In the soil again

Putting my hands in the soil is one of Spring’s delights. As the seasons turn again, I’m spending more time in the yard outside and working in the flower garden. The perennials are showing their impressive resiliency, especially after a hard winter. But there are empty patches where the earth is low and the mulch is thin. Time to turn the earth over again and plant some flowers to fill the spaces with annuals.

Every year, it seems, the flower bed needs just a little bit more earth, more fertilizer, more mulch. You can’t leave a garden alone for years and expect it to give itself the needed nutrients that the winter snow and rain leached away. It’s an annual work, a regular commitment of time and resources.

The annual work in the garden makes me think of our growth in the Spirit. Garden work suggests that life requires regular attention. Its discipline mirrors the rhythm of commitment and re-dedication of a spiritual practice. We pray, we read, we serve, we worship in the name of the Lord—not as a one-time/one-off event.

On Sunday, May 26, we celebrate the affirmation of baptism of two, young women in our congregation. Confirmation, however, is not a graduation that communicates ‘we are done’. In the time leading up to the Confirmation—the classes, the meetings, the events, the learning—those on the journey do not learn everything they need to know forever.

Rather, the Confirmation is like a mile-marker on a long journey requiring ‘annual’ attention and care. Learning about God and becoming a faithful disciple is a life-long dedication. Growing like this also means that your garden (your life) may look very different after a few years on the journey than it did when you started (on your Confirmation). That is, your ideas may change over time. Your relationship with God and your understanding of God and the world will develop and evolve—and hopefully expand. You can’t stop attending this garden at your Confirmation, pretending that you don’t need to do anything more, and expect it to do well.

Two years ago, I completed a St. John Ambulance First Aid course in preparation for my Camino pilgrimage. It’s amazing how much one forgets—especially as I haven’t needed to use those skills I first learned two years ago. This Spring, I need to attend, again, to this garden.

What garden work beckons you this season? Is it attending public worship in your house of prayer? Is it some form of community service, or of contemplative prayer? Whatever commitment you seek, it is to deepen, enrich, enliven and renew your connection to the divine presence. This is part of what it means to be human, be alive, and be loving.

I encourage you to pursue a practice, and I look forward to getting our hands ‘in the soil’ again!

You can tell a pilgrim …

Before I took my first steps on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage a couple of years ago, I first had to choose my shell—the symbol for St James the Apostle. Along the roadways and paths of the 800-kilometre trek across the Iberian Peninsula in northern Spain you can tell a pilgrim by the shell they have attached to their backpacks.

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Wearing the shell attracted attention, often very positive. The group with whom I was walking came through a small suburb of the city of Guernica one Sunday morning. When we walked into the town square, we soon realized we were at the finish line of a marathon fundraiser for a local, special needs school.

There, some of the locals had set up large barbecues where they were grilling all sorts of meats for the marathon runners to enjoy after their race. We entered the square moments before the first runners crossed the finish line. But those preparing the barbecue called us over and without even asking our names or who we were offered us some of the delectable meats.

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When we expressed our gratitude, they asked us to say a prayer for them at the destination of our pilgrimage: the shrine in the city of Santiago, Spain—still some 700 kilometres away. I promised them I would.

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As you know, I didn’t make it to Santiago, falling ill to pneumonia and coming home early after only a couple of weeks on the trail. I remember struggling with my ‘failure’ to achieve my spiritual and physical goals. For one thing, I wasn’t able to offer a prayer in Santiago for those good people from Guernica who asked me to.

Was it worth it? Did my truncated pilgrimage do any good? Or, was the love and generosity those locals showed us and our receiving their gifts graciously, enough?

On Ash Wednesday, we begin a journey. And at the beginning of this journey, we are given a mark—not a shell, but the sign of the cross on our foreheads. It is a public act, a public ‘coming out’ if you will. By this mark the world will know we are Christians.

I hope you will wear your mark home tonight, wherever you go and whatever you still have to do—keep it visible. And see what happens. You might be invited into some meaningful, enriching conversations along the way. Some might even ask you to pray for them.

Go into the closet where no one can see you, instructs Jesus.[1]And pray to your Father in heaven who hears you, and will reward you for your faithful act. But even when we think our faith fails us? Or only for its visible success? Or only if we achieve our goals?

Arnold Lobel, author of his children’s book called The Frog and Toad Treasury describes the relationship of two friends and how they pass time together, explore the world together and support one another.

In one chapter, the action takes place in October. The leaves are falling. Frog decides to go to Toad’s house, secretly, and rake his leaves for him. “I will rake all the leaves that have fallen on his lawn. Toad will be surprised,” Frog says.

Now, his friend Toad has the same idea. Both manage to arrive at the home of the other unseen, ascertain that no one is home, rake the leaves, and return to their own houses unnoticed. On their respective ways home, however, a wind comes.

The wind blows and blows. The piles of leaves do too, so that the leaves are scattered everywhere. At the end of the day, neither Frog nor Toad realizes what the other has done, because both return home to leaves strewn across their yards. Both pledge to rake their own leaves the next day. Nevertheless, that night Frog and Toad are both happy when they each turned out the light and went to bed.[2]

What is more important: Our good intentions and motivation? Or, the outcome of our actions. Being authentic matters more than the results of our actions. The Gospel is not about the consequences, good or bad, of our good or bad intentions. The Gospel is not about achieving results and being rewarded for our good work, even with righteous motivation. In the end, the Gospel does not leave us stuck (and perplexed!) in self-centred piety, it points to what God is all about.

