Perseverance – the Beatitudes in a word

Downstairs in the church kitchen just above the sink, hangs this sign with the words: “Blessed are they who clean up.” An encouragement this is, no doubt, to wash up dirty dishes with soap and place in the cupboards when finished.

But are these words more than encouragement?

Indeed, the Beatitudes which form the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel[1]are often treated as commandments. We read them as rules for living. And rules demonstrate a reality that we have not yet achieved, a desired reality that is beyond our present circumstances. And a reality that we must work towards by following the rules.

Dirty dishes left in the sink is not the desired reality. A clean kitchen is. So, get to work!

Last week, after Jesus called his first disciples, he went throughout Galilee teaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.[2]In these Beatitudes, now, we encounter precisely what constitutes the kingdom of heaven on earth. And it isn’t about following rules.  

For one thing, the bible isn’t a rule book with lists of commandments and directives for living. Its original writers were not products of our 21st century bias towards a rational logic based on a cause-effect, either-or, legalism. For the most part they didn’t write in order to tell people what to do, but rather to describe the kind of relationship we might have with the God of truth and love.

Besides the laws we read, especially in the Hebrew scriptures, we have to acknowledge the Bible contains other forms of writing: For example, there is rich narrative. There are stories and parables. There is history and sermon. In the bible’s pages we also read beautiful, image-rich poetry and incredible visions of the future.

The Beatitudes fall under the latter categories of the poetic variety. These are not expressed as rules; rather, as a vision of God’s faithfulness to the people of God. They describe what faithfulness between God and human looks like.

In order to understand what these Beatitudes mean, I suggest we consider other images—of the poetic variety—that could convey the meaning of the Beatitudes. In this way, we remain true to the original spirit and style of Jesus’ preaching in the introduction to his lengthy sermon on the mount.

Thomas Merton, born 104 years ago yesterday, and whom many consider the father of contemplative Christianity in the modern era, wrote: “Nothing has ever been said about God that hasn’t already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.” Like Merton, let’s use the metaphor of a tree to describe something that is true about our walk with God.

Twentieth Century African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, in his Meditations on the Heart, describes his journey to the tree line near the arctic circle. There he makes a startling discovery about the trees:

“It was above the timber line. The steady march of the forest had stopped as if some invisible barrier had been erected beyond which no trees dared move in a single file. Beyond was barrenness, sheer rocks, snow patches and strong untrammeled winds. Here and there were short tufts of evergreen bushes that had somehow managed to survive despite the severe pressures under which they had to live. They were not lush, they lacked the kind of grace of the vegetation below the timber line, but they were alive and hardy. 

“Upon close investigation, however, it was found that these were not ordinary shrubs. The formation of the needles, etc., was identical with that of the trees further down. As a matter of fact, they looked like branches of the other trees. When one actually examined them, the astounding revelation was that they were  branches.

“For, hugging the ground, following the shape of the terrain, were trees that could not grow upright, following the pattern of their kind. Instead, they were growing as vines grow along the ground, and what seemed to be patches of stunted shrubs were rows of branches of growing, developing trees. What must have been the torturous frustration and the stubborn battle that had finally resulted in this strange phenomenon! 

“It is as if the tree had said, ‘I will not give up. I will use to the full every resource in me and about me to answer life with life. In so doing I shall affirm that this is the kind of universe that sustains, upon demand, the life that is in it.’”[3]

Thurman’s description captures for me the essence, the feel, of what Jesus’ beatitudes represent. And, one very strong feel about these Beatitudes is the quality of perseverance that marks our relationship with God, and God’s relationship with us.

Our life with God is anything but passive. To stay the course with God requires perseverance, dedication and faithfulness. It is not to give up when the going gets tough. It is not to throw in the towel when the stress of living bears down.

“Blessed are you when people revile you…” Walking the path of Christ will invite scorn and judgement from a culture disinclined to Christ-like living. Yet, we are called to persevere on this simple but difficult path.

Whenever I watch footage of hurricanes slamming Caribbean island coast-lines, I am amazed at the resiliency of those palm trees on the beach. Storm surges wash away and erode shorelines. Untrammelled winds assail and play havoc with anything not bolted down and boarded up. Destruction follows the wake of these tempests.

And yet, the palm tree remains. How? Its capacity to be flexible, to bend, even so the branches on its crown may touch the ground. The strongest of these palms, the ones that have encountered and survived many storms over decades, have learned this art of living well: not to be so rigid so as to snap when the storms first hit; not to be so unyielding when the environment changes. To be able to move when necessary. And, therefore, to live.

Why the Beatitudes present such a challenge for us, is because they suggest a different kind of ‘knowing’ when it comes to God and our relationship with Jesus. In truth, we cannot know God. Ever. No matter how hard we try. Regardless of the number of books we’ve read, the number of bible verses we’ve memorized, the arguments we’ve won, even the number of times we’ve ‘gone to church’. While we walk this earthly path, we can only learn how to love God and one another in Christ. 

To know God this way has already given us all that we need for this path: not rules for living but gifts for the journey. Despite all the suffering, pain and challenge we encounter on the path, the grace of God provides a rich blessedness filled with gladness and joy for all we need.


