Give God a chance

A year ago last summer we bought a potted Hibiscus plant already in full, glorious bloom. The local nursery encouraged us to plant it right away and let it take root in our garden. When winter came, we snipped the stem down to a few inches above the ground.

Last Spring, the sprig showed no signs of life. At all. And it was late June already when I was tempted to pull up the seemingly lifeless root ball from the garden to make room for something else. Visiting the same nursery at the time I complained to them about the Hibiscus plant they sold to us, that obviously did not winter-well. To say the least.

“Don’t pull it up, yet!” they entreated me. “Wait a little longer, for it has been a late Spring. Give it a chance.”

At first, I didn’t believe them. But I left the dead thing alone trying not to think about my disappointment too much. Was I in for a surprise! In early July a tiny, green shoot pushed up the earth around the base. But then, not just one, but two, three and four shoots of new life erupted out of the ground. Seven weeks later, we were enjoying a multitude of magnificent blooms. The plant had more than doubled its growth from last year!

How critical it was for me to heed the gardener at the nursery when she told me “Don’t pull it up!” and “Wait a little longer” and “Give it a chance!”

“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart”[1]

In Jesus’ story, the theme is ‘not giving up.’ Not giving up is what it looks like to pray always. Elsewhere in the bible, Paul, the writer to the early church, instructed the faithful “pray without ceasing”[2]. It’s about being persistent in waiting, in not reacting, in staying the course when it starts feeling like it’s no use any longer to keep going.

“If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”[3]

The prophet was waiting for a vision from God, a word that would give new life to those who were discouraged, defeated and ready to give up on God, on themselves and on the world.

For what do you wait? After what justice do you persist? What is it you seek after that seems elusive, just beyond your grasp? Whatever that is, the scriptures describe an inner quality of the heart that will not give up, that will wait for it, that is patient and true in enduring and persisting.

That sees the present moment as holding value in and of itself.

The goal, the destination, the vision – this may seem to tarry. Perhaps in those impatient moments it’s important again to look around at what is happening. Infant baptism, for one thing, is a visible sign of this challenge and truth.

For an infant does not express knowledge of God in the way we adults do. An infant cannot give us a rational accounting of their faith. They cannot, surely, deserve blessing by pointing to a long list of their good deeds and giving an impassioned testimony.

It confounds us sophisticated grown-ups crazy, as we are influenced so much by a success-mindset culture of instant gratification. The world we live in has little patience for this kind of long-view approach. We’d sooner just give up on someone or something for which we hope. When it seems we are in futility grasping at something not yet.

Here, we are asked to commit to quite the opposite. Infant baptism invites us all to dedicate ourselves to long journey. We are challenged to persist in our waiting for it, not to give up, to have faith and stay the course.

And, in the meantime, walk with the baptized as he grows over time into the person God has created him to be. The flowering will happen, yet quite beyond our claim to control it. The green shoots poking out of the ground are occasion to rejoice. Here is evidence enough for now, for this moment. Those tiny shoots hold the fullness of the gift of faith and life in him.

Dear family and friends of the baptized, and Faith community, I hope you stick with it. This journey of faith, together. Trust in the vision, the promise. And celebrate the wondrous gift of this moment.

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[1]Luke 18:1-8

[2]1 Thessalonians 5:17

[3]Habakkuk 2:3, the first reading from a couple of weeks ago, Pentecost 17C (RCL)

Still snowed in – Lent 5

Even though it’s now less than two weeks till Easter Sunday, our Christmas tableau is still snowed into our front yard.

At least now — surprise! — we can see what’s there, what has been hidden deep under the snow for over three months.

The journey of Lent continues. More and more snow is melting. Much too slowly. The holy family and Christ child are now revealed, bit by bit.

Still not able to free Jesus from the frozen earth, I can recognize the gift hidden deep within a heart frozen in grief, in loss, in suffering.

And what a joy to discover that all along, Christ is there with me, even through the travail of a long winter’s journey in my life.

A meaningful religion

I like how Richard Rohr distinguishes between religion and spirituality. In his short, concise and excellent book “Dancing Standing Still” in which he relates prayer to justice, he writes that religion is for folks who fear hell, while spirituality is for those who have gone (or, are going) through hell.

Religion is for those who fear hell …. whether that be some notion of eternal damnation, financial ruin, making moral mistakes, earthly tragedy and accident … you name it. Basically, religion placates, and enables, fearful living. As if we can somehow avoid all of the above on the journey of life.

