From memory to presence

Whenever we suffer the stress of living, we naturally reach for ways of coping. Memory can be a healing salve. Not only remembering loved ones and friends from our past. But when it comes to observing traditions and special occasions — at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter for example — we bring the expectations of good times had long ago to bear on the moment.

Indeed, our memory of pleasant past experiences can even act as a narcotic for dealing with current challenges and stresses. We may make it a habit of escaping into our mind’s eye; we linger with a memory until we feel the peace.

While our memories are a key to understanding what is meaningful to us, we get stuck, however, in the rut of our problems if we try creating an exact imitation of the past. Escaping into the past isn’t always the best way for addressing present day problems. The path to healing and wholeness is not about making a simulation of past experiences.

I heard about a man who, in middle age, purchased a Harley-Davidson to try to live in the myth of the youthful, unfettered individual who is free to go anywhere at any time. He felt unsatisfied, however, after his solitary road-trips. Something was missing.

After more reflection, what he was remembering on a deeper level was the positive experience in his youth of the friends he made in a bike shop where he worked a job one summer. The meaning of memory was found in the relationships more so than the motor-cycles. He didn’t sell the Harley-Davidson. But he did inquire about local riding groups of folks his age. His interest shifted to making friends. (1)

Memories of past Christmases, Easters, friendships or treasured experiences can transform each new, present day moment. For example, a memory of a family bike ride on an Easter Monday decades ago can lead to a family train trek through the Rockies. A friendship born from intellectual and emotional stimulation long ago can lead to a rediscovery of a hobby or commitment to personal growth. What’s important is not to re-create the past, but to transform it so it’s meaningful for the present. Not simulation, but translation.

The point, is to recognize and accept the present moment as the most important time and place of our lives. Because even if we are not able to remember any good in our past, or remember anything at all for that matter, God is about the now.

In last week’s Gospel story about Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:5-42), Jesus leaps beyond all boundaries of time to announce God’s intent for humanity is taking place in the present time. Three times in the passage, the words “already” and “now” highlight the importance of now. “Open your eyes and see!” Jesus says. “The fields are shining for the harvest, the reaper can collect his wages now, the reaper can already bring in the grain of eternal life” (v.35-36). Jesus is excited at the possibilities. Why? Partly because it is all happening now! (2)

In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees are interested in formulations of the mind which rest on the past. The blind man provides a focus for their cerebral machinations; they want an explanation for his condition: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). A biblically sound question, since the Torah suggests that the “iniquity of the parents is visited upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-8).

Jesus avoids this kind of biblicism that seeks only to make historical, technical arguments that focus only on our righteousness or lack thereof. Jesus turns our sight away from ourselves and onto God’s work in the present. “We must work the works of Him who sent me while it is day …” Jesus countered (v.4).

The purpose of our lives, including our suffering, is to point to God. If we are to remember anything from the past, it is to remember God’s mighty acts in relation to the people of God, including you and me. When the Psalmist delights in the past, his memory focuses on what God has done: “I remember the days of old, I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the works of your hands” (Psalm 143:5).

God’s vision is expansive and eternal, abounding in steadfast love. Before talking about the iniquity imparted to the third and fourth generations, when the Lord spoke to Moses, he said first: “The Lord is a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7) — which is a lot longer than four!

And as we know, generations ago the world was a lot different than what it is now. Recently I was watching on Netflix a show that I remember watching avidly in the 1990s. One detail caught my attention, when the characters talked to each other holding the old, large, clunky ear pieces connected by a spiral, rubber cord to a hand-dial phone. In one generation, so much has changed and people are doing things in different ways.

And yet, one thing remains: The steadfast love of God. Whatever we do in God’s mission today, and however we do it, we can be assured that God is faithful to us, that God is abounding in love for us. After all, God doesn’t look on outward appearances, our resume, our list of past sins, etc. God looks at our heart. When David was chosen to be king of Israel, God wasn’t looking for the one who appeared to have all the desirable qualities; God wasn’t looking for the tallest, the strongest, the best-looking one to be their leader. God was looking at the heart of David (1 Samuel 16).

We can be courageous, then, and bold to reach out and be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today. After all, it’s not, in the end about us or our past. We find healing and wholeness for our lives by doing the will of God. It is for God’s sake that we throw ourselves fully into life, in the present moment. It is for God’s sake that we are healed and restored.

We come to the Table of Communion each week, a diverse group of people. But we come as equals on a level-playing field feeling together the weight of our past sins, yet forgiven and showered with God’s mercy and grace, as one. We are empowered through the broken body of Jesus to be his broken body for the world, today.

How that memory shapes us today may be different from decades ago. But memory continues to form us, and reform us. In our lives, the Gospel is translated for the world today.


(1) Alan J. Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren in “Introducing the Missional Church: What it is, why it mattes, how to become one” (Baker Books, Michigan, 2009), chapters 2-3
(2) Richard Rohr, “Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent” (Franciscan Media, Ohio, 2011), p.60-61

Waiting, still

Waiting for a response is not easy. After texting someone I’m usually impatient to get a response from them. Anything. And when they don’t, my blood starts to boil!

