The Meditation Journeys

This text represents a draft of a talk I gave at the Essential Teachings Weekend (ETW) for the Canadian Community for Christian Meditation (wccm-canada.ca) in Alexandria, Ontario (September 21-23, 2018). This was the third of three talks, entitled “Stages of the Journey” which complemented the first talk (“The Essential Teaching”), and the second talk (“History of the Tradition”).

STAGES OF THE JOURNEY

The notion of journey, or pilgrimage, originates in the very birth of Christianity. Christ-followers came to be known as “Christian” only after Christianity became the official religion of the empire in the fourth century C.E. But until then they were known as those who followed in the “Way”, implying a path, a road, a journey to be followed.[1]

The notion of motion is integral to those who try to follow Jesus to this day. In the last several decades the pilgrimage has become very popular, especially the Camino de Santiago which attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year. Many who walk the eight-hundred-kilometre journey across the Iberian Peninsula in northern Spain will attest that the journey is a metaphor for the passage of life or traversing some interior path.

Indeed, the exterior journey, such as the Camino, mirrors the internal journey where one explores the contours of the heart and the landscape of the soul. It is a journey that takes time and is fraught with danger. And, at some level, determination, dedication and faithfulness.

Speaking of Spain, it was perhaps the great Spanish mystics of the sixteenth century – Theresa of Avila and St John of the Cross – who first in their writings exemplified the interior and often difficult journeys of faith, such as in ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’. Recently, Richard Rohr describes it best when he asserts that it is through great suffering or great love by which we move along the path towards meaningful change and growth. Crises of faith and challenging circumstances of life are invitations to go deeper into the truth of self and the presence of God.

I want to describe these two journeys to you by using several metaphors—involving water, an hourglass, a wagon wheel and the Exodus story from the Bible describing the desert wanderings of a people. These symbols and images I hope will convey effectively the meaning of these journeys.

When we commit to meditation, we are undertaking what I would summarize as two journeys, operating on a couple of levels.

1.THE FIRST JOURNEY

The first is journey that happens during the time of the meditation.

The Ottawa river at Petawawa Point: the rough & the smooth

I used to live close to Petawawa Point in the Upper Ottawa Valley. Petawawa Point was a lovely spot on the Ottawa River which broadened out into a large lake dotted by several islands. And, I loved to kayak through and around these islands and waterways.

When I first put out onto the river at the beach I was immediately into the main channel lined by the green and red marker buoys, where all the motor boats would roar through. This was the turbulent section of my paddle. I often fought the waves created in the wake of speeding, noisy boats. This part demanded my determination, resolve, and good intention to get past the hurly-burly and through the narrow passage between a couple of islands.

Once through, the water opened up into an area of the river where the large, loud motor boats avoided – only the loons, hawks and sometimes eagles. Here was the more peaceful part of my paddling experience, one that I have treasured to this day.

Meditators have often mentioned to me—and I have experienced this too—that during the first fifteen to twenty minutes they are fighting themselves, their thoughts and distractions. And then something inexplicable happens, and they finally get into some kind of peaceful rhythm with their mantra in the last five minutes! Whether it takes you fifteen minutes, or only a couple of minutes into the meditation, it’s important to keep paddling even when things settle down in your brain.

You see, the temptation once I got through the busy channel into the peaceful expanse of the river was to stop paddling altogether and just float for a while. I would gaze at the birds flying, the clouds in the sky and the distant Laurentian Hills. It was beautiful!

In meditation, this is called the “pernicious peace”, where we just float in some kind of relaxed state our mind really doing nothing and it just feels good and we don’t want to do anything else. I soon realized however I wasn’t doing what I had set out to do. I came to the river to paddle, not to float. And as soon as I dipped my paddle again in the peaceful river, I found my stride, purpose and joy.

When we begin in our meditation, we usually immediately encounter the distractions of the mind. For example, I ruminate over what I am I having for supper, what groceries I need to pick up, what errands I need to run, how will I handle a problem at work or in my family, where am I going on my vacation, the main point of my upcoming sermon, etc.

How do we respond to these distractions? Do we simply float in some sleepy, dream-world, following the course of this stream-of-consciousness? Yes, sometimes we do fall asleep during meditation. It’s good to be relaxed. Yet, we also pay attention and are alert to the experience by remaining faithful to the paddle, so to speak, to the mantra. We focus the mind.

On the underwater rock: dealing with distractions

Another water image, from Thomas Keating, may help us.[2]It is the example of sitting on a large rock on the bottom of the river. Here, deep under the water you watch far above you the boats of various sizes and shapes float by and down the river. These boats represent all our thoughts and distractions. Often, the temptation of our mind is too great, and we push ourselves off the rock—it’s so easy! —and we swim to the surface.