[1]Matthew 5:1-12

[2]Matthew 4:23

[3]Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart (Beacon Press: 1999), 123-124.

Life and love? Not just here

Why do you look for the living among the dead?

He is not here, but has arisen!

Where is Jesus now?

Around 13 million visitors a year flock to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. And that number has been growing in recent years, and will likely continue to grow now. After the fire there this past week, so many worldwide grieved at the seeming passing of this iconic and historical site.

Over a billion people in the last century alone have made a physical contact with that one particular site on the banks of the Seine River in France. Think of it. A significant portion of the world’s human population in modern history.

We are a people attached to certain places. And, then, we associate our identity, our families, our faith, our memories with those places—becoming attached to them. Losing them is akin to losing the meaning associated with that place. Losing them is losing ourselves.

Where is Jesus now? Where do we look for Christ today? In one place, only?

In the ashes of a burned-out sanctuary? At the homestead farm long ago abandoned? At the graveside tomb of a loved one? Only at the seaside, or only in gardens of splendour and glory? In the pages of the bible alone?

Can we even pin it down to one place, now? Can we experience Jesus only under certain conditions, when and where the stars are aligned in perfect order, where we feel God? And only there and then?

It was hard to believe that I would ever get the manger scene—our front-yard Christmas tableau—freed from the frozen ice last January. I joked that Jesus was snowed in with us. It felt like forever. And that it would probably be Easter by the time I would be able to free baby Jesus from the bonds of his snowy tomb.

Well, finally this past week, it was done! Baby Jesus’ resting place for the past half year now shows signs of new life in the ground even as the snow recedes.

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Jesus is no longer bound to a certain place and time in history. Easter has unfurled Christ to the whole world. The power of God’s love has unbound Jesus from a particular point in history and place; and, released the power of that love for all people, in every time and every place.

And, for all of creation.

Christmas and Easter are thus connected through the incarnation, the indwelling, the integration of the divine and material. While Christmas injected the divine into the DNA of humanity, announcing: “God is with us!”; Easter proclaims the universal imprint of God’s purpose through the Spirit of the living Jesus everywhere and in all things! Now, “God is for us!” Easter drives home and expands Christmas’ initial point.

Jesus isn’t in one place: 1stcentury Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee, Jerusalem, Golgotha.  Jesus is in every place, in all times:  2019 Canada. 1789 France. 1519 Wittenberg. 1348 Spain. 1215 England. 476 Rome. And that’s just looking backward … The future, too!

When French president Macron addressed the nation following the burning of Notre Dame, he talked about how the cathedral survived two world wars, about how the cathedral was looted and badly damaged in the French Revolution. And how it always survives. And how it will survive again, and be reconstructed.

Even through suffering, loss and death, the Spirit of hope, love and generosity prevails—throughout history! And sometimes unexpectedly. The love and life will come as a surprise. That is the nature of life.

In the winters of our lives, life will lie hidden and buried under banks of snow and ice. But under and in and within, life is literally waiting to erupt at just the right time, at just the right moment. Now it does. Because that is God’s desire for creation. Life and love.

That is God’s desire for Jacqueline who is this day baptized. That is God’s desire for each one of us. That is God’s desire, now, for everyone. The Easter message encourages each of us to release the loving Christ living in our hearts. The Easter message challenges us to act in ways that show that we aren’t saved until the whole world is saved. Because the wind of Christ’s presence now blows across the whole earth and over every creature, rock, tree and wave without inhibition, without boundary, without limitation. For all.

Today, Jesus is freed from the chains of death. Jesus is alive! Alleluia!

Amen!

The musical performance

“You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells his followers.[1]

What does it mean, ‘to be a witness’ to all that happened around Jesus over two thousand years ago? How can we be a witness to these things with which we haven’t had a direct experience, when we haven’t seen with our own eyes and met with our own bodies the living, Lord Jesus?

The weather this weekend is a joke. There’s no other way of putting it, to my mind. It is the season of baseball not snowball! But sometimes when things don’t go our way, humour can be a good antidote. So, here is a music joke.

Last week I gave an example of a double bass player to illustrate how we need to go from the head to the heart. But we don’t always trust that movement from head to heart because it feels like we are losing control.

Imagine a picture of several double bass players standing at the back of an orchestra playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The bass players are swaying to the majestic sounds and rhythms; their bodies are into it. It is nearing the end of the epic masterpiece, and the caption at the bottom of the comic strip says:

“It’s the bottom of the ninth, and the bassists are loaded.” Hmmm. Maybe too much heart?

How do we live a life of faith that is heart-centred? At same time, how do we deal with our performance anxiety, worried about how people will perceive us when we do our thing, as Christians? We do put a lot of pressure on ourselves to perform to perfection and make a good impression. Unfortunately, this kind of self-talk keeps us from being the best we can be. That’s why, unfortunately, too many musicians have too much to drink prior to a performance.