Normally when we hear the words of Jesus: “the kingdom of heaven is like …”[3]when someone does so and so, we think of the job we must do to enter that kingdom. And so, we imagine and want to be like that religious person, attending to ritual and prayer and acts of charity and justice our whole life long; the more we can do, the better.

Not that we don’t do anything or don’t keep trying. But we cannot ignore from these words of Jesus what Godis all about. I consider those scriptures about the kingdom of heaven as describing the character of God: A God who treasures each of us. And will stop at nothing to find us. And give up God’s very life on the cross—give up everything—in order to be with us and love us.

God is the one who sells all in order buy the field with the treasure buried in it. God is the merchant who sells everything in order to obtain the pearl of great value. Where God’s treasure is (God’s life, God’s mercy, God’s presence—in us), there God’s heart is also.

This is a fundamental message of Christianity. A message of One who comes into our life even in the messiness and despair of being human. Born a vulnerable baby to poor, teenage parents in a backwater town of Bethlehem. Living the life of a simple man from Nazareth, hanging out with fishers, tax collectors and prostitutes. Dying, even, the very humiliating death of a criminal, for all to see.

The message of Christianity is about a God who ‘sells it all’ in order to be with us, live in us and work in us, for the good.

God does all of this in order to know us, really know us. To love us. To grieve with us. To enjoy with us. To walk with us this often difficult journey that we undertake again this day.

And despite the difficult journey for which Lent is a metaphor, may the world in each step we take on the pilgrimage know we are Christians by our love.

And that’s enough.

 

[1]Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

[2]Cited in Lori Brandt Hale, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Vol 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.23-24.

[3]from his later parables (or stories) describing the reign of God, specifically Matthew 13:44-45.

Impossible Questions: a sermon for Thanksgiving and Confirmation

In observing Jesus’ teaching style in this text (Matthew 6:24-34), indeed throughout the gospels, notice all the questions he asks.

Normally, you would think the student is the only one who asks questions of the teacher, not the other way around. Jesus, the Rabbi, or Teacher, asks questions to reinforce his point. In fact, Jesus is employing a technique he learned from the sages of Israel who came before him.

There are at least two kinds of questions employed by the wisdom writers of the Hebrew scriptures: The first, is the rhetorical type, the one with the obvious answer. The obvious answer is leading to either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

For example, “Can one walk on hot coals without scorching one’s feet?” (Proverbs 6:28); “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?” (Proverbs 8:1)? To answer these questions, you don’t need to study the night before.

Now, Jesus’ teachings include some rhetorical questions, such as: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” (Matthew 7:9); “Is there anyone among you, who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” (Luke 11:11; Matthew 7:10); “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16; Luke 6:44). No brainer, right? Either yes or no.

We have a large three-panelled window at the front of our house. Recently we placed my reading chair beside it so I can enjoy the natural lighting and look outside. Periodically a bird would hit one of the side panels with a loud ‘thump’ and we would jump each time a bird slammed into it, offering a prayer for the poor bird’s well-being.

One day we noticed a good-sized crack making its way from the top corner of the centre panel. And we called in the window-guy. As he was removing the large centre panel window, he asked for my help. It wasn’t easy getting it out of the frame. Even with the vinyl strips removed we needed to do a lot of jimmying to get that frame out.

“This panel was installed too tightly,” he mused. “That may be the cause of the problem. Windows need to have some give, some space to move. Otherwise when something hits it, it’ll break.”

Rhetorical questions are like that window that have no give. Today, rhetorical questions don’t get much traction in meaningful conversation let alone as an effective teaching method. Like the window too tightly installed, there’s no wiggle room. Laced with presumption, rhetorical questions are often used as cheap shots in a fight: “Do you think I was going to say anything in response to that stupid thing you did?” “Duh! Isn’t it obvious you should not have done that?”

Rhetorical questions are also not very helpful in dealing with crises. When someone struggles, asking them rhetorical questions presumes ‘they should know better.’ I remember sitting in a church assembly years ago when the bishop forbade the use of rhetorical questions in the debate we were having.

Given the trouble associated with this style of asking questions, you can breathe a sigh of relief because–maybe you’ve already noticed– rhetorical questioning isn’t the type of question used in today’s text. But, don’t breathe too easily just yet. Because Jesus’ distinctive voice comes through more clearly in his “impossible questions.”[1]

His impossible questions made him a subversive teacher who often undercut the comfortable assumptions of his audience. His teaching and use of questions were more in the style of Ecclesiastes and Job, rather than the sunnier outlook of Proverbs. Some examples of impossible questions we see in Ecclesiastes and Job:

“How can the wise die just like the fools?” (Eccl 2:16); “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” (Eccl 2:22); “Where is the way of the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?” (Job 38:19-20). Not so easy, these questions are, to answer. Even impossible, in light of reality for many people. Nothing neat and tidy about answers to these kinds of questions.

Impossible questions annoy and even anger people. Why? Because they make us scramble for answers and doubt our most basic assumptions. Who likes to do that? It’s easier to be fixed and unyielding with clear-cut proofs and rules. It’s easier to repel the questions with sure-fire answers. If we don’t yield or bend, however, we will crack under the pressure of our own doing and the challenges of life that come to us all.

  • “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:27; Luke 9:25).
  • “What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36; Luke 9:25).
  • “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” (Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:50; Luke 14:34).
  • “If you love those who love you what reward do you have?” (Matthew 5:46; Luke 6:32)

Indeed, Jesus uses sayings that conform to traditional wisdom like the beatitudes and proverbs. But he uses them not to resolve conflicts of life but to heighten them. He uses them not to preserve the status quo, but to push the hearer to questions one’s own values and assumptions.

Not a very popular technique. No wonder the authorities got nervous and eventually did away with Jesus.