Sometimes, we will even climb into the boats and sail on down the river in these thoughts. In other words, we will let our minds sink into thinking about it for some time in our meditation. Of course, when we do this, we are not saying our mantra, which is the discipline and faithfulness of sitting on that rock down below.

It’s important not to be harsh with yourself on this journey. Give permission for the boats to come by your mind in this river. Then, as you return to the word, you let these distractions keep floating on down the river. Let them go. Return to the place of deep silence, stillness, on the rock deep below.

Despite the incessant distractions of the mind that come to me during my meditation, I continue to ‘return to the Lord’ and my mantra. Someone once said that it is ok to ‘catch yourself’ in a distraction during meditation. In fact, the more often you catch yourself and gently return to the mantra, the better. Why? Because each time you return to the word, it’s one more time you are loving God. Each time I bring my concentration to the saying of the word, I am offering my love to Jesus. Each time I say the word, I am saying, “I love you” to Jesus.

The journey throughout the meditation period may appear simple. We sit quietly and in stillness for twenty minutes not doing anything except saying, interiorly, the mantra. But it is not easy. We confront in this journey the imprinting of our go-go culture and a hyper-active environment upon our egos. We encounter our very humanity in this journey —

A humanity which incessantly strives to accumulate more information and judge progress according to expectations. We already go into it expecting it gets easier over time. We expect benefits to accrue, like lower blood pressure and more patience. And when nothing like this happens after meditating for a few months or years, we give up. This is a spiritual capitalism.

We encounter our very humanity which also craves stimulation and distraction. Already in 1985, Neil Postman wrote a book indicting our culture with the provocative title: “Amusing ourselves to Death”. For most of our daily lives we choose to keep busy or entertain ourselves rather than sit still and face the truth of ourselves. No wonder we are bothered by distraction during meditation.

We encounter our very humanity which finds self-worth in active productivity. We do therefore we are – the mantra of our culture. The more we produce, the more we have to show for in our day, in our vocations, the better we are. So, it just doesn’t make sense from this perspective to be so unproductive by sitting still and doing nothing with ourselves, really. What’s to show for, after twenty minutes of idleness?

And so, we may also, at deeper levels, encounter anxiety, fear and/or anger – which represent our resistance to the journey of our meditation. These normal, human feelings, given now the freedom of space, time and a loosened ego, erupt to the point of a significant disruption.

When I first started on this journey in 2004, I was beset by anxiety, to the point where I felt that I might explode during the silence and the stillness, to the point where I felt I would run screaming from the meditation room. The waves in that channel from the wake of the speeding motor boats threatened to swamp and drown me! I remember how I resisted the letting go, by asking for example that I not sit in the circle but by the wall in a corner of the room. And then, by suggesting we should sit wherever we want to, not necessarily in a circle. Anything to assert my control, even over the meditation period.

Here, depending on the nature of the deep-seeded emotional pain, you may want to encourage those who find meditation times a time of suffering to seek help to deal with whatever is being uncovered—loosened—during meditation. Some have expressed concern that when we open up our inner lives in meditation, the devil/evil will come in. Laurence Freeman, to this question, said: “It is more likely the devil will come out! Negative feelings and the forces of the shadow will get released as repression is lifted. This is quite natural although it’s important to be prepared for the inner turbulence it can create at times.”[3]

This becomes a journey, then, of healing and transformation.

2. THE SECOND JOURNEY

This journey of healing, then, links us to the second journey operating at another yet concurrent level. The second journey we undertake when we meditate connects us with our whole life, indeed life’s journey.

Being a meditator is about slowly but surely learning how to meet life’s greatest moments with grace, acceptance, generosity, courage and faith. Meditating teaches us how to navigate a crisis of faith, a crisis in our relationships, in our work and in our health. It is about forming an attitude toward life in general. Meditating trains us to bea prayer rather than merely say prayers from time to time. This is contemplation: an inner attitude to all of life so that we are indeed praying always, or as Saint Paul puts it, to pray without ceasing.[4]

The dropping stone in water: deeper we go & letting it happen

James Finley talks about a dropping stone in the water, a journey characterized by a deeper simplicity, a deeper solitude and a deeper silence. He describes well this image of a descent.

“Imagine,” he writes, the stone is “falling … And the water in which the stone is falling is bottomless. So, it’s falling forever … And the water in which the stone is falling is falling along an underwater cliff. And there are little protrusions along this cliff and every so often, the stone lands on one of these protrusions; and pauses in its descent. And in the movements of the water, it rolls off and it continues on and on and on and on.

“Now imagine you are that stone; and imagine we’re all falling forever into God. And imagine you momentarily land on a little protrusion where you get to a place and where you say, ‘You know what? I think I’ll stop here and set up shop and get my bearings and settle in. After all, this is deep enough. That’s as far as I need and want to go. It’s comfortable here.’

