A wintery spirit

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The winter of 2018 has been record-setting, so far. And we are barely one week into the new year! Did you know it was Ottawa’s coldest New Year’s Day since records began in 1873? At 8am on January 1st, the mercury dipped to a frigid minus 30.2 degrees Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit); New Year’s Day also marked Ottawa’s sixth consecutive day with temperatures below -17 degrees Celsius (1 Fahrenheit), which made it the longest run in exactly one hundred years.[1]

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A full onslaught of winter can help us appreciate the meaning of Christianity. Though much of the bible’s stories and lessons were wrought out of the harsh desert climate surrounding the Mediterranean and Arabian seas, the winter realities we face in Canada are not that much different. I suggest, then, let’s take desert and winter as synonymous – meaning, essentially, the same things.

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American Lutheran theologian, Martin Marty, describes the importance of what he calls a “wintery spirituality”, defined by the shrill cry of absence, frost, and death. In contrast to a summer spirituality, winter is more given to being emptied than being filled. Winter is harsh and lean in imagery, beggarly in its gifts of grace and love.[2]

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Of course, Jesus goes into the Judean wilderness to be baptized in the Jordan River. And right after his baptism, he spends forty days and nights in the desert.[3] The desert is not a comfortable place to be. For one thing, it makes scarce and even denies the basic need for our survival – water. A desert is an arid region where annual rainfall remains miniscule. Some deserts average only one centimetre a year, with parts of the Sahara not receiving a drop of rain for more than twenty years.[4]

The word and image of water appears in each of the Hebrew readings assigned for this festival day in the church calendar, and is tied to baptism in the readings from the New Testament.[5] More to the point, water is given out of the chaotic void in the creation story, and in the arid wilderness as a gift and a grace. Water is thus a sign of God’s love amid the harsh winter or desert realities of our lives.

The prophets of old affirm that it is precisely in the desert where God expresses God’s love to the people. The grace of God cannot be received outside of winter. “Thus says the Lord: The people who found grace in the wilderness … I have loved you with an everlasting love …. I remember your love, how you followed me in the wilderness.”[6]

How, then, can we appreciate and even thrive, living out of this truth? How can we follow Jesus in his way? After all, the Baptism of our Lord is about Jesus beginning the journey to fulfill his God-given purpose in life. How he does it is of particular importance to us, if we are interested in following Jesus in our life-style.

Listen to a story first told by a nineteenth-century teacher, Awad Afifi the Tunisian, who drew his wisdom from the wide expanse of the North African desert:

A gentle rain fell on a high mountain in a distant land. The rain was at first hushed and quiet, trickling down granite slopes. Gradually it increased in strength, as rivulets of water rolled over rocks and down gnarled, twisted trees that grew there. The rain fell, as water must, without calculation. After all, water never has time to practice falling.

Soon, it was pouring, as swift currents of dark water flowed together into the beginnings of a stream. The brook made its way down the mountainside, through small stands of cypress trees and fields of lavender, and down cascading falls. It moved without effort, splashing over stones – learning that the stream interrupted by rocks is the one that sings most nobly. Finally, having left its heights in the distant mountain, the stream made its way to the edge of a great desert. Sand and rock stretched beyond seeing.

Having crossed every other barrier in its way, the stream fully expected to cross this as well. But as fast as its waves splashed into the desert, that fast did they disappear into the sand. Before long, the stream heard a voice whispering, as if coming from the desert itself, saying, “The wind crosses the desert, so can the stream.”

“Yes, but the wind can fly!” cried out the stream, still dashing itself into the desert sand.

“You’ll never get across that way,” the desert whispered. “You have to let the wind carry you.”

“But, how?” shouted the stream.

“You have to let the wind absorb you.”

The stream could not accept this, however. It didn’t want to lose its identity or abandon its own individuality. After all, if it gave itself to the winds, could it ever be sure of becoming a stream again?

