The long journey – Lent 1A

We don’t often see the humour in the creation stories around Adam and Eve (Genesis 2-3). Perhaps because so many centuries of debate and dogma and doctrine-making put such a heavy burden on the sacred text.

But, if we can just lighten our approach a bit, a fresh perspective emerges. There are some funny aspects in the story of the Garden of Eden where the crafty serpent tempts Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, they disobey God, resulting in their rather undignified exit from Paradise.

Here’s a joke someone sent me this very week on the subject: Did you know the oldest computer can be traced back to Adam and Eve?
Surprise, surprise.
It was an Apple.
But with extremely limited memory.
Just one byte.
Then everything crashed.

That joke isn’t biblical in case you were wondering. But these story-lines are rather comedic: We have a talking snake (a la Harry Potter). If anyone is a parent or works with children, you will know that the surest way to get a child to do something, is to tell them not to do it (e.g. “You can eat anything you want from the fridge, but you dare not touch a cookie from that jar on top of the table”). It’s almost as if Adam and Eve were set up to fail. And then God warns them they will ‘die’ if they even touch the tree. They do touch the tree, but they don’t die.

Well, not for another several hundred years.

The scripture records Adam having lived a very long life (Genesis 5:5 suggests 930 years). The threat of death was therefore not a literal one tied to that one, particular transgression. In other words, there must have been a divine purpose in Adam living so long after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

We can assume, therefore, that when Adam and Eve left the Garden, they began a life of maturing and labouring under the weight of their broken humanity. The development and growth of any human being, we know, is bought by the price of pain and suffering. The wisdom writer from Ecclesiastes (1:18) expresses this truth: “For in much wisdom is vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.” Suffering, then, must be part of God’s good, created order. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall writes, “Life depends in some mysterious way on the struggle to be.” (1)

That God did not destroy them both immediately after their unfortunate decision, is an act of grace, of forgiveness. The writer of Genesis is emphasizing an important characteristic of God, here. Whether or not Adam lived, actually, 930 years is not the point; the point is it was a very, very long time. Perhaps the author is, at very least, emphatic in expressing the extent of God’s mercy: Adam and Eve have all the time in the world to practice making better decisions, and of experiencing more and more of God’s grace.

God is forgiving, even more so than we can be to ourselves. God is merciful, even more than we can be merciful to each other. God is gracious, even more than we can imagine being gracious to ourselves.

We begin today a journey of some forty days, which mirrors Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). In pursuit of various disciplines we observe the season of Lent, year after year, as we slowly and intentionally approach the most holy of Christian days — Easter, the resurrection of our Lord.

The only way to the Empty Tomb of resurrection is through the Cross of suffering. The symbolic destination of the Lenten journey is the Cross, on Good Friday. And so, right off the start, we know this can’t be an easy journey, when we have to face and bear our own cross. But this is what life is about, is it not?

Whenever hardship comes our way in whatever form it does — illness, loss, tragedy, disappointment, conflict and confrontation, failure, guilt, pain. We don’t have to seek it out; Suffering comes to us all. This is a reality we are called to accept.

When Adam and Eve failed God in the Garden, God gave them a chance to confess. As much as disobedience was the problem, so too was their impulse to try to ‘cover up’ their faults by blaming someone else; Adam blames Eve and then Eve blames the serpent (Genesis 3:12-13). 

Are we willing to embark on the sometimes harrowing yet intentional path of some kind self-discipline or challenge to change things for the better? Are we willing to take a long, hard look at our own lives? If so, Jesus’ vulnerability in the wilderness points to the authentic quality and honesty in all our relationships.

We are called to be honest about our brokenness. Being vulnerable is not a weakness, it is a strength. We do not need to pretend our weaknesses away. Our suffering can be a great teacher, an opportunity for growth and wholeness.

Suffering, in the words of Douglas John Hall, “is necessary to evoke the human potential for nobility, for love, for wisdom, and for depth of authenticity of being. A pain-free life would be a life-less life.” (2)

Lent is not a path to ultimate self-annihilation. Ultimately, Lent is not a downer. Because suffering can point to a new beginning. Followers of Jesus are not a people who suffer the pains of life without faith and hope.

This hope ought to give us endurance for the journey ahead. There will be temptations. There will be setbacks. There will be disappointments on the journey of becoming more authentic, more vulnerable, more open, more honest.

But God will not give up on us. Every moment we have is pregnant with the grace of God, even should we like Adam and Eve not always make the best decisions and then have to live with the consequences. But there is always hope. Always another chance. Always a new beginning coming up over the horizon of our lives.

We have every moment given to us — maybe not 930 years. But our faith can assure us that God will never, ever, give up on granting us mercy and forgiveness, no matter the many bad decisions we make over the course of our lives.