“And then you fall in love, or your mother dies, or you have terminal cancer, or you’re utterly taken by the look in the eyes of one who suffers. And you are dislodged, by [a great love or great suffering], dislodged from the ability to live on your own terms and from the perception that the point you’ve come to is deep enough for you.

“And so, you continue on your descent, experiencing successive dislodging from anything less than the infinite union and infinite love which calls us deeper.”[5]

Meditating teaches us not to give up on this journey to a deeper contemplation. Some of the comments I have heard from parishioners who came only to one or two sessions of meditation. And then they declare as if for all time: “I don’t like it.” “It’s not for me.”

Meditation is emblematic of staying the course with what is important, of giving what is important a chance and committing to the path, the pilgrimage – even though we fall short time and time again. And as John Brierley mentions in his introduction to his popular guide for pilgrims, “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey, we are spiritual beings on a human journey.”[6]A very human journey. We will encounter and deal with all our inner and outer limitations on this journey. Sometimes we will need to stop because the human path challenges us in ways we must address. Sometimes the human path will keep us from embracing the fullness of the journey in what it offers.

The Exodus: a journey of transformation to liberation that never seems to end

The Exodus, from the bible, is a narrative of a desert wandering that takes a long time, much longer than you would think: If only the Israelites under Moses’ leadership walked a straight line from start to finish!

The journey, however, is much more than you think. After escaping the shackles, confines and suffering of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites are now a free people, or so you would think. Liberation as the goal is however a process that involves transformation. They are free to go to the Promised Land, yes. And yet, their journey in the desert, confronting the fierce landscape of their souls, is rife with resistance and conflict as they take a long and circuitous route towards their liberation.

They complain to Moses. They say they would rather return to the fleshpots of Egypt than eat the Manna from heaven given in the desert. They create distractions and build a golden calf. It’s not an easy journey for them, to get to the Promised Land. It’s not easy, to be free.

Yet, as what happens on the first journey (during a meditation period by returning to our mantra), we return to the Lord our God over and over on the journey of life. We learn over time to trust the journey and stay the course. By being committed to the journey of meditation, we cultivate the spiritual muscle of trust, despite the resistance and conflict we confront within us.

Trusting in God. Trusting in life. Trusting that the trajectory of our pilgrimage is heading in the right direction despite all the bumps in the road. As the small stone on the underwater ledge drops to a deeper level through every crisis and twist and turn of life, we learn to surrender and let go. Richard Rohr, I believe it was, said that all great spirituality is about letting go. Of course, trusting this process involves taking the risk as we ‘fall’ deeper into the mystery of life and God towards an unknown yet hopeful future.

Riverbank: dipping into something bigger

On this journey of life we remain faithful to the path, which winds its way on the banks of a great river. The river is moving. We stay connected to the river, regularly stepping into the waters to say our mantra. We step into the flow of the river. The current is strong. The River is the prayer that continues in our hearts that is Jesus’ prayer to Abba.[7]

When we so dip into the prayer of Christ, which is ongoing, we participate in the living consciousness of Jesus who continues to flow in the trinitarian dance of relationship with God. In meditation, we learn that life is not limited to myprayer or ourprayer. Dipping into the river is stepping into a larger field of consciousness. It is dipping into the very prayer of God in which we participate every time we meditate.

If this journey is not about us, we therefore look to relate to one another, especially those who suffer. We see in the other our common humanity and act in ways that are consistent with the grace that first holds us. In the end, meditation’s journeys lead us beyond ourselves, to others in love, and to God in love.

Meditation, therefore, is essentially a journey in community. It’s a pilgrimage we undertake with others and for others. It’s not a solitary journey. Thus, the importance, at least, of attending/being part of a weekly meditation group.

Contemplation, then, leads to action. The journey of life, like the journey through the time of meditation, embraces paradox. While on the surface seeming opposite and incompatible, contemplation and action are integrated into the whole. Both are essential on the Way.

In truth, following Jesus is embracing paradox. “In order to find your life you must lose it,” he says.[8]Later, Paul announces that strength is found in weakness and the weak have shamed the wise.[9]Of course, the major paradox of the faith centres on the Cross; God is defeated. And in that vulnerability and loss, Christ and Christ-followers discover new life and resurrection.[10]

To do well on the journey of contemplation, on the path of meditation and indeed life, is to accept the ambiguities, the ‘greys’ and the uncertainties of the Way. As any peregrino will tell you on the Camino de Santiago, there is no end to the daily surprises and challenges that meet the faithful pilgrim. If one’s mind is already made up about what to expect and how it should go, disappointment and premature abandonment of the journey is likely to follow.