Questions are indeed indicators that learning can happen. Of course, just because we ask questions, or questions are asked of us, doesn’t mean we will respond positively to them. Just because we ask questions to which are provided answers, rhetorical or otherwise, doesn’t mean we will take the next step forward, ourselves, with our growth, healing and transformation.

We will likely stumble out of the gate. And continue to stumble on the path of life. And sometimes get stuck in the mud. But just because we can’t fathom how to emerge from the shackles of our own humanity, our own failings, our own weaknesses, doesn’t mean all is lost. Doesn’t mean the journey is not worth taking.

Jesus stirs the pot. And continues to do so. But because he believes in us. Because Jesus believes in our growth, in our transformation. Because Jesus is anchored in his divine self, Jesus is free “to dive into a fully incarnate and diverse world—as it is. He can love this ordinary and broken world … and critique all false absolutes and idolatries at the same time.”[2]

Jesus nudges us and beckons us forward on the journey, refusing to abandon us when we get stuck. He goes ahead on the muddy path. In shine and shower, wind storm and in the calm stretches. And, on the way, can we learn to let go of the false absolutes and idolatries in our lives? Can we release our preoccupation with worry, for example, to hang on too tightly to the emotional securities of material wealth, which seems to be the message of the passage today? But I would extend this to worries about what awaits after  we let go of anything that we have held on too tightly in our lives?

Every time we worship and every time we say the Creed together, we are being confirmed in faith. We have a confirmation every Sunday! And the one being confirmed is YOU!

Yet, as I’ve tried to make clear to the confirmation classes year after year, just because you are saying ‘yes’ today, just because you are saying the words of affirmation of baptism printed on the sheet in your hands, just because you are standing up at the front of the church doesn’t mean:

  • You’ve got it all figured out
  • You have all the answers to all the questions of faith
  • You are finished on this journey of learning
  • You have nothing more to learn
  • You will now never again make any mistakes nor experience any hardship

You keep on keeping on, as they say, not because the church is perfect. Listen, if you haven’t figured that out yet let me emphasize again: the church is not perfect. The church will continue to be full of people who are far from perfect. You stay on the journey NOT because the church or its leaders are perfect and never make mistakes. Your faith and your participation in a life and journey of faith is not validated by the church to which you belong, but by the God who loves you and us despite all our failings.

If anything, what you are doing today is bearing witness to the need to keep on the journey. You are standing with the rest of us, calling for us to stay the course alongside you. By your witness today you are calling the rest of us not to stop asking questions. Not to stop doubting from time to time. Not to stop saying once in while, “Hey, wait a minute. I’m not sure I believe that. What’s that all about?” Not to stop looking up and asking for help from time to time. Not to give up, on the journey.

Your window of faith will last intact a lot longer when there continues to be ‘give’ around the frame of your beliefs.

Jesus suggests to us that knowing all the answers and not making mistakes is not the point of the faithful life. Rather, it is the imperfect yet faithful following on the journey that makes all the difference.

Despite all that is wrong, God is still there.

We stay on the path not because it is easy. But for those moments of grace. We do this for those moments of joy where we notice the pinpricks of light across the dark canvas of our world.

Where forgiveness melts cold hearts.

Where mercy triumphs over condemnation.

Where love embraces the weary traveller.

Thank you, God.

 

[1]Alyce Mckenzie, No Easy Answers: Reflections on Matthew 6:24-34 (patheos.com, February 21, 2011)

[2]Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation,3 October 2018 (www.cac.org/Meditations@cac.org)

The Meditation Journeys

This text represents a draft of a talk I gave at the Essential Teachings Weekend (ETW) for the Canadian Community for Christian Meditation (wccm-canada.ca) in Alexandria, Ontario (September 21-23, 2018). This was the third of three talks, entitled “Stages of the Journey” which complemented the first talk (“The Essential Teaching”), and the second talk (“History of the Tradition”).

STAGES OF THE JOURNEY

The notion of journey, or pilgrimage, originates in the very birth of Christianity. Christ-followers came to be known as “Christian” only after Christianity became the official religion of the empire in the fourth century C.E. But until then they were known as those who followed in the “Way”, implying a path, a road, a journey to be followed.[1]

The notion of motion is integral to those who try to follow Jesus to this day. In the last several decades the pilgrimage has become very popular, especially the Camino de Santiago which attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year. Many who walk the eight-hundred-kilometre journey across the Iberian Peninsula in northern Spain will attest that the journey is a metaphor for the passage of life or traversing some interior path.

Indeed, the exterior journey, such as the Camino, mirrors the internal journey where one explores the contours of the heart and the landscape of the soul. It is a journey that takes time and is fraught with danger. And, at some level, determination, dedication and faithfulness.

Speaking of Spain, it was perhaps the great Spanish mystics of the sixteenth century – Theresa of Avila and St John of the Cross – who first in their writings exemplified the interior and often difficult journeys of faith, such as in ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’. Recently, Richard Rohr describes it best when he asserts that it is through great suffering or great love by which we move along the path towards meaningful change and growth. Crises of faith and challenging circumstances of life are invitations to go deeper into the truth of self and the presence of God.

I want to describe these two journeys to you by using several metaphors—involving water, an hourglass, a wagon wheel and the Exodus story from the Bible describing the desert wanderings of a people. These symbols and images I hope will convey effectively the meaning of these journeys.

When we commit to meditation, we are undertaking what I would summarize as two journeys, operating on a couple of levels.

1.THE FIRST JOURNEY

The first is journey that happens during the time of the meditation.

