One part per billion

I’m going into the Algonquin Park region this coming week. As you can see outside the church, I’ve already strapped my canoe atop the car. I’m looking forward!

And when I’m paddling, I like to follow the river or lake banks. Of course, where I’m going, there are lots of little lakes and rivers, and therefore many riverbanks and rocky shorelines I will skirt (probably still breaking the ice!).

We live in a world where borders and boundaries are important. Whether these are borders between nations, continents, cities, regions, communities, families or individuals, they mark the line between separate and distinct realities. Without honouring certain boundaries, we can fail to distinguish who we are and lose a sense of our identity and purpose.

Last summer when I travelled through Spain and Portugal, I learned that he Portuguese-Spanish border is the oldest, unchanged national border on continental Europe. This surprised me because that border did not appear natural. Not unlike the border between Canada and the United States in North America, the Spanish-Portuguese border draws a counterintuitive line across the more natural flow of the continent’s geography.

For example, to see it from space, the North American continent flows more north-south: The mountains run north-south on the western half of the continent, the prairie and plains in the centre of the continent, and the Great Lakes basin spilling into both the Mississippi and St Lawrence River valleys in the eastern portion of the continent. The geography suggests more natural north-south lines.

Spain and Portugal share what looks like a giant square mass of land peaking in the northwest on what is called the Iberian Peninsula. The Atlantic Ocean hugs the northern and western edges of this square. And the Mediterranean laps up against the eastern edge and into the southern Straits of Gibraltar separating Africa from Europe.

Despite what looks like it should be a unified whole, this large land mass is divided between two nations with Portugal carving its small section on the south-western shoreline.

When the kids were toddlers — and sometimes even to this day — they often lingered on the thresholds of doorways separating outdoors from indoors. Standing or sitting on the threshold meant that the door remained open. Of course, we parents were concerned about them jamming their thumbs and fingers and toes. So, we would yell at them: “In our out! Make up your mind!”

Borderlands, as we know from German history (the Berlin Wall) and between North and South Korea, can be dangerous places. We call the space in the border “no man’s land.” At best, these thresholds are ambivalent to us; at worst, they leave us uncomfortable, unsettled, fearful. We feel we can’t rest in these places.

I learned recently about what is called the ‘riparian zone’ which is the border between land and water. The riparian zone can be the lake or riverbank that is a marsh, or a rocky or sandy, thin strip of land, a hardwood forest or stand of pine on the edge of the river.

This ‘in-between’ place of the riparian zone fulfills three, vital, ecological functions: First, the riparian zone functions as a natural filter, cleaning ground water as it flows into the larger watershed. It also protects the surrounding soil from accelerated erosion by slowing down wash effect of the river. In the process, riparian zones actually create new soil and provides for new habitats.

A NASA scientist called the river and its marshy edges the ‘sine qua non’ of life; that is, where water and land touch, these edges are necessary for life on earth.[1]

So, we agree that boundaries are important. Borders, whether political, relational or ecological are vital.

But we also say that the grace of God knows no boundaries. We say that God’s love crosses and surpasses all boundaries. Jesus says, “Abide in my love.”[2]Paul wrote that “nothing can separate us from the love of God.”[3]God’s love expands and grows and overcomes all obstacles.

How does this happen? How can we, on the one hand, honour the boundaries in our lives and, on the other hand, live into the boundary-busting, wall-breaking, division-crossing, far-reaching, limitless, boundless reality of God’s love? How can God’s love abide in us when we are separated from God and each other by sin?

We are human, after all.

Imagine you are at the ocean, and you’re standing in the ocean ankle-deep. It’s true, you are only ankle deep. But it’s also true you are in the ocean. It’s also true that if you keep going, it will get plenty deep soon enough. If not in the ocean you are standing in, certainly at the deepest point on earth — the Marianas Trench — because all oceans on earth are connected anyway.

What if the infinite depth of the ocean gives the totality of its depths to your ankle-deep degree of realization of it?[4]

During the Easter season, and because of the resurrection of Jesus, the church says God is everywhere. But then, we also say God is really in your soul. And God is really, really in the church. You have to go in the church to save your soul. And, in the church, God is really, really, really in the Holy Communion. And, then, God is really, really, really, really in heaven. And, here at Faith Lutheran in Ottawa, it’s like one part per billion!

But, Jesus is alive. Therefore, God is really, really, really, really, really, everywhere.

The truth is, when you’re connected to a little bit of it, you’re connected to the whole of it, the fullness of it.

Speaking of the Holy Communion, when we receive one grain, it belongs to the one bread; one grape, one cup. Many parts, one body. When you receive only one small part of the Communion, you receive the whole of Christ.

“Every piece of bread and sip of wine is precisely the same one: there is one bread, and that is Christ. We receive all of Christ in communion, not just a piece of him. If we break the loaf into a thousand pieces, there’s still only one Christ – and each of us receives all of him.”[5]

This logic extends on several levels. Our lives, for one, belong to God’s story. “We need to sense that all aspects of our history, of our experience, are part of the same story, even the bits that don’t make any sense or the meaningless parts …”[6]There is no part of us that does not, somehow, belong to the great story of God and God’s people. Every part of us — our history, our experiences — is valuable to God and to us, and to each other.

We are who we are. No part of us is wasted space, wasted DNA. No part of us is lost, no memory is gone. All parts of us and each one of us belong.

 

[1]Diana Butler Bass, “Grounded: Finding God in the World; A Spiritual Revolution” (New York: Harper One, 2015), p.68.

