Pluck up!

When our daughter received a pouch of seeds last Spring, we didn’t know initially what to do with them. They were Colorado Spruce Tree seeds. And we weren’t exactly planning on seeding a forest.

So we took a medium-sized flower pot and sprinkled the dozen-or-so seeds into the soil packed into the container which we left on the back deck outside. Let’s first see if the seeds in fact sprout, we thought. And go from there.

Three little buds popped through the top layer of soil a couple weeks later. One came up near the edge of the pot. But two of them came up in the centre, side-by-side. At first, I thought the two to be part of one sprig. But they weren’t.

At some point I would have to separate the two, distinct saplings. They were too close together. When to pull them up posed a bit of a challenge. If I waited too long, then the root systems would most certainly entwine and grow into one tree making it impossible to separate. If I plucked up the saplings too soon, I ran the risk of damaging the vulnerable shoots.

The task before me reminded me of the call of God to Jeremiah stated poetically: “to pluck up … and to plant.”[1]While Jeremiah’s plucking up and planting had to do with nations, social practice and religious faith, mine was more literal: As the tiny saplings were finding life and vitality to grow, I would first have to pluck them up from the soil before planting them into separate containers for the next stage of their growth.

And that plucking up would not be easy. It would hurt. It would put stress on the individual seedlings. I could very well be killing them in the transfer. Would they survive the ‘plucking up’?

Sometimes we don’t believe we can survive the ‘plucking up’ events of our lives. We don’t believe we have the strength to endure those difficult transitions in life, especially after experiencing loss, or when confronted with change or great disappointment and failure.

We object, like Jeremiah did—and Moses and Isaiah before him, to God’s call, finding all sorts of justifications: Can’t do that; I’m not qualified, I don’t have the skills, I don’t have the strength, I am too young or too old, I don’t have time. They make sense, common sense we might say. We find all sorts of excuses and even create a religion around all of that to keep us feeling good. Or at least not guilty. And stuck in a rut.

What is more, we make our faith into something that ought to make us comfortable. We ‘go to church’ expecting not the challenge to grow and change but instead to find the salve of warm fuzzies and emotional feel-goodies. We even believe Jesus was all about being ‘nice’. And if anyone is not nice, or challenges us, or doesn’t fit our mould—well, that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

And yet, the biblical witness, if not our authentic lives of faith when we pay honest attention to them, suggest something entirely different:

  1. Jesus’ popularity suffers a severe blow after he says to his people in their synagogue that “today the scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing”.[2]What he means is that they—his people—would not be the vessels for the unfolding of God’s new narrative; outsiders would be. Stew on that. The audacity. They nearly succeed in throwing him off a cliff, they are so enraged.
  2. In the Jeremiah text, we read that God’s hand “touches” Jeremiah’s mouth. “I have put my words in your mouth,” God says.[3]Perhaps, at first, this sounds rather intimate, soft, gentle, nice.

But we need to be careful not to imagine it was a comforting touch. The same verb used here can also mean “strike” or “harm.” The one other biblical verse that uses this same verb to envision God’s hand touching is found in the prologue to the book of Job, where Satan challenges God to test Job’s faithfulness by taking away everything Job has.[4]There is nothing gentle about the wind that then “touches” the house where Job’s children are feasting, leaving every one of them dead beneath its roof.[5]

“When we picture the hand of God ‘touching’ Jeremiah’s mouth, we might do better to imagine a jolt or a shock. We would be justified in asking whether it hurt, whether it left a wound or scar, whether having God’s words in his mouth changed Jeremiah forever.”[6]

The message of Christ is the message of the cross. And then, resurrection. For our growth and life in Christ, we are called into places of disruption of our comfortable lives before anything new and life-giving happens. There’s no way around it, if we want to follow Jesus in this world.

It starts small, though. And that’s the grace and the hope. God does not call the qualified; God qualifies the called. The point of the Jeremiah story is that Jeremiah cannot depend on his own, developed capabilities and skill-set to justify his participation in God’s work. God called and equipped him even before he was born.

Every worldly role has purpose in Christ. No work is meaningless in God’s light. Martin Luther famously said about parenthood, when understood in Christian vocation: even changing dirty diapers is done for the glory of God! It is God’s invitation to us to invest God’s grace into whatever work God opens to us.[7]

All Jeremiah must do is trust God, and not make his decisions—yay or nay—based on fear. The most often repeated command in the bible—do you know it? “Fear not”. This does not mean we will never be afraid when we listen to and follow God. It means we do not lead our lives with fear in the driver’s seat. Instead, we find in the driver’s seat of our lives: Trust God. And hope in God. Fear can take a back seat, now.

I sat on the front porch with three separate, small pots for each of the seedlings. I did this in early November, believing they would do much better inside during their first winter.

My ‘plucking up’ was done swiftly, using the old adage of taking off a band-aid quickly is better than dragging it out. What surprised me the most in the process of ‘plucking up’ and then ‘planting’ again, was to see the roots.

Each of the tiny saplings had astoundingly long tap roots. One even had extended its main root all the way to the bottom of the original pot, and then some. More than tripling the length of the part of the sapling above ground, there was definitely more to the little sprout than what met the eye on the surface.