The Ottawa river at Petawawa Point: the rough & the smooth

I used to live close to Petawawa Point in the Upper Ottawa Valley. Petawawa Point was a lovely spot on the Ottawa River which broadened out into a large lake dotted by several islands. And, I loved to kayak through and around these islands and waterways.

When I first put out onto the river at the beach I was immediately into the main channel lined by the green and red marker buoys, where all the motor boats would roar through. This was the turbulent section of my paddle. I often fought the waves created in the wake of speeding, noisy boats. This part demanded my determination, resolve, and good intention to get past the hurly-burly and through the narrow passage between a couple of islands.

Once through, the water opened up into an area of the river where the large, loud motor boats avoided – only the loons, hawks and sometimes eagles. Here was the more peaceful part of my paddling experience, one that I have treasured to this day.

Meditators have often mentioned to me—and I have experienced this too—that during the first fifteen to twenty minutes they are fighting themselves, their thoughts and distractions. And then something inexplicable happens, and they finally get into some kind of peaceful rhythm with their mantra in the last five minutes! Whether it takes you fifteen minutes, or only a couple of minutes into the meditation, it’s important to keep paddling even when things settle down in your brain.

You see, the temptation once I got through the busy channel into the peaceful expanse of the river was to stop paddling altogether and just float for a while. I would gaze at the birds flying, the clouds in the sky and the distant Laurentian Hills. It was beautiful!

In meditation, this is called the “pernicious peace”, where we just float in some kind of relaxed state our mind really doing nothing and it just feels good and we don’t want to do anything else. I soon realized however I wasn’t doing what I had set out to do. I came to the river to paddle, not to float. And as soon as I dipped my paddle again in the peaceful river, I found my stride, purpose and joy.

When we begin in our meditation, we usually immediately encounter the distractions of the mind. For example, I ruminate over what I am I having for supper, what groceries I need to pick up, what errands I need to run, how will I handle a problem at work or in my family, where am I going on my vacation, the main point of my upcoming sermon, etc.

How do we respond to these distractions? Do we simply float in some sleepy, dream-world, following the course of this stream-of-consciousness? Yes, sometimes we do fall asleep during meditation. It’s good to be relaxed. Yet, we also pay attention and are alert to the experience by remaining faithful to the paddle, so to speak, to the mantra. We focus the mind.

On the underwater rock: dealing with distractions

Another water image, from Thomas Keating, may help us.[2]It is the example of sitting on a large rock on the bottom of the river. Here, deep under the water you watch far above you the boats of various sizes and shapes float by and down the river. These boats represent all our thoughts and distractions. Often, the temptation of our mind is too great, and we push ourselves off the rock—it’s so easy! —and we swim to the surface.

Sometimes, we will even climb into the boats and sail on down the river in these thoughts. In other words, we will let our minds sink into thinking about it for some time in our meditation. Of course, when we do this, we are not saying our mantra, which is the discipline and faithfulness of sitting on that rock down below.

It’s important not to be harsh with yourself on this journey. Give permission for the boats to come by your mind in this river. Then, as you return to the word, you let these distractions keep floating on down the river. Let them go. Return to the place of deep silence, stillness, on the rock deep below.

Despite the incessant distractions of the mind that come to me during my meditation, I continue to ‘return to the Lord’ and my mantra. Someone once said that it is ok to ‘catch yourself’ in a distraction during meditation. In fact, the more often you catch yourself and gently return to the mantra, the better. Why? Because each time you return to the word, it’s one more time you are loving God. Each time I bring my concentration to the saying of the word, I am offering my love to Jesus. Each time I say the word, I am saying, “I love you” to Jesus.

The journey throughout the meditation period may appear simple. We sit quietly and in stillness for twenty minutes not doing anything except saying, interiorly, the mantra. But it is not easy. We confront in this journey the imprinting of our go-go culture and a hyper-active environment upon our egos. We encounter our very humanity in this journey —

A humanity which incessantly strives to accumulate more information and judge progress according to expectations. We already go into it expecting it gets easier over time. We expect benefits to accrue, like lower blood pressure and more patience. And when nothing like this happens after meditating for a few months or years, we give up. This is a spiritual capitalism.

We encounter our very humanity which also craves stimulation and distraction. Already in 1985, Neil Postman wrote a book indicting our culture with the provocative title: “Amusing ourselves to Death”. For most of our daily lives we choose to keep busy or entertain ourselves rather than sit still and face the truth of ourselves. No wonder we are bothered by distraction during meditation.

We encounter our very humanity which finds self-worth in active productivity. We do therefore we are – the mantra of our culture. The more we produce, the more we have to show for in our day, in our vocations, the better we are. So, it just doesn’t make sense from this perspective to be so unproductive by sitting still and doing nothing with ourselves, really. What’s to show for, after twenty minutes of idleness?

And so, we may also, at deeper levels, encounter anxiety, fear and/or anger – which represent our resistance to the journey of our meditation. These normal, human feelings, given now the freedom of space, time and a loosened ego, erupt to the point of a significant disruption.

When I first started on this journey in 2004, I was beset by anxiety, to the point where I felt that I might explode during the silence and the stillness, to the point where I felt I would run screaming from the meditation room. The waves in that channel from the wake of the speeding motor boats threatened to swamp and drown me! I remember how I resisted the letting go, by asking for example that I not sit in the circle but by the wall in a corner of the room. And then, by suggesting we should sit wherever we want to, not necessarily in a circle. Anything to assert my control, even over the meditation period.