To do well on the journey corresponds to the capacity you have to hold paradox in your heart. The solution finds itself more in the both/and of a challenge rather than an either/or. Perhaps the faithful pilgrim will have to compromise an initial expectation to walk every step of the way. And, in dealing with an unexpected injury, the pilgrim might need to take the train or bus for part of the journey. In other words, the dualistic mind is the enemy of the contemplative path.

On the spectrum between action and contemplation, where do you find yourself? If you want to become a better meditator and enrich your soul, then seek social justice. Become active in the cause of a better humanity and a better creation. Speaking to a group of social activists and community organizers, I would counsel the opposite: If you want to become a better justice-seeker and advocate, then dedicate more of your time to meditation. Both/And.

The hourglass: flow ever deeper

 The direction of the flow in an hourglass starts at the top in a basin that collects all, then moves downward into a narrowing, finally coming through into an expansive region flowing ever deeper and wider.

The top of the hourglass represents all that our mind grapples with – the squirrel brain. It represents all our efforts, desires and intentions – good and bad – of a furtive, compulsive ego to come to the expressed need for this practice. “I need some quiet in my life.” “I enjoy the silence shared with others.” “I need to slow down.” “I like being by myself.” Admittedly, many introverts are enticed by the prospect of meditation. Although these are the same people who realize, on the path, it is much more than stoking the flames of a rich imagination or escapist tendencies – all ego-driven.

On the path, then, meditation leads us deeper into the heart, at the narrows. This is the place of a pure heart, a singular, aligned heart-mind place—some have called it the still-point.

From this point, the journey then expands as we go deeper and farther into the broad, ever-expansive areas, towards the infinite depths involving others and participating actively with all creation.

The wagon wheel: towards the still point

Teachers of Christian Meditation, such as Laurence Freeman, have used the image of a wagon wheel to describe how different forms of prayer relate. These various ways of praying – body prayer, labyrinth walking, petitionary, sacramental, song, poetry, art – represent the spokes on the wheel. All of them attach to the centre.

At the centre of the wheel is the hub. And when the wheel is in motion, which it must be in order to fulfill its purpose and continue on the road, the one part of the wheel that remains still and sure is the hub. This is the place of meeting, convergence, the point, the centre: the Jesus consciousness. Always in motion yet always still. The still-point. Another paradox of prayer. Action and Contemplation.

If the hub is vibrating and not still while the wheel is in motion, then the wheel is out of balance and there is something wrong. The whole riggings may even fall apart if not attended to! For the wheel to function properly, the hub must remain still even as the wheel is rotating at high speeds.

It is here at the infinite center, time and time again, where our prayers lead. Like the labyrinth whose destination is the centre, it is on the path to this centre where we experience a taste and a foretaste of the feast to come, where we taste the freedom and joy of the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Where we can be free.

Questions for reflection

  1. Which image presented here about the journey of meditation touches you immediately and speaks to you most effectively?
  2. On the spectrum between action and contemplation, in which direction do you naturally lean? What are some ways you can improve the balance in your life?

 

 

[1]Acts 18:25; 19:9; 19:23; 22:4; 24:22

[2]Cited by Cynthia Bourgeault, transcribed from the recording of a live retreat titled, An Introduction to Centering Prayer given in Auckland, New Zealand, in October 2009 (www.contemplative.org)

[3]Fr. Laurence Freeman, A Pearl of Great Price.

[4]1 Thessalonians 5:17

[5]  Adapted from James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 6 (Center for Action and Contemplation, 2013); cited in Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, www.cac.org, April 27,2018

[6]John Brierley, A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago(Camino Guides, 2017)

[7]In the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his death, Jesus addressed God in prayer with this Aramaic word, meaning ‘Dad’.

[8]Matthew 10:39

[9]1 Corinthians 1-2

[10]All four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke & John –  conclude with lengthy passion narratives.

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.

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.

The virus of perfectionism & the healing acme of God’s love

I remember at the conclusion of my qualifying exam as a seminarian seeking a call to serve as a pastor of a church, the lead examiner made only one suggestion.

Sitting before the bishop and an examining committee for over an hour –  hearing me answer questions about church doctrine, dealing with conflict, upholding the Gospel in a pluralistic society, defining God’s mission, etc. – I remember being taken aback with their summarizing statements at the end of it all:

They said, essentially: “From the sounds of it, Martin, you will have to work on one thing. And this may cause you problems down the road if you don’t navigate this issue well. So this is what you will have to practice, right from the start …

“The first time you lead worship one Sunday morning as a pastor of that congregation, when you notice the paraments on the altar are crooked, or not hanging in a symmetrically-perfect fashion, resist at all costs the urge to correct it.”

Here I was all concerned about issues of theological integrity, confessional adherence, denominational survival and biblical interpretation of controversial proportions – and what the leadership of the church was most concerned about was not what I believed so much, but how I, a future pastor, would exercise my leadership among the people of God.