And so, there is much more to you and to me than what may first meet the eye—the eye of our self-regard. God calls us to break through the crust of the surface of our self-perception and to mine the depths of who we are, created uniquely each of us in God’s image. There’s so much good, there!

God is just waiting for you to uncover those depths, and then to bless and to empower who you are and what you do, into God’s holy purposes.

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[1]Jeremiah 1:10

[2]Luke 4:21-30

[3]Jeremiah 1:9

[4]Job 1:11, see Anathea Portier-Young in her commentary on Jeremiah 1:4-10 in workingpreacher.org

[5]Job 1:19

[6]Portier-Young, ibid.

[7]James Calvin Davis, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009) p.292

Meeting the unexpected

On New Year’s Eve, the roadway was completely covered in snow. All I could see in the waning light of day was the general shape of the roadbed curving slightly to the right in front of me.

I couldn’t see the customary yellow and white lines on the pavement to guide me. There were no tracks left in the snow of cars gone down this way recently. The snowfall was fresh and the road was not well-travelled.

I could control my speed, of course, but I didn’t have a lot to go on. Would I get home in one piece? First, I had to slow down. And even be prepared to stop.

The Magi were on a journey to arrive at the home of the young Christ child. Christmas cards and the popular mindset show the Magi at the baby Jesus’ side on the night he was born. But that is likely not the case.

The Gospel of Matthew indicates the Magi visited the holy family’s “house” in Bethlehem, hardly a description of a cave or stable for animals.[1]The Gospel of Luke, from which we read the birth narrative on Christmas Eve, does not mention the Magi.

The Magi were on a journey that took months if not years to accomplish. Their journey took time. Their coming to Jesus, so to speak, was not an immediate, instant, snap-of-the-fingers conversion. Their experience was slow, plodding and winding course across the deserts of the Middle East. On their journey to find Jesus, they had to have the long-view in mind. A whole lot of determination. And a commitment to the journey with all its fits and starts.

I also get the impression, reading through these verses from Matthew, that the Magi who were nearing the end of their long journey had to make in-the-moment changes to their plans. They had to check their assumptions and change their minds about initial expectations.

For example, at least half the Gospel text for today focuses on Herod. Initially, the Magi came to him in good faith, believing the Roman governor would sincerely help them. But an angel of the Lord had to steer them away, literally by a different road, and from Herod’s manipulating, plotting, fear-ridden treachery. The Magi had to trust ‘new information’ and make changes to their flight plan in mid-stream.

Then, the gifts. Three gifts: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. In biblical times, these gifts were usually given to a king or a person with highest status. Gold was such a gift. From the Hebrew scriptures, when The Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon she gave him precious gifts: “Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan – with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones” (1 Kings 10:2). The spices that she brought with her might very well have been frankincense and myrrh.

The gifts themselves are a powerful sign of what these visitors originally intended. The Magi were coming a long way to worship who they considered the true King. Not Herod. Not Rome. But the divine Son of God.

And, still, not what they expected.

The meaning of these gifts needs to be examined in light of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. For us, what is ‘kingship’ in light of Christ—certainly not what we might first assume: glory, power, military strength and victory. Jesus’ journey took him through the defeat and humiliation of the cross. That’s the kind of kingship Jesus is about.

Myrrh represented healing. Healing in the light of Christ was not so much about an instant cure to earthly disease. But rather, healing is a transformation of the inner life of our attitudes and finding wholeness and grace in every moment of life, especially in the midst of suffering and pain. The king whom the Magi came to worship was a king who, in truth, represented values and meaning that countered—were at odds with—the values of the world.

And that is why this story starts the season of Epiphany in the church. Epiphany means, Revelation. The baby Jesus is revealed as the Son of God who shows us the way of God—God’s path of transformation and salvation. The season of Epiphany invites us to participatein this way. Participating in this journey asks us, like the first Magi, to be prepared to change course and examine our standing assumptions about God and the world.

It’s the manner in which the truth is revealed that ought to catch our attention in the biblical story. And this way is both apparent by what these three gifts mean, and by the expectations we first bring to this story.

For example: We assume and even say ‘it’s biblical’ that there were three men and they were three kings. But that’s not what the bible says. For all we know, there could have been a whole caravan of them. And what if some were women?

Although we sing, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,”, these visitors from the East were also not kings. The term Magi is a plural form of a word in Greek which means, literally, Zoroastrian priests.[2]And, maybe they earned the title ‘wise’ because of their skills in interpreting dreams and understanding astrology.

It’s as if the proverbial rug first needs to be pulled from underneath us before the truth is revealed. We don’t come to it straight on. Our expectations first need to be checked, and likely over time, over turned.

Once on New Year’s Eve when driving down a country road covered in snow in the middle of a blinding snow storm I thought I was driving in the middle of the road. I figured I best check that assumption. Thank God I did.

In a moment no other vehicle was passing, I stopped and opened the driver’s side door. With my boot, I scraped away the fluffy blanket of snow believing I would find the dark asphalt of the road and maybe even a lane marker painted on the hard top.