Here, depending on the nature of the deep-seeded emotional pain, you may want to encourage those who find meditation times a time of suffering to seek help to deal with whatever is being uncovered—loosened—during meditation. Some have expressed concern that when we open up our inner lives in meditation, the devil/evil will come in. Laurence Freeman, to this question, said: “It is more likely the devil will come out! Negative feelings and the forces of the shadow will get released as repression is lifted. This is quite natural although it’s important to be prepared for the inner turbulence it can create at times.”[3]

This becomes a journey, then, of healing and transformation.

2. THE SECOND JOURNEY

This journey of healing, then, links us to the second journey operating at another yet concurrent level. The second journey we undertake when we meditate connects us with our whole life, indeed life’s journey.

Being a meditator is about slowly but surely learning how to meet life’s greatest moments with grace, acceptance, generosity, courage and faith. Meditating teaches us how to navigate a crisis of faith, a crisis in our relationships, in our work and in our health. It is about forming an attitude toward life in general. Meditating trains us to bea prayer rather than merely say prayers from time to time. This is contemplation: an inner attitude to all of life so that we are indeed praying always, or as Saint Paul puts it, to pray without ceasing.[4]

The dropping stone in water: deeper we go & letting it happen

James Finley talks about a dropping stone in the water, a journey characterized by a deeper simplicity, a deeper solitude and a deeper silence. He describes well this image of a descent.

“Imagine,” he writes, the stone is “falling … And the water in which the stone is falling is bottomless. So, it’s falling forever … And the water in which the stone is falling is falling along an underwater cliff. And there are little protrusions along this cliff and every so often, the stone lands on one of these protrusions; and pauses in its descent. And in the movements of the water, it rolls off and it continues on and on and on and on.

“Now imagine you are that stone; and imagine we’re all falling forever into God. And imagine you momentarily land on a little protrusion where you get to a place and where you say, ‘You know what? I think I’ll stop here and set up shop and get my bearings and settle in. After all, this is deep enough. That’s as far as I need and want to go. It’s comfortable here.’

“And then you fall in love, or your mother dies, or you have terminal cancer, or you’re utterly taken by the look in the eyes of one who suffers. And you are dislodged, by [a great love or great suffering], dislodged from the ability to live on your own terms and from the perception that the point you’ve come to is deep enough for you.

“And so, you continue on your descent, experiencing successive dislodging from anything less than the infinite union and infinite love which calls us deeper.”[5]

Meditating teaches us not to give up on this journey to a deeper contemplation. Some of the comments I have heard from parishioners who came only to one or two sessions of meditation. And then they declare as if for all time: “I don’t like it.” “It’s not for me.”

Meditation is emblematic of staying the course with what is important, of giving what is important a chance and committing to the path, the pilgrimage – even though we fall short time and time again. And as John Brierley mentions in his introduction to his popular guide for pilgrims, “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey, we are spiritual beings on a human journey.”[6]A very human journey. We will encounter and deal with all our inner and outer limitations on this journey. Sometimes we will need to stop because the human path challenges us in ways we must address. Sometimes the human path will keep us from embracing the fullness of the journey in what it offers.

The Exodus: a journey of transformation to liberation that never seems to end

The Exodus, from the bible, is a narrative of a desert wandering that takes a long time, much longer than you would think: If only the Israelites under Moses’ leadership walked a straight line from start to finish!

The journey, however, is much more than you think. After escaping the shackles, confines and suffering of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites are now a free people, or so you would think. Liberation as the goal is however a process that involves transformation. They are free to go to the Promised Land, yes. And yet, their journey in the desert, confronting the fierce landscape of their souls, is rife with resistance and conflict as they take a long and circuitous route towards their liberation.

They complain to Moses. They say they would rather return to the fleshpots of Egypt than eat the Manna from heaven given in the desert. They create distractions and build a golden calf. It’s not an easy journey for them, to get to the Promised Land. It’s not easy, to be free.

Yet, as what happens on the first journey (during a meditation period by returning to our mantra), we return to the Lord our God over and over on the journey of life. We learn over time to trust the journey and stay the course. By being committed to the journey of meditation, we cultivate the spiritual muscle of trust, despite the resistance and conflict we confront within us.

Trusting in God. Trusting in life. Trusting that the trajectory of our pilgrimage is heading in the right direction despite all the bumps in the road. As the small stone on the underwater ledge drops to a deeper level through every crisis and twist and turn of life, we learn to surrender and let go. Richard Rohr, I believe it was, said that all great spirituality is about letting go. Of course, trusting this process involves taking the risk as we ‘fall’ deeper into the mystery of life and God towards an unknown yet hopeful future.

Riverbank: dipping into something bigger

On this journey of life we remain faithful to the path, which winds its way on the banks of a great river. The river is moving. We stay connected to the river, regularly stepping into the waters to say our mantra. We step into the flow of the river. The current is strong. The River is the prayer that continues in our hearts that is Jesus’ prayer to Abba.[7]

When we so dip into the prayer of Christ, which is ongoing, we participate in the living consciousness of Jesus who continues to flow in the trinitarian dance of relationship with God. In meditation, we learn that life is not limited to myprayer or ourprayer. Dipping into the river is stepping into a larger field of consciousness. It is dipping into the very prayer of God in which we participate every time we meditate.

If this journey is not about us, we therefore look to relate to one another, especially those who suffer. We see in the other our common humanity and act in ways that are consistent with the grace that first holds us. In the end, meditation’s journeys lead us beyond ourselves, to others in love, and to God in love.

Meditation, therefore, is essentially a journey in community. It’s a pilgrimage we undertake with others and for others. It’s not a solitary journey. Thus, the importance, at least, of attending/being part of a weekly meditation group.

Contemplation, then, leads to action. The journey of life, like the journey through the time of meditation, embraces paradox. While on the surface seeming opposite and incompatible, contemplation and action are integrated into the whole. Both are essential on the Way.