Spirituality, on the other hand, is for those who have gone, or are going through, hell. People who have experienced profound suffering — physically, mentally, socially and even religiously. Spirituality is for those who are aware of their own poverty, who have failed time and time again, who know their sin, who struggle honestly in the truth of their brokenness — materially and internally.

Just read the story from Luke 18:9-14 for a good biblical example showing the contrast between the two stances and their implications.

Where today do you find yourself are on the spectrum between religion on the one hand, and spirituality on the other? What do you like most about your religious, or spiritual, practice? What does it do for you?

How can religion (any religion) become more attentive to a growing number of people who are seeking a more meaningful spirituality despite their particular religious background?

Ascension action

As you saw last Sunday, I had my canoe strapped atop my car. I was eager to put paddle in water and explore the waterways around Papineau Lake near the northern border of Algonquin Park, just south of Mattawa.

From Highway 17 at Mattawa, we turned south on a dirt road. The land there still thawing from winter’s grip, the snow-melting runoff left deep potholes and troughs across the narrow roadway. For about fifteen kilometres we traversed the rough and bumpy access road, thankful for the four-wheel drive.

Finally arriving at the end of the road at the shores of Papineau Lake, we still had to portage our gear about half a kilometer through the thick bush to the cabin. I thought to put the canoe in at the water in order to paddle my gear along the shore line and save the heavy climb carrying everything on my back along the trail.

But when I looked out over the lake, this is what I saw all over its surface: Ice.

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Despite the 20-degree Celsius air temperature by midweek, the persistent ice continued to lock out any hope of paddling into the lake. Until the fourth day of our camp-out, the ice prevented us from going to the deepest parts of the lake to fish for the coveted Lake Trout for dinner. We were limited to shoreline casts where a narrow band of water teased us into never-ending hope for a catch.

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After a windy and rainy day late into our stay, we awoke at long last to this glorious sight:

The ice was completely gone. Night and day. Needless to say, I was out on the water in my canoe, crisscrossing the lake and exploring new shorelines. The loons were back. The lake had awakened once more.

In these last few days, the church has recognized the Ascension of our Lord. Some forty days after Easter each year the church recalls when Jesus, after appearing to his disciples following his resurrection, ascends to heaven.[1]

Jesus, here, leaves them for good, so to speak. It is no wonder why the scripture texts in these last few weeks have gone back to parts of the farewell discourses from John’s Gospel, also appointed for reading before Christ’s death.[2]There’s a point to it.

Jesus prepares his disciples for his leave-taking, never easy – a second time, now. Both before his death, and now before his Ascension, Jesus needs to remind and console them – and us – that we are not left alone.

Despite his going away, Christ will come to them no longer in physical form but in the Holy Spirit. God is present now to us in each other– the community, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Why did Jesus leave them? You might wonder: Why should Jesus have ascended to heaven and leave it all in his disciples’ hands? We don’t need to go far into Christian history to see the imperfection (to put it mildly) of Christians throughout the ages.

Jesus was alive and among them. Why couldn’t he just have stuck around – forever? Things would certainly have turned out better, no? Could you imagine how encouraging it would be for his disciples then and now to have Jesus appear from time to time albeit in his resurrected form to guide us, talk to us, lead us, comfort us, in physical form?

All the while the ice remained in the lake, we were confined to the shoreline. We could still fish, to be sure. But the real good catches were waiting for us out in the middle of the lake. For us to do so, we had to get out on the lake ourselves. The ice had to go, first.

If the Ascension didn’t happen, would the disciples ever really believe Jesus’ promise – or have to believe Jesus’ promise – that God lives in them through the Holy Spirit? Would the disciples ever do what Christ commanded them – to go “to the ends of the earth” to be Christ’s witnesses?[3]

If Jesus remained with them, wouldn’t they be tempted to look only to Jesus standing out in the middle of lake – even if there was ice covering it –  and not trust themselves enough to get ‘out there’ to do the job? Wouldn’t they become overly dependent on Jesus for everything and not embrace the gift within them?

“You are my witnesses, even to the ends of the earth,” Jesus says. We need to hear that first word in the sentence: You. Jesus speaks to each one of us here. Each one of us are Christ’s witnesses, now that Jesus is no longer present to us in bodily form.

And, that means, we have to follow through not only with words, but with deeds. When the ice melts, we are called to get ourselves out there into the middle of the lake and start fishing, with the gifts we have.

