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.

The will of God – creation,incarnation,passion – March 25

In both Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ and, more recently, Mark Burnett’s ‘The Bible’, the devil stands by watching Jesus’ moments of agony.

Contemporary Jesuit writer, James Martin, SJ, describes three temptations facing Jesus during his Passion: The temptation of accommodation; the temptation of annihilation, and the temptation of abandonment.[1]

Jesus could have accommodated his opposition by not offending his listeners and telling them what they wanted to hear thereby avoiding his fate. When the Pharisees tested him time after time, Jesus could have appeased them.[2] But he didn’t.

Jesus could also have simply wiped out/annihilated his opponents by rallying the rebellious Jews against the Roman oppressors. Moreover, he could have called on divine power to protect him through force and violence.[3] But he didn’t.

Finally, Jesus could have left his ministry behind and the life God chose for him – abandoned it – in favor of a more conventional life. He could have settled down in the quiet sea-side town of Capernaum and taken on his earthly father’s carpentry business. But he didn’t.

Instead of doing all these things, he chose the path of surrendering to what came before him. He remained true to himself and his path.

Jesus chose the path of love and obedience. Jesus understood that the only way for God to fully embrace the human life and therefore the only way for God to love us, was the path of suffering and death. How did he come to align his will with God’s will? In the garden of Gethsemane, he prayed, “Not my will, but thy will be done.”[4] He prayed this as an affirmation that his deepest desires aligned with God’s purposes. “With you, all things are possible,” he prayed in his hour of anguish.

Indeed, what is God’s will? How do we discern God’s will for our lives? And when we are faced with the right path to follow, are we not also tempted to accommodate, to annihilate or to abandon? Early Christians, even before they were identified as such, were called, “Followers of the Way”, or “People of the Way”.[5] Jesus said, “I am the Way, the truth and the life…”[6]

This is the path of Jesus that we follow – a path that does not accommodate, annihilate nor avoid the reality of situation on the way to new life and resurrection. Life and death, light and dark, suffering and healing – the opposites are not excluded nor denied in the life of discipleship. It’s more both/and, than either/or.

March 25th is a significant date in Christian tradition, did you know? What we realize on the Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday is a liturgical convergence, an integration of meaning in the events of Holy Week, rather than a dissection and deconstruction into separate parts.

Some Christian denominations on March 25 celebrate the Annunciation – the day the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was pregnant with the Holy Spirit – nine months before Christmas Day. It is also the day ancient Christian believed Jesus was crucified. Finally, while now the calendar puts it on March 21, this time was associated with the creation of the world, on the Spring Equinox, the day when the day is divided equally between light and dark.

Creation, Incarnation (Christmas) and Passion (Crucifixion) – all collapse and converge on this day in Christian tradition.[7] The larger purpose of God come together to offer significant meaning on this one day: We recall the separation of day and night in Genesis during creation; the entering of God into the world in the person of Jesus; and, finally, the passion of Jesus brings to concrete and vivid reality the cross as the way to resurrection.

We live as we worship, and worship as we live.

Amidst the collisions of light and dark, hope and despair, love and suffering in our own lives, how do we discern God’s will for our lives? What are we supposed to do? Often when we ask these questions we assume that we have to figure it out. As if God’s will exists somewhere out there, detached or opposed to us, like clues we have to solve and decipher – a problem or mystery.

And yet, Christians have for centuries believed that God’s will was discerned within their  very own lives. Our own desires help reveal God’s desires for us. We look for signs of those desires in our own lives.[8] From ancient days, the Psalmist prayed: “May God grant you your heart’s desire and fulfill your plans.”[9]

Here are some pointers:

  1. Sometimes an obligation is an obligation, and you need to do it in order to be a good and moral person. But be careful your life is not simply one in which you only respond to shoulds or pushes that may not be coming from God. “When you feel pushed to do something – I should do this, I should do that – out of a sense of crushing and lifeless obligation or a desire to please everyone, it may not be coming from God.”[10] God’s ‘pulls’ are gentle invitations that beckon in love – that do not accommodate, annihilate nor abandon the reality you face.
  2. The desires of our heart are not the surface pushes and pulls of wishes and wants, neither are they tied to our compulsive, impulsive selves. The desires of our hearts are discovered deep within us. When getting water from the lake or river into a jar, we need to let all the sediment – twigs, leaves, sand – settle to the bottom. We can’t examine or use it right away. Even just waiting for a few minutes is really not good enough. We have to wait a good day, leaving it alone, still. Then, the water is at its best. Truly, it is the best of ourselves that will reveal our truest and deepest desires.
  3. Finally, the desires of our hearts as the way to discerning God’s will for us, are realized in the most ordinary tasks of the day. What God wills for us is presented in the problems, situations, people and events of our daily lives. God’s will for us is not found in any abstract principle disconnected from the reality of our simple, ordinary lives. If you want to find God’s will and God’s path for your life, start with the realities of your day-to-day, and discover the path of love and attention within the specifics of every moment you face.

Pray for what you desire, as the way of discovering God’s will for your life. Your will and God’s will may very well be closer than you imagined. When we follow in the Way of Christ, we discover that God is Immanuel – God is with us.