At first, I was convinced they were missing the point. But the more I reflected on this and the more mileage I clocked over the years in pastoral leadership, I came to appreciate very much their advice. Perfectionism is like a virus, and can lead to many bad things not only in leadership but in the practice of faith:

Perfectionism is why I give up too quickly on many a handy-man project at home whenever it doesn’t work out the way I expect it to. Applied to a life of faith, perfectionism, I have discovered, leads only to discouragement, depression and a low self-esteem. Perfectionism, closely related to the need to please others, places undue pressure and unhealthy stress on our lives. Perfectionism makes religion out of following a bunch of rules. Perfectionism keeps us stuck in negative, self-depreciating cycles of thinking.

Have you, too, caught the perfectionism bug? Laurence Freeman, recipient of the Order of Canada a couple of years ago, said that his greatest success in life was to learn that his failures were more important than his successes (audio, “The Virus of Perfectionism”, http://www.meditatio.ca). I am certain his comments reflect the testimonies of many successful business people and those who are at the top of their fields who confess that the most important ingredient in achieving success is the long list of the failures that preceded it.

And then we confront a text like we read today (Matthew 5:48) when Jesus says: “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” What are we to make of that? Does God want us to be perfect, and avoid all possibility of failure, at all costs?

I think we have to be very careful in our understanding of this word, as we practice our faith, day to day. As I have struggled with perfectionism I have come to appreciate the flip-side of this coin:

It is born deep within the human soul to want things to be right, proper, good. We are, after all, created in God’s image. And part of this reflection manifested in each other is to seek God’s glory – which is beautiful, holy, perfect, right – full of dignity and yes, perfection.

So, we ought not repress nor deny this natural yearning within our very being. But what is the difference between acknowledging and celebrating this longing deep within us, and falling into the trap of perfectionism?

“Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” I suspect we get hung up on the first part of that sentence all too often; but maybe it would do us well to start with the second half of that sentence.

How is God ‘perfect’? We know from the Gospel that should we want to understand God the Father, we need first to look at Jesus (John 14:7). So, what kind of perfectionism – if we can call it that – did Jesus demonstrate?

When folks ask me: “Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?” I approach the question of the atonement in this way: Is there a better way for God to demonstrate God’s absolute and steadfast love for us than by laying down his life for us (John 10:11) – by letting go and giving up that which is most precious to us all? If anything, Jesus’ death proves to us God’s unyielding, uncompromising and unconditional love for each one of us, in a way to which we could humanly relate.

And second, is there a better way for God to demonstrate absolute power over death and Satan for all time, than by God becoming completely vulnerable through Jesus to the consequences of that evil on earth – which was the unjust condemning of an innocent person to death?

Yes, Jesus could have walked away from Jerusalem. Yes, Jesus could have called down the forces of heaven to save him from the Cross and pound the devil to pulp before our very eyes. That might be a more satisfying approach. But that would have been playing the earthly game; that would have been playing by the rules of the forces of evil: force for force, might for might. Who comes out on top?

But Jesus chose to pull the rug out from under Satan’s legs. Jesus chose to limit his divine self (Philippians 2:5-11) in human form, and to suffer and die as a human completely vulnerable to an unjust evil. If anything, Jesus’ resurrection proves to us God’s absolute power for all time over death and the devil.

My favourite part of Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ”, is the last ten seconds of what feels like a very long movie: When Satan realizes, in agony, for the first time how he has been defeated. Now, that’s a perfect ending to a really graphic presentation of Jesus’ suffering and death.

That’s why Jesus died on the cross. To show us how perfect God is, in God’s love for us. We can’t do it perfectly; we will always miss the mark to some extent. But God is “perfect” love (1 John 4).

God’s love (hesed in Hebrew) is steadfast and unbounding, even to the point of complete vulnerability, letting go – for our sake and for all people. Jesus showed us the way of everlasting life for every human being of every time and every place. He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of God; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45)

The way of Jesus is the way to wholeness, completeness, in God’s eternal love, regardless of any and all human divisions within us and out there.

It’s not an easy way, to follow this perfect love. This way of Jesus doesn’t follow earthly rules of power plays, obsessive self-preservation and competitive perfectionism. Saint Paul prayed that God take away the thorn in his side (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). Presumably Paul asked for this so that he could be better at his job preaching the Gospel of Jesus. But God’s answer would nip Paul’s perfectionism in the bud. God’s answer was, ‘no.’

In fact, Paul’s weakness would be a far more effective way of showing God’s power. What would appear as ‘foolishness’ in the eyes of the world, would in truth be an effective witness to God’s power and God’s love, through Paul’s weakness.

God does not want us to be perfect. Because God does not want us to give up. God does not want us to give up on the journey of faith, no matter how difficult or how unpopular it may become at times. God just wants us to be faithful – to stay on the path, to doing what we can – not out of perfectionistic motivations but out of the heart of God’s love and power working through our imperfection.