Over forty years ago, my father flew low over Algonquin Park in a single-prop plane. I was just a baby, and my mother was worried. You see, my father, the pastor of a church in Maynooth, was the passenger squeezed tightly into the small cabin of this plane. It was the pilot’s first solo flight.

The pilot was a member of his parish. Bill, we will call him. For years leading up to this event, my dad counselled Bill who struggled with many personal problems to say the least. Nothing was going right for this guy. At one point in their conversations, my dad asked Bill: “If there was anything you wanted to do, what is it you dream of doing?” Good, pastoral question, no?

Without much hesitation, Bill said he had always wanted to fly a plane. So, my dad encouraged him to get his pilot’s license. Which he did in short order. Again, good pastoral guidance. You’d think my dad’s job was done. Pastor School 101, check.

But when it came time for Bill to fly solo, he naturally asked his own wife to go with him the first time. She flatly refused, which worried my dad a bit. What was it about Bill that she couldn’t trust going into a plane with her husband flying it?

So, Bill came to my father. “Pastor,” he said, “you have been with me through it all. You said words that helped me in my despair. You listened to me when things weren’t going well. You helped me discover my passion. You encouraged me to get my pilot’s license. Now, I’d like you to go with me into the air, for my first solo flight. Would you please come?”

You could imagine why my mother was so worried. With two little baby boys to care for, she feared Bill would crash the plane and she would be left to parent us alone.

But dad went. He might have been justified in finding some excuse not to go with Bill. I think in his wisdom my dad knew, though, that his words had to be followed by actions.

I think in his wisdom, my dad knew that to be a witness to the gospel, it wasn’t merely about believing the right things and saying the right things. It had to be followed up by walking the talk. And this action involved some risk, to be sure, and a whole lot of trust.

May this Ascension Sunday remind us all that the God gives us the gifts we need to take the risk to get out there onto the lake and do the job that is ours, together in and through one another, blessed by God, and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

[1]Luke 24: 44-53

[2]John 17:6-19 (Easter 7B), John 15:9-17 (Easter 6B), John 15:1-8 (Easter 5B) – These texts, part of the ‘farewell discourse’ of Jesus in John’s Gospel, are intended to prepare, encourage and empower his disciples prior to Jesus’ departure. The context of the farewell discourse is Holy Week, especially during the Passover Meal on the night of his betrayal and arrest.

[3]Acts 1:8

Blessed, to trust

Jesus’ words to Thomas are meant for us. Yes, they were first said to Thomas over two thousand years ago in the upper room in Jerusalem days after Jesus’ resurrection. Yes, they were intended to increase his faith in light of his doubting and fear. Yes, the early church and disciples heard these words for them, too.

When Thomas confesses his faith in the risen Lord, Jesus says: “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”[1]They are for us.

Let’s slow down and savour these words. Let’s look at three sections of this short sentence.

First, “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

When do we not see? What are the times in life when God is unrecognizable?

In the face of great suffering or great love,

in the presence of death and dying,

and facing the difficult questions of living such as: Why do children suffer disease, poverty, persecution? Why do people who don’t deserve it, suffer? When the usual, easy answers don’t fit.

When we stand in the presence of a great mystery.

When everything points to everything except what is good.

When all words and ideologies fail.

Then, “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

What are the qualities of these people who have ‘not seen’? These are people …

Who sometimes doubt.

Who are not certain.

Who don’t have all the facts.

Who can’t provide an easy explanation.

Who don’t have proof.

Who have done without.

Who have to trust someone else, and ask for help.

Who have to trust …

“Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

Finally, what does it mean to believe? To believe and to trust, are very similar. The two words appear on the faith cube. You might wonder why the authors of this toy decided to keep the two words separate even though they might, to our minds, mean essentially the same thing.

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And yet, it is worthy to ponder the subtle distinction between the two. Martin Luther understood faith as meaning the addition of the two concepts: Belief + Trust, not as opposing realities but complementing in distinct ways.

Belief is a function mainly of the mind. When we discuss doctrines, creeds. When we debate interpretations of scriptures and statements of faith. To believe is to access the cognitive capacity of our brains. It is, in the lingo of psycho-babble, the left brain analytical side that relishes in rational thought. To believe, in short, is to think through it.