The desert replied that the stream could continue its flowing, perhaps one day even producing a swamp there at the desert’s edge. But it would never cross the desert so long as it remained a stream.

The stream was silent for a long time, listening to distant echoes of memory, knowing parts of itself having been held before in the arms of the wind. From that long-forgotten place, it gradually recalled how water conquers only by yielding, by turning to steam in a natural cycle. From the depths of that silence, slowly the stream raised its vapours to the welcoming arms of the wind and was borne upward, carried easily on great white clouds over the wide desert waste.

Approaching distant mountains on the desert’s far side, the stream then began once again to fall as a light rain. At first it was hushed and quiet, trickling down granite slopes. Gradually it increased in strength, as rivulets rolled over the rocks and down the gnarled, twisted trees that grew there. The rain fell, as water must, without calculation. And soon it was pouring, as swift currents of dark water flowed together – yet again – into the headwaters of a new stream. [7]

Jesus instructs his followers to become the people they are called to be.[8] God is aware that our lives are like a journey through the desert. Or, as Canadians, we can say that our faith journey is not dissimilar from living through an Ottawa record-setting winter.

To thrive in this life is to see that this journey of becoming is not static. We are not called by Jesus to become mere swamp lands at the edge of the desert. Rather, the journey calls us to be vulnerable, to recognize what we may initially want to resist in us – like the stream that first struggled against yielding to the wind.

Our journey through life are journeys of vulnerability. Of taking little. Of trusting God. Of appreciating the value of small things. Of letting go into the Spirit wind of God. Then, we can, with the Psalmist see that, even in the wilderness, the Lord fulfills God’s promises and does indeed give strength to us and bless us with peace.[9]

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[1] Ottawa weather records, Twitter @YOW_Weather

[2] cited in Belden C. Lane, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.37

[3] Mark 1:12-13

[4] Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.38

[5] The Baptism of our Lord, Revised Common Lectionary Year B: Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

[6] Jeremiah 31:3; 2:2

[7] as written by Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.20-21

[8] read the entire section from Matthew 10:5-42

[9] Psalm 29:11, NRSV

The gift of the Beatitudes

There is the story about a little girl who was one day drawing a picture. She was so engrossed in her work that her mother asked, “What are you drawing?” “Oh, it’s a picture of God,” said the youngster. “A picture of God?” “Darling, no one knows what God looks like!” “No,” said the little girl, “but they will when I get through.”

Even though we know, deep down, that God cannot be put in a box of our own devising – our own imagination – we will still try. However imperfect our efforts may be at explaining God — and imperfect they often are! — we live, like the little girl, with the confidence and sometimes arrogance that says: We know it all! I am in control! And that’s good, to a point.

But then we grow up and life happens — we suffer, we mourn, things don’t go according to our plan — and we question God’s very own existence. Usually, our response is very individualistic. When we struggle with end-of-life realities, for example, I often hear questions about whether or not “I” am worthy for heaven. And people struggle, sometimes on their death beds, with their own, individual, deserving, as if their salvation hangs on their own merit and achievements, or lack thereof.

First, let me say that challenging events in our life need not be signs of God’s displeasure –presuming God is out to get us for our misdeeds. Rather, challenging events are invitations to go deeper into the truth of life and death. And therein we discover the wonder of God and God’s loving stance towards us.

The church has always understood our rising and dying in Christ as a collective experience, not an individualistic enterprise. All Saints Sunday which we acknowledge today emphasizes ALL the SaintS (plural) — not just one or two. Moreover, every Sunday when we celebrate the sacrament of the table, we connect with the “communion of saints in heaven and on earth”. We are part of the Body of Christ, members of something larger than us, individually.

In the reading from Revelation (7:9-17) we hear about “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (v.9). As members of the body of Christ we are primarily a people, not individuals that can be counted or measured. This truth is not meant to diminish our individuality but to encourage us in faith.