To my horror, I turned over stones and gravel, indicating I was already on the shoulder of the road. Had I not stopped at that moment, my vehicle was heading in the direction of the deep ditch on the side of the road.

Thank God, I had it in my mind to stop when I did, and scratch the surface of my belief. Then, I was able to change course.

The star finally stopped over Bethlehem, showing the Wise Ones where the destination of their journey lay. At this sign, “they were overwhelmed with joy.”[3]Arriving home in one piece from driving in less-than-ideal road conditions gave me a sense of joy. The joy comes because of the journey, maybe because the journey was difficult. Maybe because the journey called forth the best from you, to meet the challenges and make headway despite the journey’s challenges, pain and suffering.

The amazing thing is that God somehow brought the Magi–the Wise Ones–to the exact location of their hopes and dreams. Perhaps not what they expected at first. But this gift they surely recognized.

Here are some questions for reflection as we enter this new season after the Epiphany: What was the most important gift you received this holiday season? Did you expect it? Why is it important? How did you receive it?

God has given us the greatest gift in Jesus. Where we find him will be shown to us, on the journey. This grace continues throughout our lives.

May our trust grow in a God who has this uncanny ability to trust and have faith in us to get home. Let us pray: God, you led the Wise Ones by a star to find the Christ child. Lead us as we strive to follow you in living our faith. No matter how long it takes. No matter how winding the journey. Help us trust your promise to bring us home. Amen.

 

[1]Matthew 2:11

[2]Niveen Sarras, “Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12”, http://www.workingpreacher.org

[3]Matthew 2:10

Game of Thrones and the Throne of Grace

As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne .. (Daniel 7:9)

There appears to be something different about the throne of the Ancient One. Among all the thrones, when the Ancient One sits down we are to take notice. What is it about God’s throne that stands out?

At this time of the year, we still ought to be saying: “Winter is coming.” Although it is obvious now that we can, with all “Game of Thrones” fans, be asserting those ominous words that indeed, “Winter has arrived”!

Fans of the epic TV series “Game of Thrones” need still to wait until the final season airs next year. In the symbolic centre of this miasma of twisting plot lines and characters constantly fighting for supremacy sits the imposing throne at the front of the grand hall of the capital city in George RR Martin’s fantasy world of ‘Westeros’.

Who will finally succeed in claiming the throne? Who IS the rightful heir? And how will each of the so-called ‘pretenders’ manage to usurp ultimate power in the Seven Kingdoms? These are the questions swirling around this throne, highlighted by spiked swords and jagged edges—a dark, cold symbol reflecting the heart, it seems, of what it takes to succeed in this place.

… and an Ancient One took his throne …

When Jesus stands before Pilate hours before Jesus dies a criminal of the state on a bloodied cross, he tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world.[1]The cross stands as a counterpoint to the world’s thrones. The cross stands as a symbol, not of cold-hearted power-plays and world domination where the end justifies any, bloodied means. No, the cross is a sign of the God who failed according to the world’s rules, who found defeat at the hands of the worldly mighty.

The throne that Jesus sits on is indeed very different from all the others. When Jesus said ‘my kingdom is not of this world’ he meant its values are at odds with how power is exercised among humans, in all its brutish ways. We may be alarmed, and despair; yet, we accept that the ‘Game of Thrones’ world is quite similar to our reality on earth, more so than the kingdom of God.

I find at least two ways we fail to see and realize God’s ways on earth:

First, I suspect, for Christians, the temptation is to go the other way: to deny God’s kingdom on earth. The problem is that, without even consciously, we may delegate God’s values to some fantasy world. To practice genuine humility, forgiveness, grace, mercy and unconditional love not just to family and friends but to people we don’t know—well, we say, that’s reserved for ‘heaven’ someday; it has no place in the ‘real world’, we way.

But God’s throne is not in a different world than ours. God’s throne is not ‘up there’ or ‘over there’ or in some fantasy world far removed from our own.

The truth, and our hope, is that God’s way can be realized on earth. Not only has Jesus enabled people of all time and place to face the truth about ourselves, our relationships, our faith, and the world in which we live, Jesus is saying that his kingdom is also present — in part — upon the earth, in all our relationships.[2] Wherever grace is given and received, wherever forgiveness is practiced, wherever mercy and love are shown. There, is God.

I’m finishing up this week teaching a course on Martin Luther, prayer and the legacy of the Reformation (at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality). In teaching this course, the students and I have returned time and time again to the notion of movement. Semper Reformanda–the Latin phrase popularized by Karl Barth in the last century: Always reforming. The legacy of the Reformation is that we are a church that is continually changing, and moving, and becoming. And, in what ways?

Here, I want to bring in the Rev. Riitta Hepomaki, assistant to Bishop Pryse (Eastern Synod–Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada). She said at the workshop the council attended last weekend that what we lack, today, as a church of the Reformation is this sense of movement. Our western church, and especially our generation, has adopted a “we have arrived” mindset.

This is the second way in which we fail to realize God’s ways, God’s reign on earth.