 

[1] James Martin, SJ, “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything; A Spirituality for Real Life” (New York: HarperCollins, 2010) p.299.

[2] Matthew 22:15-22; John 2:13-22

[3] John 18:36; Luke 23:39

[4] Mark 14:36

[5] Acts 24:14.

[6] John 14:6

[7] Beth Bevis in Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe, eds., “God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter” (Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2015), p.155-157.

[8] James Martin, SJ, ibid., p.279-283.

[9] Psalms 20:4

[10] James Martin SJ, ibid., p.329.

Checking our Image of God

Do you know “Good Old Uncle George”? (1)

Listen to this description of what happens when a family makes a visit to Uncle George who lives in, and never really leaves, his formidable mansion.

At the end of the brief visit in which the children describe Uncle George as bearded, gruff and threatening, he leans closely, and says in a severe tone of voice, “Now listen, dear. I want to see you here once a week. And if you fail to come, let me just show you what will happen to you.”

He then leads the family down to the mansion’s basement. It is dark, becomes hotter and hotter as they descend, and they begin to hear unearthly screams. In the basement there are steel doors. Uncle George opens one.

“Now look in there, dear,” he says. They see a nightmare vision, an array of blazing furnaces with little demons in attendance, who hurl into the blaze those men, women and children who failed to visit Uncle George or act in a way he approved. “And if you don’t visit me, dear, that is where you will most certainly go,” says Uncle George.

Do you know “Good Old Uncle George?” Sound familiar?

From the bible readings assigned for this season after Epiphany, we are asked to consider again who is this God we are called to follow. Of course, no one image of God is complete. Our perspective is limited, no matter how well we know the bible or how many degrees we may have behind our name. And God is greater and bigger than anything anyone can imagine or say.

Nevertheless, it is fruitful to examine what we think about God. Our image of God influences our own behaviour and what we do “in the name of God”, who is revealed in history, in our experience and in the Scriptures as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Eventually, our actions mirror the God to whom we pray, to whom we relate, whom we imagine. (2)

I would like to highlight briefly three aspects of the character of God, in Jesus, that we can see in the story of Epiphany for today — the baptism of our Lord (Matthew 3:13-17).

First, Jesus moves. He does not sit still for too long. Jesus is baptized ‘on the side of the road’ so to speak. He is baptized nowhere special, not in some officially consecrated, designated holy place — but in the wilderness where John preaches ‘on the edge’ of civilization where crowds have to follow to be there.

In fact, the Jordan River is some 35 kilometres from Jerusalem. For people who walked, this would likely mean at least a two-day journey from the city. So, most of the people who witnessed this divine event and encounter between Jesus and John on the banks of the Jordan River had to travel to get there. Even the high priests and Pharisees, those in power and who held influence in the religious establishment of Jerusalem had to get there.

Who is God? God is more a verb than a noun; God is not static; God is always on the move; we can in this story of Jesus’ baptism appreciate the moving parts of faith. It is important to note to where God goes, and is revealed.

Mobility is a kingdom value. Going some place else away from what is familiar and comfortable is part of exercising a healthy faith. Conversely, staying in one place too long is not healthy for the soul.

Second, in this mobility God relates to us in vulnerability. In worship and praise of God we are accustomed to calling God Almighty. But, at the same time, if we are ‘getting’ Jesus, we ought to be calling God Al-vulnerable.

Jesus relates to us. The divine becomes one of us in moments of vulnerability, especially. The primary symbol of Christianity, the Cross, points to the ultimate, earthly destination of Jesus, and reveals our most vulnerable God. The Cross is a sign that says: God understands us even in death and dying.

What is unique about Matthew’s version of the baptism of our Lord is that it is meant for public witness. Unlike the other Gospel accounts who make this event more of an inward, spiritual experience of Jesus, Matthew portrays the baptism of Jesus as an external event, available to all present.

Also, Jesus submits to baptism not because he needs his sins washed away. Through this act, Jesus was indicating his willingness to yield his life, to surrender his life, in obedience to his Father. Jesus requests baptism by John so that he could completely identify with those he came to save.

Therefore, relationships described by mutual vulnerability is another kingdom value. Being with others in this way, in community, is vital for faith. Prolonged isolation and emotional detachment from others is not healthy for the soul.

Finally, not only is God in motion and in vulnerable relationship with us, God is reaching out to us, immanent and present to our common lives.

Jesus’ father in heaven calls to him, validates and affirms his path. Then, too, Jesus calls his disciples. Jesus does not do it alone. He includes his disciples in his travels, walks in their shoes, involves himself in the common, daily activities, gets his hands dirty — so to speak.

Jesus is the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, he fishes with his disciples, he goes to weddings and drinks wine, he hangs out with all people not just the ‘good ones’.

Jesus does not leave us alone, some distant, transcendent God who does not care about what happens on earth. Jesus will not stop reaching out to us, and will beckon us to follow where he goes. Jesus continues to engage our lives, touching our hearts, our hands and our minds, in the very course of our lives on earth. God will intervene, and pierce our perception, inviting us into a new way of being and doing.