In truth, following Jesus is embracing paradox. “In order to find your life you must lose it,” he says.[8]Later, Paul announces that strength is found in weakness and the weak have shamed the wise.[9]Of course, the major paradox of the faith centres on the Cross; God is defeated. And in that vulnerability and loss, Christ and Christ-followers discover new life and resurrection.[10]

To do well on the journey of contemplation, on the path of meditation and indeed life, is to accept the ambiguities, the ‘greys’ and the uncertainties of the Way. As any peregrino will tell you on the Camino de Santiago, there is no end to the daily surprises and challenges that meet the faithful pilgrim. If one’s mind is already made up about what to expect and how it should go, disappointment and premature abandonment of the journey is likely to follow.

To do well on the journey corresponds to the capacity you have to hold paradox in your heart. The solution finds itself more in the both/and of a challenge rather than an either/or. Perhaps the faithful pilgrim will have to compromise an initial expectation to walk every step of the way. And, in dealing with an unexpected injury, the pilgrim might need to take the train or bus for part of the journey. In other words, the dualistic mind is the enemy of the contemplative path.

On the spectrum between action and contemplation, where do you find yourself? If you want to become a better meditator and enrich your soul, then seek social justice. Become active in the cause of a better humanity and a better creation. Speaking to a group of social activists and community organizers, I would counsel the opposite: If you want to become a better justice-seeker and advocate, then dedicate more of your time to meditation. Both/And.

The hourglass: flow ever deeper

 The direction of the flow in an hourglass starts at the top in a basin that collects all, then moves downward into a narrowing, finally coming through into an expansive region flowing ever deeper and wider.

The top of the hourglass represents all that our mind grapples with – the squirrel brain. It represents all our efforts, desires and intentions – good and bad – of a furtive, compulsive ego to come to the expressed need for this practice. “I need some quiet in my life.” “I enjoy the silence shared with others.” “I need to slow down.” “I like being by myself.” Admittedly, many introverts are enticed by the prospect of meditation. Although these are the same people who realize, on the path, it is much more than stoking the flames of a rich imagination or escapist tendencies – all ego-driven.

On the path, then, meditation leads us deeper into the heart, at the narrows. This is the place of a pure heart, a singular, aligned heart-mind place—some have called it the still-point.

From this point, the journey then expands as we go deeper and farther into the broad, ever-expansive areas, towards the infinite depths involving others and participating actively with all creation.

The wagon wheel: towards the still point

Teachers of Christian Meditation, such as Laurence Freeman, have used the image of a wagon wheel to describe how different forms of prayer relate. These various ways of praying – body prayer, labyrinth walking, petitionary, sacramental, song, poetry, art – represent the spokes on the wheel. All of them attach to the centre.

At the centre of the wheel is the hub. And when the wheel is in motion, which it must be in order to fulfill its purpose and continue on the road, the one part of the wheel that remains still and sure is the hub. This is the place of meeting, convergence, the point, the centre: the Jesus consciousness. Always in motion yet always still. The still-point. Another paradox of prayer. Action and Contemplation.

If the hub is vibrating and not still while the wheel is in motion, then the wheel is out of balance and there is something wrong. The whole riggings may even fall apart if not attended to! For the wheel to function properly, the hub must remain still even as the wheel is rotating at high speeds.

It is here at the infinite center, time and time again, where our prayers lead. Like the labyrinth whose destination is the centre, it is on the path to this centre where we experience a taste and a foretaste of the feast to come, where we taste the freedom and joy of the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Where we can be free.

Questions for reflection

  1. Which image presented here about the journey of meditation touches you immediately and speaks to you most effectively?
  2. On the spectrum between action and contemplation, in which direction do you naturally lean? What are some ways you can improve the balance in your life?

 

 

[1]Acts 18:25; 19:9; 19:23; 22:4; 24:22

[2]Cited by Cynthia Bourgeault, transcribed from the recording of a live retreat titled, An Introduction to Centering Prayer given in Auckland, New Zealand, in October 2009 (www.contemplative.org)

[3]Fr. Laurence Freeman, A Pearl of Great Price.

[4]1 Thessalonians 5:17

[5]  Adapted from James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 6 (Center for Action and Contemplation, 2013); cited in Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, www.cac.org, April 27,2018

[6]John Brierley, A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago(Camino Guides, 2017)

[7]In the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his death, Jesus addressed God in prayer with this Aramaic word, meaning ‘Dad’.

[8]Matthew 10:39

[9]1 Corinthians 1-2

[10]All four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke & John –  conclude with lengthy passion narratives.

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.

Geometric power: The circle church

The architecture of church buildings, despite Christianity’s institutional decline in the Western world today, continues to draw our attention. For the most part, these are beautiful buildings, appealing to the eye whose symbols etched in paint, glass and images conveyed through colour and the play of light and shadow serve as magnets to the curious and searching among us all.

In one reading assigned for this Sunday from the prophet Amos, God’s judgement on Israel is measured by a plumb line.[1]Construction workers measured the stone blocks to make sure they were squared so the walls of the temple could be built straight up. It was used to make sure the construction of buildings was done properly. The plumb line image conveys the proverbial ‘standard’ to determine how righteous God’s people are. Needless to say, Israel fails miserably, time and time again.

It seems, for folks in the bible, there is always good and bad in the mix. God’s people will never, no matter how hard they try, be pure and perfect in their doing and being. From ancient days to this day, people of faith always miss the mark. Just read Paul.[2]Our vision is often clouded, and we cannot help but make mistakes on the journey.