If we have arrived, we don’t need to move. If we don’t move, we are stuck. The feeling of being stuck often leads to hopelessness. And, we are not talking here about physical movement from one street address to another, per se. We can make little moves: from the church hall to the streets, from our own kitchen or garden to a community kitchen or garden—wherever God is sending you.

Giving up the ‘we have arrived’ mindset means also that we are willing to move from my little world to other people’s worlds. It is challenging. But we can do it because we have faith, even faith the size of a miniscule mustard seed. And we have each other. We have fellowship. We have a new way of life. And because we are confident that our God will guide and provide.

So, let’s try to change our mindset from ‘having arrived’ to ‘being sent’, and ‘being in movement’. After all, if we don’t move, we cannot follow. Aren’t we called “followers of Jesus?”[3]And, today, we proclaim, that Jesus is the Lord of our lives. And that we are followers not of the ways of the world, but of the Reign of Christ.

In another vision of God, this time from a major prophet[4]in the Hebrew scriptures, God sits on his throne, yet the primary image is of the hem of God’s robe filling the temple. God’s presence permeates and fills all.

The world will indeed separate and set a boundary between the most powerful ‘at the front on the throne’, and the rest of us on the floor down below. Not so with God. In Christ, that boundary has been severed. Moments after Jesus died on that symbol of death and defeat—the cross—the curtain in the temple was torn.[5]The dividing line between where God is and where the rest of us are was opened.

No longer are we divided, violent, fighting, them-and-us. No longer need we compare, compete and kill. These are the actions and behavior of those who bow to the world’s thrones.

Rather, we are all enfolded in the robes of God’s grace forever. There are no boundaries, no limits, to the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And, as the writer to the Hebrews expresses, we can therefore approach the “throne of grace” will confidence.[6]No longer afraid that God will rebuke, punish and condemn us. No longer condemned by our faults, sins and weaknesses.

We can approach this throne with boldness, assured that God will embrace us in mercy, forgiveness, and love.

 

[1]John 18:33-37, Gospel for the Reign of Christ Sunday, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[2]Robert A. Bryant in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol.4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.337.

[3]Riitta Hepomaki, The Eastern Synod Lutheran Volume 44, Sept 25, 2015 (Kitchener: Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada), p.1

[4]Isaiah 6:1-8

[5]Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45

[6]Hebrews 4:16

Over mangoes

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Mercy Lawluvi’s first days in Canada were met by the famous ice storm. Arriving from Ghana a young woman in 1997, Mercy had never seen first-hand, touched nor felt snow, let alone freezing rain that made moving about a danger and terror for slipping and falling.

Mercy was alone. And she felt lonely, surrounded by the four walls of her apartment. She couldn’t even see her backyard garden bushes and trees buried and drooping under the heavy, thick accretions of ice.

Nevertheless she decided to slip-and-slide over to the nearby Loblaws. Surviving this first test of Canadian living, she made her way to the fresh produce section. Mercy was delighted to find some mangoes, her favorite fruit.

And as she was standing there, turning over a small reminder of her homeland, a woman came up to her looking for mangoes herself. “Hello,” she smiled. “The mangoes look good. What’s your name?” she asked.

“Mercy,” she responded.

“Where are you from?” the woman asked. “Ghana, in Africa. And these are my favorite fruit. I am so happy they are here.” And so, the two stood there for a long time chatting and exchanging mango recipes. Finally, the other woman asked, “What is your occupation?”

“I am a teacher.”

“I know the administrator of an ESL (English as a second language) school in Ottawa. Let me get the name of my friend to you. Maybe you see where that goes?”

“Thank you so much!”

Twenty-one years later, Mercy stands before us during the “Welcoming the Newcomer” session hosted by the Ottawa Lutheran Refugee Sponsorship Committee[1]this past Thursday, to tell us this story of her first welcome to Ottawa.

Because of the kindness shown by that nameless woman in Loblaws twenty-one years ago, whom she has never since met again, Mercy was able to find the emotional strength and resources to settle well and grow in her new country.

She said how much that simple encounter by the mango display made all the difference in the world to her, not only on that first day during the ice storm to help her through the loneliness and fear. But how important that encounter was for her development, networking and success-finding in her new home in Canada. Someone—a stranger to her— acknowledged her. And was genuinely interested in her.

Twenty-one years later she stands before us as the executive director of “Immigrant Women Services Ottawa”.[2]

And it all started by a caring, open-hearted person asking, “What is your name?”

Indeed, what is our name?  We have a family name sign in front of our house. In my first parish twenty-one years ago in the heart of farmland in southwestern Ontario, every house along the long and straight rural concession roads had one of these kinds of signs hanging or posted in the front yard.

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Fast forward to today, I believe we are the only house in Arnprior, maybe even the whole of Ottawa, who has one. Obviously, it’s not a thing.

I understand Millennials prefer their private, cocooned lifestyles. I understand that, fueled by fear, we are hyper-sensitive about things like identity-fraud and being targeted by criminals. So, if there’s anything we can do NOT to be publicly identified or exposed, the better.