I pondered a photo recently taken of my godparents standing with my twin brother around the very font I was baptized in with him on November 30, 1969, about a month after my birth. Looking at the faces of my 5 sponsors now in their senior years, I was struck by how at my baptism — even though I couldn’t make those promises by myself at that time — the communion of saints held me in my faith and belief. Even though there are times in my life when my faith is weak, by myself, I can rest in the faith expressed by the larger faith community which holds me in prayer and membership. And this, to me, is of great comfort and encouragement.

Admittedly, it’s difficult for us to understand such a mystical and communal truth, in a highly individualistic culture bent on individual achievement and autonomy. But a life of faith in Christ Jesus invites us to consider reality and truth in a paradoxical way: That the poor are blessed, and so are the peacemakers, and those who mourn. In a world that lifts up those who achieve individual success and power by their own merit, the Beatitudes introduce a way of life that sees God in precisely the kinds of circumstances and communal expressions we would rather avoid, deny or at best tolerate.

Some have compared the 8 Beatitudes with which, in Matthew’s gospel (5:1-12) Jesus begins his teaching — what is called the Sermon on the Mount — with the 10 Commandments in the Old Testament.

This is an interesting comparison, on many levels. Someone mentioned in the lectionary study this past Monday how little airtime the Beatitudes get in our churches of late; much more emphasis is on the 10 Commandments. They remembered a time decades ago when the Beatitudes where enshrined on church bookmarks, wall-hangings, posters, cards in the narthex. They were all over the place. But no longer.

I wonder, is it because in recent times, especially, we have downplayed the subtle, albeit unpopular, aspects of the faithful life. Is it because we are uncomfortable with the humble truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ — who gave up his whole life on the cross for the sake of all people? This is the essence of the Gospel which is captured in the Beatitudes, a way of life that faces the challenges of life head on and embraces those struggles as integral to, as the fodder of, the faithful life.

Conversely, the 10 Commandments are easier to comprehend, rationalistically, aren’t they? After all, here a bunch of rules to follow. And rules are easier to grasp than paradoxical sayings. Rules have cut and dry consequences. Rules are wrapped up in rewards and punishment. And we get that. We live in a culture that is driven by meritocracy.

Maybe it’s time we take another look at the Beatitudes. Because life happens. And when it does, we have some choice and a responsibility in the matter of how we will respond. We don’t have to search out suffering for suffering’s sake. The tough times come. And when they do, what will we do? How will we respond?

By saying, “We don’t deserve this? It shouldn’t happen to us?”

We can only go so far with the 10 Commandments — and the ‘Law” for that matter. Because while the Law provides a good order for living, no one individual can fulfill the demands of the law perfectly. The function of the law is to drive us to the throne of grace — to lead us, in the words of Martin Luther — “as beggars”, to God who is the starting and ending point of our lives.

One of Martin Luther’s greatest contributions to theological thinking is a paradox: he said that we are simultaneously saint AND sinner. Now, you can’t rationalistically explain that ‘both/and’ formulation — just like you cannot easily explain other sayings of Jesus; like, in order to find your life you need to lose it; or, just like you cannot explain that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine; or, just like you cannot easily explain the mystery of the real presence of Jesus we may experience with God in the Holy Communion. That is why the prayer of the day for All Saints Sunday emphasizes ‘the mystical union’ we share with the whole body of Christ on earth and in heaven. These are all precious paradoxes that describe — like the Beatitudes do — the fundamentals of our faith.

The gift of the Beatitudes — these fundamental teachings of Jesus — lies in their promise to us. What are the promises to those who courageously follow in the often messy, inexplicable, uncertainty of Jesus’ way of the Cross?

Ours is the kingdom of God, we will inherit the earth, we will be filled, we will receive mercy, we will see God, we will be called children of God, and our reward will be great in heaven.

Here is a wonderful, true description of faith that is full of promise, not condemnation; that is about hope in the midst of despair, not a fearful avoidance of reality; that is about affirmation and encouragement, not judgement and punishment; that is about blessing with an eye to new life.