This whole notion of texting etiquette is a new one, of course. Back in the days when you had to actually pick up a telephone — one usually attached by a cord to a wall — to reach someone, it was pretty normal to wait an hour or two, or even more, to get a call back. And heaven forbid, you should actually send a letter — through the mail! You could wait weeks, even months, to hear back.

So, why do certain people wait hours to text back? One expert says the answer is pretty obvious: The person at the other end isn’t interested in communicating with you. A slow, or ignored altogether, text response is at root an expression of social rejection, usually excused by the socially acceptable reason: people are too busy. (http://www.inquisitr.com/1412393/text-me-back/)

I’m confronted by the need to learn how to wait. When you don’t have control over the timing of another’s response, your waiting is about letting go and being ok in the present unknowing.

Waiting and not-knowing are valuable, and legitimate, characteristics of leading a faithful, Christian life. Which, at first, might sound counter-intuitive. Like: How can you have faith and also doubt?

Jesus validated Thomas’ doubting the resurrection (John 20:19-31). Jesus did not chastise Thomas for his need for evidence. In fact, he acknowledged Thomas’ demands by inviting him to touch the holes in his hands and side.

The curious thing is that the Scripture does not indicate Thomas actually touching the scars of Jesus’ wounds. He simply confesses his now belief: “My Lord and my God”. Thomas does not need to follow through on his condition for believing, which was putting his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in his side (v.25).

Jesus then underscores the point about having faith: Blessed are those who have not seen (i.e. have scientific proof) and yet have come to believe (v.29). Having faith is about not needing to have all the information, all the facts, all the evidence at one’s disposal. There’s a quality of faith that defies the rational, cognitive-centred, explanation-driven character of Christianity especially since the Reformation. It’s almost as if we have forgotten that faith is as the author of Hebrews puts it: “… the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1).

The quality of knowing (i.e.) faith that does not need to ‘know’ is reflected in a life of peace. Because as long as we feel we need to fix everything, as long as we believe we have to explain everything, as long as we feel we need have all the information before we can have faith — I am convinced we are not a people at peace with ourselves, with one another, with the world and even at peace with God. Peace is, as the Apostle Paul put it, that “which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

After Jesus was raised from the dead, you’d think he would want to shoot straight to heaven to be at the right side of his Father. Why would he even want to bother with humanity – this frail, broken, weak, sin-infested form he shared with us for thirty-three years? His temporary break from blissful eternity was hard enough. Why would he want to relate any more with human beings who, in their own delusion and compulsion, murdered him? Why would he want to re-connect with his ‘friends’ who betrayed, denied and deserted him in his hour of need? He is, after all, the divine Son of God whose rightful place should be at God’s right hand in heaven, no?

The disciples didn’t need to wait long for Jesus to return to them. You could say, he didn’t ignore or put off their message of fear, doubt, longing and sadness. He responded right away, even though he wasn’t in his usual ‘human’ form — after his resurrection he walked through locked doors, appeared and disappeared into thin air and the such. Re-connecting was more important, though. He wanted to re-assure them.

The book of Revelation reveals the expectations of the early church: That Jesus was coming back soon, and very soon. “Look! He is coming with the clouds! … who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:7-8).

Indeed, the early Christians lived with the expectation of the immanent return of Jesus at his second coming. Of course, after two thousand years of waiting, Christians have learned how to live in anticipation when we don’t know exactly when that time is. We may still need to wait for a long time to come.

Nevertheless we have the promise of scripture that Jesus does care for us, and will not hesitate to come to us. So, perhaps God is trying to tell us something here. 

Perhaps the value of our faith is not just about when that time comes, down the road. Perhaps the value of our faith is not just about eternal life in the far-off distant future. 

Perhaps there is value in the waiting, itself. And when we get impatient or perplexed, perhaps there’s something we are not seeing in the here and now.

Perhaps Christ is coming back to us all the time, and we just don’t see it. In the sacrament, in the Body of Christ — the collective unity of the Church, in the relationships we share, in the ordinary events of our lives. What are the glimmers of grace, the rays of hope, the good that you see in others and in the world? Where is Christ present for you, in life, today?

I saw a framed quote on the living room wall of someone I was visiting this past week; and it said: Not every day is a good day, but every day has some good in it.

We are a waiting people, yes. But people who wait have a choice to make: we can either ignore, deny, get down on ourselves and the world; or, we can learn to appreciate, be thankful for, exercise gratitude — all those moments and experiences where, in truth, Jesus comes through the doors of our hearts locked in fear: And tells us, “Peace be with you.”

Back to the Future: Borderland spirituality

2015 is the year of “Back to the Future”, did you know? When Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox, travelled ‘Back to the Future’ in the 1980’s pop culture film, the year they went to, in the future, was 2015.

As a kid I enjoyed the movie, partly because the year 2015, at the time, seemed some unrealistic, arbitrary and irrelevant point in the future; the number only represented some distant benchmark unconnected to my present reality.