I wonder, though, how much we have, because of this attitude, dampened, even snuffed out, any collective heart-filled reaching out. Because before newcomers, or anyone for that matter, can get to know us and trust us, we need to be available, visible, transparent, accessible to them. In other words we cannot hide from others, and then say that we are welcoming.

I read this week that the first step to building an ethical culture in churches, in business and in society in general, is to let people be who they are. Without needing to persuade, sell something, impose our opinion or argue a point. Without believing they first need to conform before I/we will give them any time. Without needing to protect, defend and uphold my or ‘our’ way of thinking, fearful that any such approach means a loss of integrity or personal safety.

Letting people be who they are, first. Means an open heart. Means, listening first. Means, asking questions first. Means, listening for points of similarity – mangoes. And, then, when trust begins to build, going from there.

“I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you,” Wisdom says.[3]I have the image of a couple of friends getting together at the end of a long day over drinks. And each takes turn pouring out their hearts to the other. Arms waving. Voices rising and falling with each impassioned response. Laughter. Silence. A mutual-inpouring!

I heard recently that each human being requires these two things to survive and thrive: unconditional love, and complete understanding. Both are met in this image from the Wisdom writings of the Bible. An intimacy that affords love and understanding to the partners involved in relationship.

Intimacy. God promises a deep and lasting connection within us. Despite our foibles, our missteps, our compulsions. God promises a deep connection within us despite our mistakes and failures.

Transparency, on the surface, goes only so far to the truth of who we are. You may see the name sign outside my home. You may see my license plate on the highway or city streets. This may be a good first step, I believe, to an honest transparency and invitation for conversation. But, that only goes so far.

When Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is, the question reveals more about the disciples than it does about Jesus. “Who do you say that I am?”[4]Jesus ask them, not because Jesus doesn’t know the answer himself but because the disciples are on a journey of growth with Jesus. These wayward disciples don’t often get it right on this journey. They miss the point of Jesus time and time again.

Jesus’ rebuke of Peter is consistent with how the disciples are portrayed by the Gospel writer.[5]And while Peter might I.D. Jesus correctly, while Peter can give Jesus his proper title and name—the Messiah—he still doesn’t understand what that name actually means in Jesus:

That this Messiah will suffer and die; that this Messiah will be rejected by the powerful, scorned by the knowledgeable, that this Messiah will be arrested a criminal, tortured and die a brutal death by capital punishment. And that this Messiah will rise again three days later. The disciples, Peter among them, do not really understand Jesus.

Just because we may know God’s name, doesn’t necessarily mean we know what is called of us under that name. Just because we can name Jesus and say the right words of faith doesn’t mean we get the follow-through right all the time. In another Gospel, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”[6]

Because, ultimately, our titles and our names only give us an entry point into who we are. Words, titles and names cannot capture the totality of who we are. As James so pointedly writes, the words we say by our tongue will get us into trouble; “though small, [the tongue] stains the whole body.”[7]

Getting it right verbally isn’t what faith is about. It’s rather about experiencing God in our own lives and in relationship with others. Wisdom pours out her thoughts into us, not at us. God writes God’s law upon our hearts, deep within, despite our mistakes.[8]This faithful following of Jesus is not just a function of our brains.

Intimate relationship with God and with others in Christ is a matter for the heart. We know God and we know truth not by the words we say or the names with which we identify, but by a deeper knowing marked by deeds and experiences of faith, hope, trust and love.

When the heart is in a good place, we start simply, in small ways, to see the other, reach out to them with a smile and a question: “What is your name?”

And God replies, “Mercy.”

[1]olrs@bell.net

[2]http://www.immigrantwomenservices.com

[3]Proverbs 1:23 NRSV

[4]Mark 8:29

[5]Mark 6:51-52; Mark 8:21; Mark 9:32; Mark 10:23-32,38; Mark 16:13

[6]Matthew 7:21 NRSV

[7]James 3:1-12 NRSV

[8]Jeremiah 31:33

Into the deep end

I’d like you to meet Harry Truman, at the end of his life.

This is not Harry Truman the 33rdpresident of the USA. This is Harry Truman, the eighty-three-year-old who, in March 1980, refused to budge from his home at the foot of Mount Saint Helens near Olympia, Washington State, where the volcano began to steam and rumble.

A former World War 1 pilot and Prohibition-era bootlegger, he’d owned his lodge on Spirit Lake for more than half a century. Five years earlier, he’d been widowed. So now it was just him and his sixteen cats on his fifty-four acres of property beneath the mountain.

Three years earlier, he’d fallen off the lodge roof shoveling snow and broken his leg. The doctor told him he was “a damn fool” to be working up there at his age.

“Damn it!” Truman shot back. “I’m eighty years old and at eighty, I have the right to make up my mind and do what I want to do.”

An eruption threatened, so the authorities told everyone living in the vicinity to clear out. But Truman wasn’t going anywhere. For more than two months, the volcano smoldered. Authorities extended the evacuation zone to ten miles around the mountain. Truman stubbornly remained.

He didn’t believe the scientists, with their uncertain and sometimes conflicting reports. He worried his lodge would be looted and vandalized, as another lodge on Spirit Lake was. And regardless, this home was his life.

