged to see anew all that is – the ordinary, the common place, the routine, the unspectacular, the every day. We are called to look upon one another, one self, each other, the people on the street upon the highways and byways of our regular lives – in the light and perspective of God. Not to deny the blemishes that are ever present – the cracks, the brokenness, the sin. But to appreciate the beauty of the way things already are, in the sight and vision of God the Creator, the master Artist.

In this way, then, transformation is neither a threat nor a fright. It is permission to become, and let emerge, what is already there. Hold what is there to the light of Christ, who stands always beside us, beckoning with his loving touch and assuring us, “I am with you always, even unto the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Thanks be to God.

Bane and Blessing

In the popular Brothers Grimm fairy tale, “Rapunzel”, that was in recent years adapted for the big screen in the movie “Tangled”, the main character, Rapunzel, has extremely long hair. This is her gift, it would appear.

But the evil witch has locked her in a room at the top of a tall tower without any entrance or exit except a window near the top. The witch and the prince climb up to the room where Rapunzel lives, by calling for Rapunzel to let down her long hair; they use her hair like a rope ladder.

But Rapunzel never uses her gift of long hair to free herself from her entrapment. While others recognized the gift she had, for better or for worse, why couldn’t she just cut off her own hair? Why could Rapunzel not use her gift, especially if it meant freedom? She had what she needed to be free!

Was it her strong emotional attachment to her hair that prevented her from living life truly, freely? If only she could let go and surrender that which was most precious to her….

In the famous Beatitudes, Jesus described the ‘blessedness’ of those in the kingdom of God. How can we understand this ‘blessing’? This Sermon on the Mount does not read like a self-help manual for the successful, in the twenty-first century. There is something counter-cultural going on here; something paradoxical, even radical.

It seems to suggest to me that to be followers of Christ we must also be able to see in ourselves what we see in others: the bane and the blessing, the good and bad, both/and. It is, on the one hand, to recognize the sinner in ourselves, and to forgive – let go, surrender – ourselves of that sin. And not let it rule us.

To recognize, embrace and confess the poverty of spirit within us.

To explore and acknowledge places of grief and loss in our own lives.

To practice humility with others, a stance that recognizes God as the “source of our life” (1 Cor 1:30).

To identify and name our own hungers, longings and thirst for righteousness.

To be merciful unto ourselves, to begin with.

To search after the purity of our own heart.

To share the gift of peace that is within us.

And to endure the persecution and suffering we all encounter in whatever form, for Christ’s sake.

It’s easy to point the finger, and see it in others, and preserve our own sense of self. It’s easy to do nothing and ‘wait’ for someone to come and save you from your problems (like Rapunzel), without noticing the resources you have yourself to do the right thing, even it means starting by confessing your own sin.

The Gospel of Jesus, while being simple is not easy. Therefore, we need not shy away from seeking after the ‘blessing’ of God upon our lives in our honest, simple, vulnerable selves. We need not hold back from coming to God in all our sinfulness, because God won’t hold back his love to us.

“Consider your own call …: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not…” Paul writes (1 Cor 1:26-28).

Spiritual greats over the centuries have recognized this truth of God. St Augustine says, “In my deepest wound I see your glory and it dazzles me.” Julian of Norwich put it, “God sees the wounds, and sees them not as scars but as honors … God does not blame us for them.” Paul wrote elsewhere, defining God as one “who creates life out of death and calls into being what does not exist” (Romans 4:17).

On the cross, Jesus reconciled all these divisions in himself (Ephesians 2:10). It was, and is, the pattern of his life with us, as the Scriptures testify: Jesus himself was crucified between a good thief and a bad thief, hanging between heaven and earth, holding on to both his divinity and humanity, expelled as a problem for both religion and state.

His dying – his absolute letting go – upended any religious program that said, ‘You need to earn your worth and favour with God.’ Letting go is the nature of all true spirituality. Letting go is the nature of any genuine reconciliation. Letting go is the engine of meaningful and lasting transformation. And these are all, admittedly, a mystery – a paradox.

For Rapunzel, we cannot blame her for being attached to her hair; after all, it was a gift. Why would she want to cut it off – for any reason? Why would she want to give that up? It was such a deep part of her identity.

When we see Jesus on the cross, we see that our faith is about being ‘attached’ in love. Jesus instructs his followers in the Golden Rule to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27).

But there’s a price, a cost, to pay for it. When you love someone, and act out of love for them, there is always the risk of pain and we will suffer for it. If we love, we give ourselves to feel the pain of the world. Love will simply lead us to the cross.

Sometimes the worst possible circumstances in our lives turn out to be the greatest gift – and vice versa. Because our greatest gift can be the source of our downfall; or, at very least, keep us from become the people God called us to be. Yet, it is in the collision and letting go of these opposites, where the blessing is realized.

Listen to the witness of a Catholic priest who visited the Philippines:

“I saw so many shining eyes in the Philippines, yet these are souls who have been eaten up and spit out by life. The Filipinos are a people with so little. I celebrated a Sunday Mass in a squatter’s camp. Shacks all around. Yet they were so excited that ‘Fodder’ was coming. The kids met me to lead me into the barrio. Out of these shacks came kids in perfectly clean clothes. I don’t know how the mothers kept them so clean. They were all dressed up for Sunday Mass. The boys all got their guitars, and it was the big event of the week. They have something we have lost.

“I felt like telling them, ‘You live in a dump by our standards, but do you know what you have? You’re not cynical like we are. You’re all smiling. Why should you be smiling? You don’t have any reason to smile. You live in a shack! It smells like garbage. But you have father and mother and clear, simple identity.’”

Then, this priest confesses: “I don’t know who trained them to do this, but you constantly feel your hand taken by the little Filipino children. They take your hand and put it to their head. They don’t ask you to bless them. They take it from you. It made me weep. For they have their souls yet! They have light, they have hope. The little children call you ‘Fodder, Fodder,’ and I think when they pull blessings out of you, blessings really come forth.

“They are ready for the blessing. They believe in the blessing, and you are not really sure if it was there until they saw it, expected it, and demanded it. These are the blessed of the earth,” he concludes.

These are ones who don’t need to be taught the faith. They live it. They live the mystery of life and death, blessing and loss. They’re okay with paradox, even if they can’t articulate it as such. They don’t need everything explained to them. They just love. And bless. And are blessed.

They, indeed, have the light of Christ. And they know it, deep down, in their souls.

Apart from the reference to Rapunzel and the film, Tangled, most of this reflection is adapted from Chapter 6, “Return to the Sacred” in Richard Rohr’s book, “Everything Belongs”