Our desert, Lenten journey, may seem long and arduous. But longer, still, is the span of time it takes for God to keep faith in us.

 

1 – cited in Terence E. Fretheim, “Is Genesis 3 a Fall Story?” in Word & World (Volume 14, Number 2, Luther Seminary, St Paul Minnesota, 1994), p.147
2 – Douglas John Hall, “God and Human Suffering: An exercise in the Theology of the Cross” (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), p.62-63

Lent begins again: Why?

We begin a journey of some forty days, which mirrors Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). We continue to observe the season of Lent, year after year, as we approach the most holy of Christian days — Easter, the resurrection of our Lord.

But why do we do this? Why do we continue to do this, it seems, against the flow of society and the dominant culture today? As a child, I remember when it was more popular to ‘give up’ something for Lent; people actually did give something up, like dessert or TV. Some still do, I know.

And yet, it seems from the perspective of our economy and lifestyle today, that planning for March break, and sun-shine, escapist getaways get more attention and energy than any spiritual discipline might.

So, let’s begin our Lenten journey with a close look at why we need to go on this trip in the first place. Speaking of journeys, then, here’s a fascinating one from the history books:

“Early in the twentieth century, the English adventurer Ernest Shackleton set out to explore the Antarctic …. The land part of the expedition would start at the frigid Weddell Sea, below New Zealand …

“‘The crossing of the south polar continent will be the biggest polar journey ever attempted,’ Shackleton told a reporter for the New York Times on December 29, 1913.’

“On December 5, 1914, Shackleton and a crew of twenty-seven men set out for the Weddell Sea on the Endurance, a 350-ton ship that had been constructed with funds from private donors, the British government and the Royal Geographical Society. By then, World War 1 was raging in Europe, and money was growing more scarce. Donations from English schoolchildren paid for the dog teams.

“But the crew of the Endurance would never reach the continent of Antarctica.

“Just a few days out of South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic, the ship encountered mile after mile of pack ice, and was soon trapped as winter moved in early and with fury. Ice closed in around the ship ‘like an almond in a piece of toffee,’ a crew member wrote.

“Shackleton and his crew were stranded in the Antarctic for ten months as the Endurance drifted slowly north, until the pressure of the ice floes finally crushed the ship. On November 21, 1915, the crew watched as she sank in the frigid waters of the Weddell Sea.

“Stranded on the ice, the crew of the Endurance boarded their three lifeboats and landed on Elephant Island. There Shackleton left behind all but five of his men and embarked on a hazardous journey across 800 miles of rough seas to find help. Which, eventually, they did.

“What makes the story of the Endurance so remarkable, however, is not the expedition. It’s that throughout the whole ordeal no one died. There were no stories of people eating others and no mutiny [to speak of …. Some have argued that ] “This was not luck. This was because Shackleton hired good fits. He found the right men for the job ….

“Shackleton’s ad for crew members was different [from the norm]. His did not say WHAT he was looking for. His did not say: ‘Men needed for expedition. Minimum five year’s experience. Must know how to hoist mainsail. Come work for a fantastic captain.’ Rather, Shackleton was looking for those with something more. He was looking for a crew that belonged on such an expedition. His actual ad ran like this:

“‘Men wanted for Hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.’

“The only people who applied for the job were those who read the ad and thought it sounded great. They loved insurmountable odds. The only people who applied for the job were survivors. Shackleton hired only people who believed what he believed. Their ability to survive was guaranteed.” (1)

Year after year, the Gospel text from Matthew 6 is read on Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the Lenten journey. It is a journey, a pilgrimage, you might say. For those willing to embark on the sometimes harrowing yet intentional path, Jesus points to the authentic quality and honesty of community life.

Being the church in the world is not to give a false impression, to show how exceptional we are in the religious marketplace. Being the church to the world is to be authentic and true to what we believe and who we are, whether or not we measure up to some cultural standards of behaviour.

Maybe that explains why Lent is no longer popular in our day. Society has already been for a while losing ourselves in distractions. In 1985 Neil Postman claimed that we were “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” (2) Over a decade earlier, Ernest Becker wrote a book I read in seminary, entitled, “The Denial of Death” (3) which is a theological reflection on how we live in ‘modern’ North America.

Indeed, we in the West continue on a course of distracting ourselves to death — with stimulating toys, technological advance and even more addictive ways to keep the truth at bay. This strategy, with often tragic consequences, only serves to drive a deeper wedge and division from our true selves.

The symbolic destination of the Lenten journey is the Cross, on Good Friday. And so, right off the start, we know this can’t be an easy journey, when we have to face and bear our own cross. But this is what life is about, is it not? Whenever hardship comes our way in whatever form it does — illness, loss, tragedy, disappointment, conflict and confrontation, failure, guilt, pain. We don’t have to seek it out; Suffering comes to us all. This is a reality we are called to accept.