Today, followers of Jesus can consider anew this God who is revealed to us in Jesus. Jesus is the divine-man, who walked everywhere and moved around a lot; Jesus is the God who seeks relationships and models vulnerability and self-surrender; Jesus is the God who will not leave us alone and continues to call out to us to follow in his way.

May God bless the path we journey. Amen.
(1) cited in Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn & Matthew Linn, “Good Goats: Healing our Image of God” (Paulist Press, New York, 1994), p.3
(2) ibid., p. 7ff

Not all wanderers are lost and alone

The pathways through the forest are tricky, these days. With winter and spring battling it out for seasonal supremacy, the snow-melt leaves walking paths uneven and icy. It’s a challenge simply to keep on the path.

I make my way through the Grove with a destination in mind. But the forested parkland is marked with a web-like array of criss-crossing trails of dog-walkers, ski-enthusiasts, snow-shoers and joggers. So I leave it up to the inspiration of the moment to choose which path I take, keeping in mind where I eventually hope to end up.

But there are options. I’m reminded of the Psalmist who doesn’t just talk of one path describing the Lord’s way, but of many: “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness” (Psalm 25:9-10). And so I have some fun deciding which path to take; that is, which one is suited more to my abilities and interest on that day.

In describing the kingdom of God to Nicodemus, Jesus talks of salvation, and being born again (John 3:1-17). In case Nicodemus is tempted to believe life events such as birth and re-birth are something he can direct and control, Jesus talks about the nature of God’s work in the matter: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (v.8). There’s a wild, free, untethered quality integral to the journey of life and faith.

To be sure, some pathways are easier — wide, flat and well-trodden. Others require me to focus more my attention on where I place my feet, lest I trip over an exposed tree root or sink into foot-deep snow. One thing is for sure: It’s very satisfying to discover a new path I never knew was there, a path that gives me a new perspective on the forest, regardless how uneven or narrow it is.

To the casual observer I may appear directionless, lost, wending my way around and through the Grove. Some may wonder what I’m doing in there. Is there not something more productive I should be up to rather than wandering in the forest? Sometimes going to worship, participating in activities of the church, engaging the ministry and mission of God in the community may seem rudderless, unproductive.

This faith journey can appear to some rather cavalier and pointless — a glorified hobby of self-indulgence and of no real consequence: Because Christians like everyone else suffer and experience the difficulties that everyone does. What sets us apart? Why bother?

When the hardships come as they do to us all, the journey of the faithful starts to nudge at something deeper inside us. Deep down, though on the surface it may look otherwise, we know we are not lost in our wandering. We look up, from time to time. When the journey gets difficult, it’s natural and rather tempting to look down all the time, to be constantly turned in on oneself, to see only one’s own problems and disregard altogether the world ‘out there’.

When the journey of life gets difficult, our hearts are nevertheless open and free to accept the gift of faith. This gift of faith declares in our hearts the conviction that: I am not alone, in this dark, dangerous forest of my life. I am not alone.

There is a broad consensus that Psalm 121 was not expressed in the faith life of ancient Israel by individuals, on their own, by themselves. In other words, these words weren’t spoken originally between one person and God. It’s not about ‘me and sweet Jesus’.

It was a song sung responsively as a congregation, an assembly, a caravan, on the road together from Jericho — some 1500 feet below sea level — up to Jerusalem where God’s presence awaited in the temple of the Lord. The structure of the poem suggests a question-answer kind of liturgy between various voices — voices assuring one another of the hope they had on this dangerous road. A hope they would find by lifting their gaze towards their destination.

In this stance to life, individuals would be guarded against falling into the trap of feeling isolated in their suffering. At the same time, the different voices would challenge any potential “misery-finds-company” quality in relationship. Ample differentiation in the community encouraged the paradox of ‘hopeful realism’ on the journey of life; that is, on the one hand not denying the pain of the journey; but, doing so in the conviction that ‘death has not the last word’.

The predominantly old-growth stand of Hemlock trees in the Grove through which I wander contrasts with the white of snow on the ground. Even during the brightest part of the day, this is a relatively dark spot in the forest. And I can’t see where the path leads through the thick, coniferous growth. Nevertheless, I can’t help but occasionally look up, with a smile on my face. The trees reach to the sky, reminding me of the direction of our faith.

When we step out on our journey — whatever that journey is — we can do so with confidence and trust in the One who calls us and sends us out on the path. You may be embarking on a new journey in your life — a journey to change jobs, move to a new home, a journey of exploring a new relationship, or renewing old ones; your journey may be a challenge to live with the reality of increased physical limits, or, dealing with a newly diagnosed illness. You may find yourself at a cross-road in your life. So, what do you do?

At those moments of decision and sometimes despair, think again when you are tempted to feel that you are lost, and that you are alone on this journey. Because you belong to the church — the Body of Christ — to share in prayer and song on this road we travel together. And you know, in faith, the end of the story, the end of the road — which is good.

Some helpful thoughts on the journey of faith come from Charles Foster’s “The Sacred Journey” and  Alan Roxburgh / M.Scott Borden in “Introducing the Missional Church”

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