And I think God wants us to be vulnerable to one another; that we are not afraid of showing and confessing our weaknesses, our shortcomings and our failures to one another. In the church, we don’t have to wear masks of perfectionism. We are, after all, broken people. That is the truth. But Jesus’ body, too, was broken, for the love of the world. And what is the church, but the Body of Christ?

We are vulnerable to each other, open to one another’s pain and one another’s truth, why? So we can find wholeness, healing, on our journey that begins now on earth and finds completion, perfection, in the world to come.

We are vulnerable to each other, open to one another’s pain and one another’s truth, why? So we can share the truth of God’s love to all people, effectively, genuinely and authentically.

Thank you, Jesus, for accepting us in your perfect love. Amen.

Because it all matters to God

Last weekend, my family visited the Biodome in Montreal. Situated right beside the Olympic Stadium, it used to house the cycling competitions during the 1976 Summer Olympics. But in recent years it was converted into four distinct and self-contained eco-systems from diverse regions in North and South America.

My favourite was the eco-system from South America, for its lush, tropical environment: humid, warm, pungent air; broad leaf palm trees; and, a host of diverse animals – crocodiles, capybaras and scarlet ibis birds.

Our nine-year-old daughter’s favourite animal is the turtle. She spent a lot of time gazing down onto the mossy ground of the rainforest where the yellow-spotted turtle made its home.

When the guide asked us if we had any questions, my daughter wondered where the baby turtles were. The guide said that it was getting more and more difficult for them to obtain babies since they were very vulnerable in that stage of life; indeed it seems that natural selection is making the turtle an extinct species.

Without their fully developed shell in which the adult turtle could retreat to hide and keep safe from predators, the infant turtles are getting far too susceptible to a premature death and more difficult to protect. Who knows? Maybe the turtle with its shelled existence is going the way of the dodo bird.

The religious people in Jesus’ day felt they were up against a formidable predator in the Roman occupation of Palestine. The Gospel of Matthew was written about the time when the Roman legions were laying siege to eventually destroy the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and fetter out any Zealots who violently opposed the occupation.

With their temple under attack, the anxious people of God were asking questions of identity and purpose: Who are we and what are we to do? How can it be that God’s holy city and temple are occupied territory? What does this say about God’s relationship with us? How does God want us to respond to this dark and murky reality of life?

This is the social and political context to which Jesus spoke, on the hillside near Capernaum overlooking the Sea of Galilee. This Gospel text (Matthew 5:13-20) forms part of the famous Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus outlined the values and purpose of the kingdom of God “that is near” (4:17).

It is a situation not completely unlike our own. When you consider the history of Christianity over the past two millennia, we find ourselves today in a similar, challenging circumstance: the institution of the church is diminished to the point of demise in many quarters. Christendom, once mighty, powerful and dominant in the western world, is relegated now in our society to the point of obscurity and irrelevance.

Many are asking those same questions: Who are we, and what are we to do? How can it be that God’s nation is “occupied” territory? How does God want us to respond to this dark and uncertain reality of life?

It is a natural instinct for many who, when under stress and pressure and the burden of fear, retreat under the shell – as a turtle does. One response to the perceived threat is to strengthen the walls between sacred and secular. Against the wiles of the crazy, dangerous world ‘out there’ we escape into our private and safe domains of home, property and religious purity. And build a fortress. But is this the right strategy? Or, does it spell, like the turtle, possible extinction?

Amidst the threats against the practice of faith in first century Palestine and twenty-first century Canada, Jesus preaches another way.

Amidst these threats, Jesus challenged Israel to be Israel, just as he challenges us to be ourselves in faith today. Jesus did not say, “You must become salt of the earth by pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” Jesus did not say, “You must one day down the road when everything is perfect in the world again, or when you can somehow make yourself worthy of it, become the light.”

Jesus announced, to remind them and us: “You ARE the salt of the earth.” “You ARE the light of the world, right now, right here, in the world as it is, in your life as it is now with all its uncertainty, and in all its darkness.” We don’t have to hide nor retreat behind fortress walls. The solution is in somehow activating saltiness and brightness within us.

So, how do we do that? If there were to be only one way of doing God’s will; if there were only one way of being a Christian – then I’m not sure Jesus would talk in parables and present metaphors and images like salt and light – images open to a multitude of functions and capabilities. Jesus would just spell it out in the letter of the law.

But no. Salt and Light. It’s as if he is saying: Given all the uses of salt, and the various applications of light – how do you fit in?

When Jesus uses the image of light, he makes the point not to hide it under a bushel, but make sure everyone can see it (Matthew 5:14-16). But if others are to see the light, in what conditions do we let it shine? At the noontime of a bright, sunny day?