“If this place is gonna go, I want to go with it,” he said. “’Cause if I lost it, it would kill me in a week anyway.” He attracted reporters with his straight-talking, curmudgeonly way, holding forth with a green John Deere cap on his head and a tall glass of bourbon and Coke in his hand. The local police thought about arresting him for his own good but decided not to, given his age and the bad publicity they’d have to endure. They offered to bring him out every chance they got.

He steadfastly refused. He told a friend, “If I die tomorrow, I’ve had a damn good life. I’ve done everything I could do, and I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do.”

The blast came at 8:40am on May 18, 1980, with the force of an atomic bomb. The entire lake disappeared under the massive lava flow, burying Truman and his cats and his home with it.

In the aftermath, he became an icon – the old man who had stayed in his house, taken his chances, and lived life on his own terms. The people of a nearby town constructed a memorial to him at the town’s entrance that still stands to this day, and there was a TV movie made based on the story.[1]

Opinions may be divided as to whether he did the right thing, by staying and dying so violently. Some herald his gritty resolve. Others shake their heads considering the effect of his decision on his loved ones, and the public resources expended on his behalf to inform and keep the community safe about the impending danger.

What would you have done?

4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’

5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
7 the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.[2]

This poetry from the prophet reads, generally, in a comforting, encouraging and promising tone. However, the second half of verse 4 feels out of place. God “will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense” and then God “will come and save you.”

It sounds like salvation will come only after an horrible, terrifying experience. Perhaps, Harry Truman’s salvation came on the heels of being drowned in the burning lava flow.

This interpretation can lead, however, to dangerous conclusions. Such as the only way to something good is create and go through untold suffering: Such as the ends justify the means; That it is ok to do something hurtful, cruel, and violent if the result of that violence is pleasing; That salvation can only come through terrible suffering.

We know life happens. We don’t need to search out and fabricate all the pain that is a natural part of life. We don’t need to choose suffering. Great suffering comes in different forms quite apart from any conscious decision to bring it on.

The better question is not whether or not we must suffer, but how do we respond and live in the midst of our suffering. That is the question of faith.

No doubt, Harry Truman had experienced some significant losses in the years leading to the eruption of Mount Saint Helens. No doubt at age eighty-three, his physical capacities were failing. He had lost his spouse. He had broken his leg. He was coming up against his very sure limitations. And, likely, grieving in his own way the passing of his event-filled and active life.

One can only have compassion on him.

The words of Isaiah are spoken to “those who are of a fearful heart.”[3]Ultimately, the war of all that divides and challenges us is waged on the battlefield of our own hearts. Any external fight on our hands is really a fight happening in our own hearts. Do you fight against a circumstance beyond your control? Are you so terrified that you can’t even speak of it?

At the centre of that odd, out-of-place verse is a word I do not like much: “vengeance” (in Hebrew, naqam), because I struggle to link this promise with Gospel good-news.

And then I came across what Biblical scholar Hendrik Peels showed about this word, naqam, in the Bible. This word refers to a retribution by a legitimate authority. And especially in this text from Isaiah, the emphasis is a retribution that brings liberation to those who are oppressed, and freedom from a situation or need. Its meaning is closer to a restoration rather than to vengeance of any kind.[4]

We tend, naturally, first to react to our fears by targeting some outside source. We blame others, when all along we hold the source of our trouble in our own hearts by refusing to examine our attachments and address our own sense of loss and fear.

It’s not easy to learn how best to let go at the endings of our lives. Most of us, unfortunately, confront these deeper questions and challenges at the end of our lives when we face a critical crisis: our health fails and all that we have been attached to in life we lose, suddenly.

We can do ourselves a favour. But it takes exercise, and some pain during the course of our lives when we are not yet at this life-ending crisis time. Learning to die before we die is the point. When we meet with common challenges of life – a physical move, a changed relationship, a job loss, a surgery, a life-changing experience, daily challenges – we can practice how to die to what has been (in the past) and welcome the feeling of terror about the unknown future. We learn how to surrender to what cannot be controlled; or, find the courage to throw off the weight of internalized oppression. This is all serious heavy-lifting.[5]

Following Jesus provides a way through, so we don’t get stuck in despair or denial. The wisdom of the inspired Word of God has something to say about this journey of heavy-lifting:

It is to turn to our neighbor and help them on their journey. It is seeing with the mind’s eye and the heart’s passion that we share a common humanity with those who suffer, who are oppressed, who are vulnerable and needy. To look, and go, beyond ourselves. And not give up.

“Compassionate Justice” is therefore one of the four vision priorities of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC).[6]Of course, making statements and standing up in the public sphere for the sake of the poor, the newcomer, the homeless, creation, the marginalized and weak can get us into trouble. Of course, we can spare ourselves a lot of trouble by shutting our eyes to the suffering.

But our closed eyes will also shut out God. The Word is spoken, indeed, to “those with fearful hearts”. To those who need to listen. And do something.

I’ve never met Harry Truman. I didn’t know him, personally. I didn’t know his family, his community, or his religious background.

But I wonder – what would have been in the last years of his life especially if someone he respected and trusted leant him an ear more than once-in-a-while.