Trust, on the other hand (or, on the other side of the brain), is more intuitive. Trust does not require a full explanation. Trust does not need all the facts and arguments in favor or against. Trust is a function mainly of the heart. Trust lowers the center of intelligence down from the brain to the heart.

Trust is relational. Trust understands our need for the other, to be open to the other, to take risks for and with the other. Trust calls us out of ourselves, to get out of the isolation of all our mental activity – to reach out to the other.

“Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

Jesus affirms for Thomas and the disciples that to follow in the Way of Christ, especially to generations and people like us thousands of years after the fact, that we need to trust others, and trust ourselves. To believe in Jesus, is to believe the witness of generations of Christians before us, to trust their witness, and to walk in the way precisely when easy explanations and scientific proof fall short.

We don’t ‘trust blindly’. That is often the criticism of trust, when it feels like we would be making an irrational decision not based in fact or evidence.

But we are trusting the most capable and the truest part of ourselves when we let go of our cognitive compulsions and let go into the love that sustains the heart.

The opposite of love is not hate. It is fear. “Perfect love casts out fear,” we read from the author of the second reading today[2]. We need to confess that it is fear that keeps us stuck in our heads, and keeps us stuck on the ground. Major decisions in our lives, decisions that changed the course of our lives, decisions that were important to us – were they born out of fear or love? Were they more a movement of the heart or head? Or some combination of both?

A music analogy …

I have been learning a new musical instrument these last couple of years. Classical guitar. Which is different, a little bit, from the acoustic guitar that you often see in churches today, and listen to in popular music.

In comparison, the classical guitar uses nylon strings, which tend to produce a softer, delicate, more harp-like sound. The fingerboard is wider on the classical guitar, and the body – the bell – of the instrument is smaller. When you hold the classical guitar, the curve of the body, which is more pronounced, sits on your left knee (if you are right-handed). And rather than strum chords, you pluck separate notes on the classical guitar. It’s a beautiful-sounding instrument.

But as with learning to play any instrument, and staying with it, there is a progression that needs to happen from the head to the heart. Listen to what Barry Green, renowned double bass player, writes about when teaching another musician how to play vibrato on their instrument. Vibrato is rolling your finger back and forth over your string when playing a note.

“On my Pacific tour,” he writes, “I coached Edith, a bass player from the New Zealand Symphony. She had tried to use her vibrato in a number of different places in a slow, expressive sonata by Vivaldi and couldn’t decide where it ‘worked’ best. None of her experiments quite had the right feel to them.

“I wanted Edith to discover the best places for vibrato by herself, so I asked her to play the piece without making any effort to put in a vibrato. I asked her to imagine that her fingers, not her brain, would tell her what to do, and suggested that she only use vibrato when her fingers ‘screamed at her’ to do so.  Since she would not have decided in advance which notes needed the vibrato, I was confident that her hands would be free to supply it unconsciously.

“Her performance improved immediately: Both her sound and her vibrato were smoother and richer.”[3]

Obviously to gain this level of playing, Edith had to practice and practice and practice. She had to become technically proficient in playing the bass. But to begin to enjoy playing and hearing the sounds you are creating on your instrument, to discover the resiliency of performing and the joy of making music, the usual questions provided by the mind must be eclipsed by the heart.

In other words, the mind will give instructions, constantly critique, and fan the flames of fear and self-consciousness – all of which undermine the making of a beautiful sound. We need the mind’s work, to an extent. But we also need to be able to let go of what the mental activity can get rather compulsive about. We need to grow up, as people of faith.

Albert Einstein, the most eminent scientist of the twentieth century, you would think would defend the prominence of the mind over the heart, the rational over the intuitive. So, this quote from him might surprise you; he said: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Take his phrase, ‘intuitive mind’ to mean the ‘intelligence of the heart’.

Intuition relies on the capacity of trusting: Trusting the love, this capacity and capability within you, trusting the other who is willing to help, assuming the good intentions of others rather than immediately judging them – these are the attributes of one who has maturing faith. Especially, faith in God.

“Blessed are they who have not seen, yet have come to believe.”

 

[1]John 20:29

[2]1 John 4:18

[3]Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey, “The Inner Game of Music: The classical guide to reaching a new level of musical performance,” (New York: Doubleday & Company /Pan Books, 1986), p.113.

Easter: what is life-giving

When Sherlock Holmes and John Watson go tent camping for the first time, the two detectives unexpectedly encounter a ‘mystery.’