Today, 2015 no longer means some far-off, futuristic fantasy. It is reality, now. And if I watch ‘Back to the Future’ today, the movie represents more of an historical curiosity — I’m only looking ‘back’.

In faith, it’s like we simultaneously look back, forward, and both from the grounding of the present moment. Balancing all three is good theology. For its sesquicentennial anniversary, the Eastern Synod (ELCIC) employed the motto: “Remembering for the Future”. Celebrating an important event in the present day by integrating past with the future is important. And a good way to interpret the Bible.

But it an also cause dismay if we only insist on a certain, chronological ordering of events in an absolute kind of way. For example, at Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel for today (Mark 1:4-11) there is the matter of the Holy Spirit, which descends in the form of a dove upon Jesus (v. 8, 10). John the Baptist preaches that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

But Jesus never performs one baptism in his ministry that we know of. And, according to the time-line of the Gospels, the Holy Spirit doesn’t descend on the church until after Jesus’ resurrection (John 20:19-23) and at the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) — these Holy Spirit events do not occur during Jesus’ ministry of healing, teaching and praying on earth. Curious, since many understand Jesus’ baptism as his ordination or commissioning to his call as the beloved Son of God. How do we make sense of this?

To understand many of the stories we read, like the Gospel for today, we would do well, I believe, to employ a ‘Back to the Future’ hermeneutic. This way of interpreting does not deny the truth of all of the events outlined above. For one, it reveals something about how the bible was put together:

The actual writing of the New Testament was done decades after these events took place. Therefore, we say, that we, today, are ‘post-resurrection’ Christians. We can best understand what happens at Jesus baptism from the perspective of the future. Because when these stories were written down for the first time, and from today’s perspective — the Holy Spirit has already come. Jesus is alive. Even as we recall, as a matter of history, what happened in the moments of Jesus’ life on earth some two thousand years ago.

And it’s not just a pointing forward that we need to keep in mind. It is a reverence and respect for the past.

If you look at the geography of the Baptism of our Lord, we can conclude at least a couple of things: First, it takes place in the wilderness, the desert. That is through which the river Jordan runs, basically north to south separating lands that are for the most part destitute, rugged, dangerous even.

Second, that river forms a boundary between two worlds — on the east and south, the world of the ancient Israelites tracking through the desert for decades on their way to the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, which is on the other side.

John the Baptist comes to this border land, which is significant in the history of the prophets. In fact, John the Baptist stands in line with the prophets of old. His speeches are associated with Isaiah (Mark 1:1-8); he is also mistaken for Elijah because of what he wears (2 Kings 1:8) and because he foretells of the coming Messiah (John 1:21). John’s presence and ministry at the Jordan River in the wilderness brings the past (an identification with history and the prophets) together with the future (Jesus Christ, and the coming Holy Spirit) together into the present moment.

How can we keep ourselves from getting lost and totally confused in the plot line of “Back to the Future?” We remain grounded in the present moment. We look to our immediate surroundings. Like the beasts of the field, we scuff the earth with our heal, and snort and spit, before we look up.

And this is the beauty and wisdom of these Scriptures: their insistent if not peculiar emphasis on details. Yes, God acts in creation. Yes, God redeems sinners. Yes, God has a plan for salvation.

But this ‘spiritual’ talk is always, in the Gospel, tied to material — real water, real bread, real time, inexpensive wine, locusts, honey, sand, camel’s hair, wind, birds and the clouds being rent asunder. This is the nitty-gritty of life, and it can never be separated from matters of the Spirit.

Keeping grounded in the present awareness of life, ‘as is’, helps us track the sometimes confusing plot-line of ‘Back to the Future’. Because it is there that Jesus stands — on the borderland, at the edge of the Kingdom of God. Jesus stands there, and invites us to live into the now-and-not-yet reality of it (Ted Smith, “Feasting on the Word” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2008, p.239).

The Gospel of John identifies Jesus as a ‘lamb’. T.S. Elliot describes Jesus as a ‘tiger’. In C.S. Lewis’ ‘Narnia’ books, Jesus is personified in Aslan, the ‘lion’. Nancy Rockwell, in her post, “Tracks” (blog: The Bite in the Apple) suggests the ‘camel’, for Jesus who identified with lepers and prostitutes, difficult people, estranged members of right society, people who are spat upon. All these images for Jesus throughout history reveal unique elements about his truth.

But, standing in the desert beside John the Baptist, Jesus identifies with the lowly who are on a journey of transformation. Jesus invites the lowly in us to go on a journey that does not reject the past, and tradition, and history but doesn’t allow us to remain stuck there. Because this journey through borderland brings us eventually into a land flowing with milk and honey — a land of healing, restoration and justice for all who seek these gifts of the Holy Spirit.

This means that we cannot use our tainted and troubled past as an excuse for not doing the right thing, now. At the same time, we cannot wait until an ideal future when circumstances are perfect to do the right thing, now.

Back to the Future brings the present moment into sharp focus. A good theology will always ask, “What is going on right now in my life and world?” “Who do I meet today?” And act, now, accordingly. A spirituality of the borderland will always draw my attention to the divine importance of the present moment which is supported by history, and hope-filled for the future.