The stories from the bible assigned for this day reveal characters mired in the shackles of their humanity, good and bad. David rejoices in bringing the ark of the covenant into the holy place of the temple in Jerusalem while others look on with hatred, despising him.[3]Of course, King David was no angel himself, committing murder and adultery while he was king.[4]

Herod Antipas, in the Gospel reading, respected the rogue John the Baptist and liked to hear him speak yet condemned him to a gruesome death in order to protect his own reputation.[5]Wherever you read in the bible, you cannot avoid the sinfulness of even the so-called heroes of the faith.

What we build to the glory of God, the fruits of our labours and expressions of our faith, will also reflect this good/bad reality. The Dean of the now re-named Martin Luther University College [formerly Waterloo Lutheran Seminary], Rev. Dr. Mark Harris, once told me, when he visited me at my former parish at Zion Lutheran Church in Pembroke, that no matter all the changes that happen in the church today — good and bad — architecture always wins out.

What does the architecture of a place of prayer, therefore, communicate? What truths do they reveal about what we value, what is important to the church? How does the architecture ‘win out’?

Recently, I’ve visited other congregations that are housed in beautiful, old church buildings. The first is Merrickville United Church where last month I did a pulpit exchange, you might remember. The second was two months ago when I visited Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington D.C., which hosted some seminars at the Festival of Homiletics.

What is similar about the floors in these churches, keeping in mind [hint!] our discussion of the plumb line? What would Amos say about their construction using his plumb line?

Why did the original construction include a sloped floor? Perhaps its architects wanted to create an easier sight-line for the person in the pew to see clearly the primary furniture of worship located in the chancel — the font, altar and pulpit. The font, where the first sacrament of baptism — of entering the family of God; the altar, where the sacrament of the meal invites us regularly for nourishment on the journey of faith; the pulpit from where we hear God’s word in scripture and voice.

That’s the good from the construction, that we are drawn and can see clearly what is central to our faith: Word and Sacrament. That we can come easily; we don’t have to work hard to earn our way to God. I don’t know how many times in worships services and lectures during my time in and visits to these spaces, we had to stop whatever was going on to wait for a rolling water bottle to make its easy yet loud, clattering roll down to the front.

So, the good: We can pool down into the arms of God’s grace. We are drawn to the love of God’s welcome and forgiveness. And we really don’t need to work hard to be there. We just need to ride the current flowing to God. It is gift. It is grace. It is free. Neither ought we place any barriers to God’s grace being accessible to all, to come forward. To let all, including ourselves, come to God. Amen? All are welcome!

You may have noticed, however, that King David brings the ark of the covenant “up” into the city. Indeed, this is the geography and architecture of the city of David built upon a hill.[6]And the holy of holies is not down below in the valley, but up high by the altar.

The people have to exert some physical energy to get to the place of God’s presence. Even David, in all his rejoicing in bringing the ark to Jerusalem, “danced before the Lord with all his might.”[7]He was working hard! He was putting his all – heart, soul and body – into the effort.

At the unplanned end to my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage last year, I sat in the large nave of the cathedral in Bilbao, Spain, reflecting on the disappointing turn of events. It is a spectacular fifteenth century build.

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As I looked around me in the silent, cavernous space, for a split second I experienced vertigo, not unlike you would in the old slanted room in the Ottawa Science Centre. Something was off.

Then I realized, I’d never before been in a church building whose floor was not sloped downward toward the altar, but upward!

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And what goes up must come down. The floor was slanting outward and downward toward the front doors and down into the city!

The story of David’s extravagant, energy-filled entrance up into the holy city didn’t finish at the holy of holies. Going up was completed by turning around at the apex to come back down. The story ends by David distributing food and gifts to not only his family and friends in the city, but “the whole multitude of Israel.”[8]Everyone is fed!

Worship and centering in God is followed by a necessary, gracious giving and going out into the world. I quote again the prophet Amos, where we started: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”[9]

We don’t have slanted floors here. It’s more or less flat. Amos with his plumb line might be satisfied with the level of the floors. But what else could the architecture of our place of worship tell us about ourselves, our identity and God’s call for us?

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Could it be, sitting in room that is basically round that the obvious measure and geometric symbol is not the straight line, but the circle? And now, with larger windows surrounding us, windows which let more light in, also improve our imagination and connection with the world out there? Could it be, given the architecture of our faith here at Faith, we are now called not only to be drawn into the centre, the hub, of the circle who is Christ, but also be sent out in the centrifugal force of God’s Spirit?

In the last pages of the bible, the Book of Revelation, we read a vision of God’s magnificent future:

God’s future comes as an experience of God’s love, “flowing like a river from God’s throne, nourishing trees with leaves for the healing of the nations.”[10]This vision “pictures a world made whole, with people living in a beloved community, where no one is despised or forgotten, peace reigns, and the goodness of God’s creation is treasured and protected as a gift. Our faith is not a privatized expression of belief which keeps faith in Jesus contained in an individualized bubble and protects us from the world.

“Rather, we are on a spiritual journey in which we remain connected to the centre of the presence of God but whose love yearns to save and transform the world. We are called to be ‘in Christ’, which means we share – always imperfectly, and always in community with others – the call to be the embodiment of God’s love in the world.”[11]

In loving others by including them in the circle, we discover how much we are loved by God. We are the circle church. A porous, ever-expanding circle.