We will have to shine it in the darkness. After all, people don’t notice a light – whether a flashlight or candle – in the brightness of day. But at night. When all is dark. When you can’t see everything clearly. When the way is uncertain. Where shadows lengthen.

That’s where we are to go. Into places of darkness, in the world and in our own lives: Where people suffer hunger, homelessness and rejection; Where we harbor unhealthy secrets within our souls. This may not seem very religious. This activity may not be easy or make us feel good. But it is where Jesus calls us “to follow him”.

Annie Dillard writes, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.” (p.43, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, New York: Harper, 1992)

Why do we go into the darkness of the world? Why should we take these risks, and expose even our own weaknesses and vulnerability?

Because this world matters to God. All of it. Not some utopic fantasy of what it could be without all the stains of human sin splattered all over the place. But this world in all its complexities, challenges, difficulties, problems.

Just like the weeds and the wheat – what did Jesus instruct his disciples in telling that parable? (Matthew 13:24-30) – To leave the wheat and weeds together, and God will take care of separating out the two when the time comes.

This world matters to God. Our human condition matters to God. Otherwise, Jesus would not have come the way he did:

  1. Jesus appeared in the dust of first century Palestine. Often throughout the Gospels, the writers take pains to indicate the time and place of the event they are recording. For example, the Gospel of Matthew opens with a detailed account, name for name, of the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:1ff). The Word became flesh. God entered humanity, in a specific time and place in history. Jesus fully embodied both human and divine. The incarnation was, and is, not some abstract notion removed from life on earth. Jesus was born into this world.
  2. When Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the temple ripped in half (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38), symbolically abolishing the distinction between sacred and secular for all time. No longer would religious life be divided into neat categories that separated the faithful from real life, from engagement with the world as it is.
  3. In the ancient (Apostles’) creed of the church we say we believe in the “resurrection of the body”; by placing value on our own bodies in following Jesus we claim continuity between this world and the next. That means that laughing, grieving, crying, caring, walking, working, making love – doing all those things that are part of regular living in our own skin – these are all sacramental activities. These activities, Jesus preaches, are the building blocks of the kingdom of God.

The stuff of earth matters to God. And that’s why we reflect the light of Christ in the darkness of it.

By going the way of Jesus to reflect his light in a dark world, we discover a great grace: that we already have and are all that we need and God needs, to fulfill God’s purposes for us and for the world, in this time and in this place.

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”

The wrong sign

When a road sign indicates something that you don’t expect is the case, it makes me wonder who is behind the seeming prank. What are they up to? What’s their point?

A couple of summers ago when we drove to Florida, a road sign caught my attention. It was hot when we passed through South Carolina and Georgia on the I-95 where many bridges line the route over various waterways and rivers. I can still remember the heat radiating off the hard-top on the interstate.

So you can understand why I did a double-take coming on to several of these bridges seeing a road sign that depicted a thermometer whose temperature hovered around freezing; above the thermometer was shown a car sliding out of control: “Bridge freezes first,” the sign warned.

Are you kidding me? Seriously? On the one hand, the image is true; as a Canadian surviving and driving on our highways during a rather hard winter, I know that when the temperature is below freezing, the highway can be very slippery. But in the southern U.S.? Perhaps last month that was the case there. But I have to confess a deep reservation that they would experience this danger on a regular basis even at this time of year. In fact, we could use some more of that signage up here in Canada.

One of my favourite Old Testament scholars, Walter Brueggemann, once joked in lecture that a metaphor, or a sign, is only good to a certain point. When you make an argument that is supported well by a metaphor, we say it’s a good metaphor. But when the limits of the metaphor become apparent, the one making the point uses the excuse, “Well, it’s just a metaphor.”

I wonder if that’s not the case with some of the metaphors, or images, we read in the bible. Let’s look at the image that describes Jesus as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29-42) in our Gospel text today. There is something about that metaphor, that sign, that rings very true. But there is also something about that sign that just doesn’t make sense.

For example: A lamb in the temple rituals of the ancient Israelites was offered as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people. But if Jesus is now that lamb, why does a wrathful God have to be satisfied by the death of someone, let alone His only begotten son?

After all, God is Almighty. God can do anything. God is fundamentally loving and forgiving (1 John 4:7-21). If God needed to be satisfied by the death of Jesus to atone for our sins, why couldn’t God have simply exercised what Jesus instructed his disciples to forgive “70×7” (Matthew 18:22)? Why couldn’t God forgive, as many times as is necessary (i.e. infinitely), every person on earth in every place and time?

I read this week (pastordawn.wordpress.com) that the actual phrase, “Lamb of God” comes from the Jewish religious rites of Yom Kipper. It was during this festival celebrating the Day of Atonement that two unblemished lambs were brought to the temple to bear the sins of the people. But one was then set free into the wilderness.