We are called not to deny that our message is for people who are honest about their brokenness, who in their vulnerability do not want to pretend their weaknesses away. Our suffering can be a great teacher, an opportunity for growth and wholeness.

Suffering, in the words of Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall, “belongs to an order of creation insofar as struggle … is necessary to evoke the human potential for nobility, for love, for wisdom, and for depth of authenticity of being. A pain-free life would be a life-less life.” (4)

Lent is not a path to ultimate self-annihilation. Ultimately, Lent is not a downer. Because suffering can point to a new beginning. Followers of Jesus are not a people who suffer the pains of life without faith and hope. We can face what life brings, with a conviction that together, we can do more than merely survive.

On this journey we can experience that the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. In accompanying each other through the difficult times, we can experience something greater than ourselves. Together we will realize more than we could ever have imagined on our own; transformation, resurection, a new beginning. Together, because God in Jesus goes with us. We are not alone on this journey.

God blesses this journey.

1 – Simon Sinek, “Start With Why” (New York: Penguin, 2009), p.90-93
2 – Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985)
3 – Ernest Becker, “The Denial of Death” (New York: Free Press, 1973)
2 – Douglas John Hall, “God and Human Suffering: An exercise in the Theology of the Cross” (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), p.62-63

Easter: Reset on Life

Much of this reflection is adapted from the Rev. Pam Driesell’s excellent sermon, “Beyond Bunnies and Jelly Beans” (Easter A, April 24, 2011) found at day1.org. Thank you!

Easter is fun. And like Christmas, we say that these holidays are for the children.

Anticipation brightens our mood. Lilies and new clothes and family visits and Easter dinner preparations consume our attention.

But there’s a reason for the fun. So, I sympathize with the Mother who tried with very little success to convey to her four-year old daughter the meaning of Easter. It went something like this:

“Mommy, will the Easter bunny bring me purple jelly beans?”

“I am sure he will bring you jelly beans, love. But, remember, Easter isn’t about the bunny. It’s about Jesus.”

“But will they be purple?”

“Yes, honey, I am sure there will be some purple ones in there. Honey, the important thing about Easter isn’t the bunny. Easter is about how much Jesus loves you and me and the whole world.”

“Mommy, HOW MANY purple jelly beans will the Easter Bunny bring me?”

“Sweat heart, I think he will probably bring plenty of purple jellybeans. Do you know how much Jesus loves you?”

“Mommy ….”

“Yes, dear?”

“Will he bring me tootsie rolls, too?”

For a four-year old, Easter bunnies and purple jelly beans and tootsie rolls are just way more interesting than JESUS, and they are enough to make Easter fun. And fun is, for a four-year old, enough!

But my guess is that, unless you are four, you are also looking for something beyond candy-coated cliches added to the assortment of jellybeans we consume, purple or otherwise. We want to know something of what poor Mommy was trying to convey to her daughter.

Because Mom knows that her daughter won’t always be four, and sooner-AND-later all of us will encounter those changes in life that challenge us and often bring us to our knees. Life happens: In addition to all the joys and satisfaction and blessings of life, we encounter the dark night of heart-wrenching grief, devastating disappointment or smothering guilt. And when we do, we will need MORE than bunnies and jelly beans.

The story from the bible we read every year during Easter is the single most important reason we ever get together. It is the heartbeat of the Christian community. It is the hope to which we cling and the promise upon which we stand. It is the very essence of the Christian faith. It is much more than cliche.

Easter is about life. And what is more, Easter is about putting meaning in our lives once again. The message of the resurrection of Jesus is about new life, and starting over. Easter is about being given the permission to press the reset button on life. And this is a great and valuable gift.

How valuable?

Scientists have studied the mineral and chemical composition of the human body. The chemical and mineral composition of the human body breaks down as follows: 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen, 3% nitrogen, 1.5% calcium, 1% phosphorous, and less than 1% of potassium, sulphur, sodium, chlorine, magnesium, iron and iodine; oh, and there are trace quantities of fluorine, silicon, manganese, zinc, copper, aluminum and arsenic.

If we took all those parts and sold them on the common market, it would be worth about a dollar (Canadian). Now, our skin, I read, is our most valuable physical asset; it’s worth about $4. So, added all up, we’re worth just over $5!

But take a moment now to place your hand on your wrist or on your lower neck on either side of your windpipe; go ahead. Let’s all be quiet and still together for a moment.

What do you feel? You feel your pulse. You feel the mystery of biological life beating through your $5 worth of chemicals and minerals. And that mystery is worth much, much more.

Easter is about the power and meaning of life — the power and meaning and purpose that makes $5 worth of elements, priceless. The gift of life, and its meaning for each of us, individually, is priceless.