 

[1]Amos 7:7-9

[2]Romans 3:23; Romans 7:15-21

[3]2 Samuel 6:16

[4]2 Samuel 11

[5]Mark 6:14-29

[6]2 Samuel 6:12b

[7]2 Samuel 6:14

[8]2 Samuel 6:18-19

[9]Amos 5:24

[10]Revelation 22:1-2

[11]Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Friday, July 13, 2018 (www.cac.org)

There’s a wild-ness to God’s mercy

“Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths …

All your paths, O Lord, are steadfast, love and faithfulness

To those who hold on to your promise …”

(Psalm 25:4,10)

When I walked fifty kilometers on the sand last summer on Long Beach Peninsula on the coast of the Pacific Ocean in Washington State, I was obviously forging my own path.

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Even though the beach was not busy any time I walked it, it was also obvious to me that many had travelled this route – by foot and vehicle, since cars are allowed to drive portions on this way.

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I couldn’t trust these other paths, however, since I was by myself I had no idea how long the footprints or car tracks had been there. And with the dramatic shift of tides on the beach every twelve-or-so-hours, I could easily lose a path someone else made.

And, you might presume that my 130-kilometer hike on the Camino in Spain  a month earlier would have been harder on my feet. While I did not get one blister in Spain – no problems there whatsoever with my feet – walking on Long Beach Peninsula was brutal by comparison.

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Often, we make assumptions about our faith journeys. We presume things about following the way of Jesus that are, simply, untrue. And only experience can verify. The first myth is that this path is easy – a walk along the Rideau Canal among the tulips on a sunny, quiet Sunday in May.

I’m watching  Mark Burnett’s TV production of “The Bible” this Lent. And I was impressed by the actor playing Moses, who when he parts the Red Sea with water spraying all around in the tumult, mayhem and stress of the moment – when the Egyptian army is bearing down on the Israelites – he calls to them, “Follow Me!”

It’s like an invitation to a roller coaster ride. Or worse! A part of me wants to say, “Thank you. But, no thank you. I’ll take that walk by the canal.”

These short verses from Mark’s Gospel focus on Jesus’ personal experience of change, leading to a simple message to his listeners to follow in his way. And his way leads through disruptive changes in one’s life. True growth is a wild journey, to say the least, to follow the path of Jesus by making our own through the desert of our lives.

Jesus’ baptism by John is something which Jesus experiences by himself. Mark gives no indication whatsoever that Jesus’ baptism is some public event witnessed by many. It is intended for Jesus alone. Jesus is set apart to experience a deeply personal, largely private, and divine event in his life.

“And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”[1]

This personally divine experience is not a pleasant, comforting event for Jesus. The word “torn apart” in Greek is used only at one other time in Mark’s short Gospel – at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, when the curtain in the temple was “torn apart.”[2] When Jesus experiences the blessing and call of his life, it’s not about gentle doves cooing from heaven. God does the ripping apart in both cases.

There’s a wild-ness and a danger in God’s grace. This is a disrupting affair. This is life and death stuff. You can only wonder whether Jesus didn’t see in a moment of churning clouds his own death – the end of the journey he was about to begin.

After Jesus’ baptism, the text takes a rapid shift, as Jesus is “immediately” driven into the desert. Mark does not go into the details of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. He does not reveal what it meant for Jesus to be with the “wild beasts”. His temptations are not described in detail, only that he was tempted by Satan. And, by the end of the time in the desert, the angels waited on him.

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Mark preserves these truths about anyone’s wilderness journeys: It is wild, for sure; and, no one else can make that human journey for us.

As Jesus was privy to his own struggle with the wild beasts, so is it with our journeys in the wilderness. Whenever we go through challenging times and transitions in our lives, whenever we experience the severity of life’s choices and consequences of our misdeeds, whenever we receive the blunt end of life’s punches in the death of loved ones, in the loss of any security, the pain of ill health – these are intensely personal demons we struggle with.

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No one else, really, can fully presume to understand this journey of ours. They are unique to us alone. Our temptations are unique to us as spiritual individuals on a human journey. We need, as individuals, to take ownership of our own wilderness journey.

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Some of you may have been surprised in the Ash Wednesday liturgy this year when I asked you to impose the ashes on your own forehead as I said the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

For those of you who were here last Wednesday, I hope you reflected on the subtle change’s significance. If you are entering this forty-day journey, embracing the path of Jesus in some way, through the desert of your life – however you define your wilderness journey – then you need to own it yourself. No one else can do for you. At the start of this interior and life-changing journey, you will own your own ‘ash’, you will enter the desert of your own heart.

This journey is a journey of repentance. Repentance means, “a change of mind.” This is the original, basic meaning of the word – more than a renewing of the mind as Paul puts it,[3] repentance entails a radical turn around in thinking. This is largely an interior journey, in your mind and heart. “Rend not your garments,” the prophet Joel preached, “Rend your hearts.”[4] Will you go there, this Lent?

Martin Luther defined repentance as a returning to your baptismal waters. Returning to God’s grace, God’s love, God’s unconditional forgiveness and mercy upon your heart.

The Lenten journey can be taken by holding on to the promise of your baptism.  The path we make is only possible by the waters of faith. In the end, the waters of grace, of eternal presence of God, will wash away our delusions and give us sustenance for the journey. If we must forge our own path, we are not alone nonetheless. For, another has gone before us. One who loves us.

In his description of the journey of the Lenten season, American theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, “After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.”

He, then, outlines several questions for Christians to ponder during Lent. Among them:

  1. When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?
  2. If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be – in twenty-five words or less?
  3. Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo?
  4. Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
  5. If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn’t, which side would get your money and why?
  6. Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?
  7. If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?

“To hear yourself try to answer questions like these,” Buechner goes on, “is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all. But if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”[5]

[1] Mark 1:10

[2] Mark 15:38; Stanley P. Saunders in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.47.

[3] Romans 12:2

[4] Joel 2:13

[5] Frederick Buechner, “Wishful Thinking” (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).