What would it have been, if a friend offered to shovel the snow from the roof of his lodge.

What would it have been like, if family or friends showed him unconditional, loving attention despite his bravado and curmudgeonly behaviour.

I wonder if his ending could have somehow been less violent, less tragic.

Our hearts may be fearful. And yet hearts also race in expectation of something good. Something better. Hearts race in hope.

And hope never fails.

God of compassion and justice, bring justice to those who hunger for bread. And give a hunger for justice to those who have bread. Amen.

 

[1]Atul Gwande, “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” (Anchor Canada, 2017), p.66-67.

[2]Isaiah 35:4-7a, Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 16B

[3]Isaiah 35:4

[4]Hendrik G. L. Peels, The Meaning of the Root NQM and the Function of the NQM-Texts in the Context of Divine Revelation in the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 265-66.

[5]Brie Stoner, A Reflection: Into the Deep End in The Mendicant Volume 8 Number 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation, Summer 2018).

[6]http://www.elcic.ca

A spirituality of fierce landscapes

The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. (Psalm 97:1-2)

Which is mountain? And which is cloud?

Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other. When cooler air temperatures carried by strong wind collide with a warm land mass in wide open, exposed landscapes, what we see is not always clear. The lines between the two are not certain.

I am reminded of Moses meeting God in a could atop Mount Sinai in the wilderness. I imagine the dove dropping from the heavens and God’s voice booming at Jesus’ baptism. I sympathize with the disciples seeing Jesus change before their very eyes atop the Mount of Transfiguration. Biblical stories of God colliding and communicating with creation and humanity in a volatile mix of potent energies, some clashing and some joining in a mysterious dance of meaning and purpose.

And we’re not always sure what to make of it. Can we trust what we see? Is our perspective clouded? What is real?

Mountains convey a sense of certitude and stability, a rock and fortress we can count on and lean on. What are the rocks in our lives? Those things, beliefs and people that anchor us in the construct of our lives?

Clouds are ethereal. We cannot grasp the cloud. It is there and yet it isn’t. It is not solid. It is a vapour that we can see, yes, but that which we cannot contain. A cloud is free to form and reform, free to move, free to be and not to be. After all, it belongs in the sky. What are the clouds in our lives? Events, circumstances and situations that have arisen quite outside the realm of our control, good and bad?

Then, as we reflect on the journey of our lives, with all the twists, turns and unexpected happenings, which has more sway in the course of our lives? The mountain? Or, the cloud?

While the mountains of our lives give us a sense of security and well-being, comfort and confidence — all important in life — what role do the clouds play? The bible shows that God speaks through the cloud, even when our main characters find themselves on top of the mountains! Despite all the securities we afford in our lives, those things we strive for to make us feel in control, God clouds those places.

Not that God is against those things, per se. But that the only way God can get into our hearts and bring meaningful change is from the cloud. An anonymous fourteenth century spiritual writer called her work, “The Cloud of Unknowing”, to talk about a way of prayer in which God encounters us in the depths of our hearts.

It may feel, at times, like we don’t know much. It may feel, in these out-of-our-control experiences of life, that we don’t know anything. And we ask, “Why me?”, and “Why this?”

It is in the cloud of our unknowing, nevertheless, where our re-birth and renewal begins. It is here, in the cloud, where all we need to do is not turn around and go home. In the cloud of unknowing, we must not give up. It is called faith.

Faith, to know, that in the fiercest landscapes of our lives where everything seems uncertain, there is hope. We are held in a greater, larger purpose of which we cannot see the whole, big picture right now. We are held in a loving Mystery. And that’s ok.

Because the very reason we can ask the questions, struggle in the uncertainties and take the next, tentative, step on the path is because the sun gives the light for all this to be possible in the first place.

There’s a hole, PART 1: Meant to be

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” Genesis 2:15-17).

“There is a hole inside you. It’s been there a long time. Longer than you even knew. But chances are great these days this hole reappears on almost a daily basis, reminding you that something is missing in your life.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, really, to say that there is lots that’s wrong with the world. We don’t have to look far and wide to notice the brokenness in our lives, the violence in creation and in relationships of all kinds.

Christians have pointed to the creation stories in Genesis — in the Bible — to locate the beginnings of all that has gone wrong in this world. “The Fall” we have called it.

But all the doctrine-making explanations do not take away the problem.

All that’s not right, all this reminds each of us that something is missing in our lives. Like a hole right at the bottom of your heart.

One of the first camp songs I learned was one that’s called: “There’s a hole in the bottom of the sea.” Right off the bat, that image suggests permanence, because a hole at the bottom of the sea has likely been there a very long time.

But the song goes on in repetitive fashion: “There’s a log in the hole … there’s a log … there’s a bump … there’s a frog … there’s a wart … there’s a fly … there’s a flea — all in the hole in the bottom of the sea.”

So even though that hole is an integral and permanent part of the landscape, it’s fun to imagine that hole filled! From a young age we learn that having a hole is not good. It’s better to have it filled, somehow. What is the hole in the bottom of your heart? What is missing in your life?