The Brazilian writer, Paulo Coelho, used the image of a sword to describe the gift given to him as a mark of graduation. After all, he was graduating from a magical order and the sword would befit such an accomplishment.

At the last moment, alas!, it was snatched from him, and he was ordered to go on the road. “Somewhere on this journey,” he conceded, “I will find my sword.” Because he felt strongly that he deserved such as prize, he was determined. However, all along the sometimes tiresome, sometimes dangerous and ever-adventurous journey, the sword proved elusive. He couldn’t find it.

He arrived at his destination disappointed and dejected. He thought himself a failure. And then, in a moment of inspiration, the doors were flung open and the purpose of his pilgrimage came to light: The very reason he was called upon this journey was to make him ask the question: “What am I going to us my sword for?” He realized in this moment of epiphany that a sword is pointless unless you have asked, and answered, that question.

That point of destination was no ending, but only a new beginning. He knew he had to return home to discover the meaning and purpose of his prize — to know how he would use this very special gift. (Charles Foster, The Sacred Journey, p.188)

As followers of Christ, we have been given the gift of resurrection. Jesus is alive, today. That is what we celebrate: Not only the joy of that first Easter morning over two thousand years ago. But to reflect and get ready for a re-start in our lives today, wherever we are.

Easter addresses that human longing to start over, but this time with renewed vigour for life. Saint Augustine called the restart a longing for God, the restlessness that only finds rest in God. Paul Tillich called it the ground or the power of being itself. Kierkegaard called it the leap of faith that quells anxiety. Easter is the Christian answer to the desire to live life ever abundantly, as Jesus willed for us (John 10:10).

This is not an easy accomplishment.

Mary came to the tomb thinking that death was the end for Jesus. She goes in the dark, presumably to prepare Jesus’ $5 worth of minerals and chemicals for burial. She is resigned to the finality of the journey — death. She is grieving. At first she does not even recognize new life when it is in front of her. But when the Risen Christ speaks her name (John 20:16) she knows.

The Lenten journey is symbolic of our journey of life: It isn’t always easy to trod the path that Jesus made to the Cross — the Cross of personal self-reflection, the Cross of confessing our sins and our ultimate dependence on God, the Cross which symbolizes a profound letting go of all that inhibits life in us and in the world. It isn’t always easy to look at the suffering and dying Jesus in our midst.

Maybe you can relate to Mary? (Or the disciples who when they first hear the news from Mary, “they don’t believe” — Luke 24:11). Maybe on this Easter 2014 you are resigned to the futility of life and the awful pain of death, the finality of death: perhaps the death of a beloved friend or family member, perhaps the death that pervades our culture, tragic deaths that come as a result of war, terrorism, violence, natural disasters the world over; perhaps the death of a business, friendship, even the church.

Maybe even one or more of these things has convinced you that not much makes sense in this life and although you are breathing, your heart is beating, but it is also breaking. There’s been so much sorrow and loss in your life that you showed up here today not looking for life but expecting to find more of the same … Easter bunnies and jelly beans … some candy-coated cliches that do not touch the real questions of your life or bring comfort to your deep grief.

As Jesus called Mary’s name, so the Risen Christ calls each one of us by our name. We are called by name to stand up and receive the gift of his new life. We are called by name to stand up, and press the reset button on our lives. We are called, each of us by name, to stand up and embrace the deep meaning of what this gift of new life means to us: to live abundantly in Christ whose life breathes and lives in us, now. And, then, we are called to share that new life in the world.

The living Jesus is always one step ahead of us, beckoning us to the future. The angel in the tomb instructs Mary to go ahead to Galilee where they will see Jesus (Matthew 28:7). And when Jesus suddenly appears to his disciples behind locked doors, he instructs them to share the news that Jesus will meet with all the disciples in Galilee (Matthew 28:10). New life in Christ is forward-looking; Jesus awaits us in God’s good future. There is hope in the possibilities of God’s future for us.

And that, my friends, is better news than bunnies and jellybeans. It is the reason for all our alleluias!

So, let us in this Eastertide, press the re-set button on life. The life of Jesus is our precious gift. A journey may come to an end, in a sense. The journey of Lent is behind us; it is done, for now. The darkness has cleared.

But it is the dawn of the day. A new journey begins.

It is time to begin, again.

Hallelujah! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

Out of the depths

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The longest night. The fiercest storm. The threat to comfort. And down with the flu.

I am pulled out out of the routine distractions and busy-ness of living and left silent, still, listening to the howling wind outside and creaking timbers in the house….

And then emerges a new kind of vision, a clarifying purpose for what is truly important in life — community, mutual support, friendship, family, faith. The corner is turned.

Out of the depths comes new found hope. Joy. A way forward. Renewed.