[2]John 15:9-17 speaks of the mutuality of divine love’s presence: We abide in Christ as he abides in us.

[3]Romans 8:38

[4]James Finley, Centre for Action and Contemplation, 28 April 2018 (audio, http://www.cac.org).

[5]Br. Mark Brown, Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE), Brother, Give us a Word, 28 April 2018

[6]Laurence Freeman, Daily Wisdom (Word Community for Christian Meditation, Meditatio), 1 May 2018.

Sailing Across

Imagine standing at the shoreline of a great ocean. Linger on the span of the horizon, the boundary between water and sky. What kind of weather day is it? Is it windy? Are the waves crashing at your feet; is the ocean choppy, cresting with millions of whitecaps as far as the eye can see?

Or, is it a calm sea today? Just a gentle, rhythmic slapping of water on sand at your feet? Is the sun shining in a brilliant blue sky? Or, is it overcast — greys washing away any colour distinctions in your line of sight?

The lectionary brings together some bible readings for this Sunday in the Easter season that make an outrageous claim: God is in us. For, in God “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). And, in the Gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples that the Holy Spirit — the Advocate — “will be in you” (John 14:17).

Christian apologists in the last centuries have guarded against modernist, “new age” beliefs. They describe that Christians have always held the distinction between God and creation. Conservatives, especially, have been nervous whenever anyone suggests that a bit of God is in us, because that can easily slip into an unorthodox, pantheistic blending of boundaries. In other words, we humans are not God.

It is an important distinction, to be sure. It echoes Martin Luther’s emphasis during the Reformation on the supremacy of the grace of God. Similar to new-age doctrines whose ultimate meaning is found in the human self, ‘works-righteousness’ — that which Luther fought against in the sale of indulgences — implies the onus rests with us, when it comes to our salvation.

Works-righteousness means that we have to earn favour with God in order to get to heaven. It’s all up to us — what we decide, our good efforts to do the right kinds of things; the result of our works, therefore, determines the course of whether we are made right with God, or not. Luther, of course, argued against this line of thinking and acting.

So, standing at the ocean’s edge, would you venture out using a motorboat or a sail boat? Which kind of boat is a better metaphor to describe a life of faith? If our intention and hope was to land on the distant shore of complete union with God — or however you want to describe heaven — how do we get from here to there? On the one hand, will we ride the ocean of our lives using a motor boat?

A motor boat would certainly be the easiest method. We just aim in a straight line and power up. We would have control over the course; we would decide when to ease up on the throttle, for a break; we would decide when to give it gas, and race. We’d be in charge. Even against the wind and waves, whether in a stiff breeze or on a cloudless, placid sea, our direction is certain.

I suspect this is the preferred methodology, even when it comes to being the church and living our Christian lives. The onus is on us. And it’s up to us to determine the course and be in charge of our destiny.

I also suspect we would recoil against the notion that driving the motorboat is just like the kind of heresy the reformers of yesteryear and today rail against. Because ultimately our life, our death, and our salvation is not dependent on our doing, our agency, our efforts, our decisions — as good or as bad as they may be.

A sailboat, on the other hand, calls forth a different kind of skill set. It’s not that a sailor has no work to do. But this work is different: Without the benefit of an engine to drive, regardless of wind speed and direction, the sailor must be able first to pay attention to what is happening on any particular day.

Once wind speed and direction is observed, the riggings and ropes and rudder must be properly aligned in order to make any kind of headway.

At first, you may need to head in the opposite direction. Tacking into the wind is counterintuitive – sometimes you need to move away from your destination in order to move toward it.

Sometimes, tacking with the wind may mean heading right into an unattractive bank of dark, storm clouds. Sometimes relying on the wind means leaning your body in an uncomfortable position to maximize the best weight distribution. In truth, sailing is tough work.

But using this method of crossing the ocean, as inefficient as it might sometimes seem, is better suited to describe Christian discipleship. Even though doing the right thing sometimes may mean an inconvenience, even though following God’s call may be uncomfortable for us, even though being faithful may mean facing our fears and confronting head on that which we would normally avoid. Because we must depend on God. Our work is more in response to what God is already doing, and then trusting in God.

Those scriptures we hear today were given in the general context of Jesus leaving the disciples at his ascension. The Gospel is part of the “Farewell Discourse” that Jesus gives his disciples — words of encouragement and empowerment and promise. Jesus is trying to comfort his disciples who now have to continue doing Jesus’ work on earth.

But they are not alone in this work. It’s not up to them, alone. Jesus assures them they will do even “greater works” (John 14:12) than himself, but not without his presence in them through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God blows as it wills, because God is in charge. And because the presence of Christ lives IN us, the promise of God is true. We don’t have to be in control because not even death stands in the way of the promise and truth of God.

We need only pay attention to what is already happening around us, and respond accordingly. Even if at first the way appears inconvenient, counterintuitive, or cause us to be afraid. We can even sail right into the sunset of our lives, knowing that God awaits us on the distant shore.

Let us pray:

“Not as the world gives do you give,
O Lover of Souls,
For what is yours is ours also,
if we belong to you.

“Life is unending because love is undying,
and the boundaries of this life are but an horizon,
and an horizon is but the limit of our vision.

“Lift us up, strong Son of God,
that we may see further.
Strengthen our faith that we may see beyond the horizon.

“And while you prepare a place for us,
as you have promised,
prepare us also for that happy place;
that where you are we may be also,
with those we have loved, forever.

Amen.”

(Bede Jarrett in Flor McCarthy, “Funeral Liturgies” Dominican Publications, Ireland, 1987, p.181)