“It may involve a relationship. It may involve a yearning for intimacy in the relationships you have. Maybe it’s an issue related to health, a problem that has become chronic. Maybe it’s a loved one who died and left a huge hole in your heart.

“Maybe the thing that’s missing has to do with being fulfilled in your life’s work, or vocation, or job. Or, maybe the hole has to do with a dream that has been just out of reach.

“If we had time and courage, we would turn to each other and share what is the hole in our lives. And we would have to listen, because all the holes are different; they’re not quite the same.

“The only thing that is the same, is that everybody is missing something.

“As Christians, we would pray about it. So we claim such verses as: ‘Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be open unto you’ (Matthew 7:7, Luke 11:9). Over the years, there has been plenty asking, seeking and knocking … and still this thing that is missing persists.

“Oh, we learn eventually to cope with it. Our favourite coping mechanism is to rush back to work and get busy enough to not have to think about it. Others prefer to distract themselves through entertainment. Some of us come to church precisely in search of spiritual distraction from the hole that remains in our hearts.

“But at the end of the day, when you are too tired to remain distracted, when you are trying to get to sleep, the pain of this hole returns. Maybe the pain is so great you well up with tears, and you can’t sleep. You think about all the choices you’ve made in your life and you wish you could do it all over again.

“There is nothing that will keep us up at night like fear. We try to talk ourselves out of anxiety with rational reasons why we shouldn’t be afraid. But as soon as we figure out why what we fear wont happen, we find three more ways it will happen. If only I had ….

“Some will say that God does not desire this for us. That God doesn’t desire us to live with any holes in our lives at all. That God wants us to be complete, whole.

“I’m not sure about that, actually.

“The opening of the bible is very important for us. It gives a short glimpse into what God had in mind for us. It’s only two pages in my bible. That’s all we get, in terms of what God had in mind from the very beginning. The entire rest of the bible is … the recovery plan.

“We cherish these first two pages. They’re critical to us. In these brief glimpses into what God had in mind for us we’re told we were created by God — which means we are creatures, not the creator — we were placed into a garden. And we were told that we could freely eat of almost every fruit of this garden. (Genesis 1-3)

“Because it was given to us by God. Even in taking the fruit we are partaking in doxology — we are saying, “Thank you” to God because it was given to us. We didn’t create the fruit, God created the fruit. We receive it. We receive all of this out of the bounty of God’s goodness to us. So, it’s not just thanksgiving for the knowledge of God, it is thanksgiving for being in this spectacular garden, to being able to work in it, be stewards of it and receive its fruit.

Almost all the fruit. But there was one tree whose fruit was forbidden. Fruit that was not given to us by God. And to desire this fruit is to desire it for its own end. Not as a means for saying thanks to God because God chose not to give us this fruit.

“Do you remember where that tree was planted in the garden? Right slap dab in the middle. The exact same place it is planted in your life. Right in the middle of your life. This meant, as the narrative goes, every day Adam and Eve had to walk past this thing that they did not have. A reminder that something was missing in the garden of their lives. Just as there is in ours. That it wasn’t all for the taking. And, that they were not supposed to have it.

“Keep in mind, this is God’s idea of paradise. This is not a result of the ‘Fall’. This is the garden God created for you and called “good”. God said, “It’s all for you except for this one thing right in the middle that you’re never going to have.” Now, this drives us nuts. Just like it did Adam and Eve. We think about this thing we don’t have every day. This hole that just keeps returning. We obsess over it. We want it. Other people have. Why can’t I?

“There can be 999 spectacular trees in our garden. But where do we pitch our tent? Right underneath this one thing we don’t have. We obsess over it. We yearn for it. We think about it constantly. Let the rest of the garden go to weed, but what am I going to do about this one thing I don’t have?

“As the narrative goes, it is in reaching further than we were meant to reach that we then lose the garden. On the way out, we discover that it actually was a pretty good garden. Only now it is paradise lost.

“There is nothing and no one that can do as much damage to your life as you can yourself. When we reach for more than we were created to have.”

The real miracle, however, is that despite all the pain and suffering and confusion, there is good in the world.

Now, hear this: there is good in our lives. There is good within us. There is good within you. And good that can come out of you in word and deed.

But that good only happens, that good is there only when we trust God. When we put our trust in that which is beyond us — in the power, grace and strength that is God and God’s alone. God created everything.

When we put our trust in God …

Not in our abilities to do the good because there is always something missing in our lives.

We put our trust in God. For we can also claim these verses from the bible, the words of Jesus who said, “Pick up your cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34-35). Jesus, the God we follow, never promised to plug up that hole in our hearts.

We do have a choice. We can choose gratitude over despair. We can be thankful despite all that is wrong in the world. Despite all that is wrong in our lives. We may have pitched our tent underneath that one tree. But we can also build an altar there, an altar of thanksgiving right beside that hole in the bottom of our heart.

“Because the garden, you know, it’s pretty good. It’s not perfect. Something is missing. But we can choose gratitude, because it’s pretty good.”

Thank you, to Craig Barnes whose sermon is given, in quotations, from the Festival of Homiletics in Denver Colorado (Minneapolis: Luther Seminary Peach Media CD, 2015)