The ritual around the Day of Atonement had at its central aim, to be united with God, to be reconciled with God. People were aware of and acknowledged their sin. That is what sin is – when we ‘miss the mark’ in faith. This confession was understood as a way towards that ultimate goal of reconciliation with God, a reconciliation that begins in our life on earth.

What happened to Jesus was an injustice. Jesus dying on the cross was a bad thing. He died wrongfully. Just like so many people today suffer injustice on a large scale – dying in wars, brutalized unjustly. God the Father was first to shed a tear when Jesus died; God is first to shed a tear when one of his followers – that’s us – suffers.

But as is often the case, God makes something out of nothing good. The willingness on the part of Jesus to give his whole self unto a wrongful death carries an important message to us. This is the good news, the Gospel: Jesus death and resurrection gives us permission to live life fully in our humanity. Jesus death and resurrection gives us permission to respond positively to Jesus’ invitation – as he made to Andrew and Simon – to “come and see” what God is all about, to embrace our walk on earth with others in faith. Jesus death and resurrection gives us permission even to embrace our own earthly death.

Because this life on earth matters. We are on the path to reconciliation with God that begins in this time and place. We are together on this faith journey to be united with God. Our lives are being transformed in the waters of baptism and in daily walk in faith. This is good news. As I said, one of the first disciples of Jesus identified in this text is Simon; already, early on in his discipleship, Jesus invites him into the transformed life, symbolized by changing his name from Simon to Cephas – the Rock, Peter.

As the liturgy of Holy Communion articulates it well: Jesus, “who on the Cross, opened to us the way of everlasting life” that is to say, to become fully united with God; to respond to that earthly journey towards union with God, a union that will one day be complete, beyond death.

The word “diabolical” comes from two Greek words meaning “to throw apart.” If something or someone is diabolical, that someone or something is dividing and separating that which could be united and at peace. The evil one tears the fabric of life apart. In contrast, the Spirit of God seeks to make one out of two; the Spirit comes to mend, soften and heal.

“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” cries the Baptist. How does Jesus ‘take away’ the sin of the world? The Son of God accomplishes this through forgiveness. Forgiveness is the M.O. of Jesus. Jesus gives his life for us, on the Cross. His sacrifice is an act of forgiveness. And, as such, unyielding love.

Richard Rohr points out that about two-thirds of Jesus’ teachings are about forgiveness; about a third of all the parables of Jesus, directly and indirectly, have to do with forgiveness (p.133-134, Everything Belongs). The growth and positive change that we experience in our lives because of following Jesus come about not because of a fear of punishment from a wrathful, legalistically-bound God who demands sacrifice in order to be satisfied. The growth and positive change in our lives happens through tears of confession and assurances of forgiveness more so than through threats and punishments.

That’s the powerful and most important meaning of the images of Lamb and Cross that we associate with Jesus: Forgiveness is God’s entry into powerlessness, humility. When we encounter the living Jesus in our own lives, we find someone not against us, but someone who is definitely for us!

The goal of faith is not separation, but union – union with God. We may call it getting to heaven, or being saved – however we describe it. But, ultimately discipleship is about bringing together, rather than dividing. True religion is about union. To live in conscious union, relationship, with God is what it means to “be saved”. To be restored, united, in Christ today is to be restored, united within the living Body of Christ, which is the Church. We are the hands and feet and eyes of Christ in the world today.

To exercise a ministry of reconciliation can only be done with great humility and grace. This was the dominant posture of Jesus’ work on earth: that he submitted himself to be baptized by John, that he knelt to wash the feet of his disciples, that he willingly made himself vulnerable in every human way possible, even unto death on a cross (Philippians 2).

Going into the World Junior Hockey Tournament or the Olympics, Canada is always one of the strong favourites. And given the high expectations, and with the entire nation looking on – there is, to say the least, a lot of pressure on the Canadians to win it all. I heard on the news that during the preliminary round of the World Juniors in 2010 in Buffalo, rather than making the mistake of being over-confident and arrogant, the coach then, Dave Cameron, taught his players to be humble in the face of all the attention and competition. Be humble. Interesting – especially in the highly competitive dog-eat-dog culture, we have the Canadian coach teaching his players the value and wisdom of humility.

In the church, and in the faithful living-out of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, however, it’s not some winning and some losing. It’s about doing both, winning and losing – doing both not apart and divided and competitive – but doing both together with grace and humility.

In humility, we can forgive and let go. In humility, we can see the other’s point of view. In humility we can see others as they are, created and loved in God’s image. In humility we can grow in faith in the ministry of reconciliation.

Let us pray that in all that we are and do, we seek to mend, to heal, and to unite that which has been divided in and among, and around us.

The visible signs of unity in the church can be today the most significant. Let’s watch for these signs.