They hike deep into the woods all day until they find the ideal place to pitch their tent. They start a roaring campfire, roast marshmallows, tell favorite stories, sing some tunes and as the last embers flicker in the fire pit they pack it in for the night.

In the wee hours before dawn, Watson wakes the snoring Sherlock. “Look, Holmes, look at the billions of stars in the sky! What a glorious sight! Praise to the Creator!” Watson’s eyes remain transfixed on the expanse above them. “What would you say about this wonder, my friend?”

“I would like to know,” Sherlock mumbles, looking around their campsite, “who stole our tent.”

Were Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson victims of a prank, an April Fool’s Day practical joke?

Nevertheless, consistent with their personalities, each chose to notice a different aspect of their reality: Watson immediately taken in by the glorious night sky – probably something both sleuths weren’t accustomed to seeing in their busy, urban lives.

Sherlock, on the other hand, ever the deducing genius, notices what is amiss, and automatically goes into ‘fix it’ mode, seeking solutions to the trickiest, mind-stumping riddles of life.

In their shared situation one beholds life, joy and beauty; the other, the problem, and its attendant logical, calculated explanation. One looks up, the other, down.

What do you notice? And dwell on? Are you looking up? Or, still down?

The joyous, life-giving message of Easter does not deny nor avoid the harsh realities of living. The Christian’s journey on the road of life does not float over the potholes, ignore the accidents, nor glibly get a free pass over the traffic jams.

Yet, Easter declares something greater than all the suffering, pain and death has happened, and continues to happen every moment we dare to notice.

Jesus is alive! Amidst the hardships. Despite the necessary suffering. Jesus is alive! Right in the middle of the mess. Even in our complicated, self-contradicting lives. Despite our mistakes and our failures. The life of God in Christ resides within and all around us. Martin Luther famously said, the sun shines even on all the manure piles in our lives. Sherlock Holmes AND John Watson. Both/And.

The question is, do we now, as Easter people, notice the Life? Do we see, as Watson does – the victim of obvious theft – the stars in the glorious sky? Do we pause amidst the hectic, hurly-burly of life to, actually, smell the roses and give thanks? Can we believe that the Light that has come into the world now shines in the darkness? A darkness that can never overcome the Light?(1)

Can we assert that our hurt has become home for our greatest hope?

The good news of resurrection hope is that we don’t see this alone. The life and light of Christ shines in the Body of the living Christ — the church today. We are here for each other and for the world in order to discover and celebrate the presence of God in and around us.

We are not alone in discovering the gift of Life in us. In truth, the life of Christ resides in each and every one of us, despite the imperfection of the church and this community. When one of us falls, the other lifts up. We don’t have to suffer alone in the misery of alienation, feeling useless, or being crushed by failure. As if we must carry this burden alone, and heroically solve all by ourselves.

Easter means that now, “Faith does not occur in isolation. Despite the rugged individualism of our culture, faith is not just something private between God and me. Rather, faith is, by its very definition, communal.”(2)

God gives life. That’s God’s job. Where is God’s in yours? In the world? Where do you see it? Because, it’s there!

A woman asked her local Lutheran pastor for advice. “Pastor”, she says, “I have a boy who is six months old. And I’m curious to know what he will be when he grows up.”

The Lutheran pastor says, “Place before him three things: A bottle of beer, a looney, and a Bible. If he picks the beer, he’ll be a bartender. If he picks the looney, a business man. And if he picks the Bible, a pastor.” So, the mother thanked him and went home.

The next week she returned. “Well,” said the pastor, “which one did he pick: the beer, the looney, or the Bible?”

She said, “He picked all three!”
“Ah,” said the pastor, “a Lutheran!”(3)

Of course, we can substitute any Christian, here, not just Lutherans. The point is, living in the resurrection of Jesus means our lives reflect, resonate and echo the life of the living God. We rejoice and sing Alleluias for the beauty in life, despite the difficulties, through our human desires, and amidst the realities of life.

Now, we can see the life in the world – its beauty and glory – without denying the real. Even though someone may very well have stolen our proverbial tent, this cannot stop or take away the Life that is in us and all around us. Forever.

May our lives reflect a sense of wonder, trust in one another and in ourselves, and hope for God’s glorious future. Good news, indeed!

 

1 — John 1:5

2 — Stephen R. Montgomery in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.166.

3 — Adapted from James Martin , SJ, “The Jesuit Guide To Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life” (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), p.317.