We need not be too hard on ourselves. Easily 50% of the population make decisions based on fear.[2]The annual “Back to Church” movement creator, Michael Harvey, claims that there is only one socially-accepted sin in the church today: fear.[3]

Yet, none of the Gospel accounts of the risen Jesus condemn the fear. It is to be expected. Jesus meets the disciples, and meets us, where we are even in our uncertainty. Jesus’ initial purpose, after all, is to bring peace. “Peace be with you,” are Jesus’ first words to his disciples after the resurrection.[4]

But Jesus calls us, as he called his disciples, to move beyond our fear, move beyond the fearfully locked doors of our hearts.

The ultimate purpose of the Gospel is not just to allay the fears of Jesus’ followers. It is not to convince us of the miracle of God. In other words, ultimately, who and what we’re about leads us beyond ourselves. The point of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is not the miracle per se, but that it becomes the engine of the proclamation of Jesus Christ to all nations.

Brother Curtis Almquist of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist noted recently that, “Jesus’ resurrection was indeed a miracle; however, Jesus’ resurrection needs to be more than a miracle. It needs to be normal, everyday, how we live and breathe: with resurrection power.”[5]

God’s grace finds expression in flesh and blood – in our bodies. First, as we experience it coming through the Eucharist, the presence of God is made manifest in humanity. And today, in the power of the Holy Spirit, that means, in us and all our brokenness and despite our imperfections.

How can we say this? Because in Jesus’ resurrected body, his scars were still visible. His humanity was still intact – in some mysterious way, in an mysteriously enhanced body to be sure. But the fact that Jesus bodily resurrection is so defended and argued by Paul and Luke and other early Apostles suggests, does it not, the crucial importance of the earthly, human manifestation, and receptivity, of God’s grace and presence.[6]

This is the power of the resurrection. That in the midst of our fear, Jesus comes to stand among us. In the midst of all that is wrong, broken, suffering in our lives, Jesus comes into the locked doors of our hearts and bodies. And then, calls us out.

How do we ‘proclaim’ Christ to all the nations? Again, nothing spectacular, here. Through our ordinary, simple selves, reaching out.

Leonard Bernstein, 20thcentury musician and famous conductor of renowned orchestras around the world – the Berlin Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic – once said: “The only way I have of knowing I’ve done a really remarkable performance is when I lose my ego completely and become the composer. I have the feeling that I’m creating the piece, writing the piece on stage … making it up as I go, along with those hundred people [in the orchestra] who are also making it up with me.”[7]

Working together, like in an orchestra, we are playing the music of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, and in the world. Even though the music was first created a long time ago, we are making it alive and real for us and for the world, today.

We do so, using the gifts and grace and resources given to us from the Composer of the whole experience. We do so, through our own bodies, minds and spirits. At the same time, we let go of our ego, because it is not about us; it is about something much bigger than all of us.

Order of Canada recipient for his work in fostering Christian unity and inter-religious dialogue, Father Laurence Freeman said: “…grace works on nature. The grace of God that enters into human existence doesn’t come from out of space; it comes through nature. That’s why it is very dubious to talk about supernatural things. We are always interested in the supernatural, but what’s much more real and interesting is the real meaning of the natural. It is through nature, through the natural, through our own nature, our own psychology, our own physiology, our mind and body – through our human nature – that grace touches, emerges and transforms us …”[8]

So, it is our ordinary selves through which the grace and purpose of God works. What does this mean? First, it means we have to believe in ourselves. We have to trust that God has given us what we need to do God’s work, to be God’s instruments and vehicles through which God accomplishes God’s purposes.

Then, we need to perform the music, so to speak. And, it doesn’t need to be perfect, complicated or anything spectacular. Just simple, ordinary. We have to start somewhere.

One of our members asked recently a neighbor to describe what happens on and around our property on an average day in the Spring, Summer and Fall. And the neighbor reported that between 2:30 and 3:30pm every week day, about 30 kids on average, children of all ages, walk across our property from the bus stops along Meadowlands to their homes in the City View neighborhood. Thirty.

With presence of mind, our member asked the neighbor: What do they do when they walk across? Is there anything in particular that stands out in their behavior?

The neighbor said many of them like our benches outside the front doors. They like to sit and visit. They like to rest for a few minutes before continuing on their walk home.

When the member and I reflected on this, we realized there aren’t many, if any at all, public places in the neighborhood where people can sit awhile. Not only do we fill a need providing a place to sit, we encourage community-building, relationship-building right outside the doors to the church. How appropriate!

And for so many young people who are turned off the church, or at least afraid to enter into a church building these days, providing benches for children and young people to sit and visit sends a positive if subtle message about our identity and purpose as a church. It also sends a subtle yet real message of welcome.

This example is simple, ordinary, unspectacular. Yet, it is a first step in the right direction. As a community. Not as individuals doing our own thing. But, together, as a church, an orchestra playing together.

And isn’t that what the walk of faith is all about? We can only do what we are able to do, together. And then, when we take the first step, we watch as the Spirit of God can surprise and delight in us. All because we began by simply using what God has given us. Giving from ourselves, for the sake of others, for something larger than all of us.

That is, being faithful witnesses to these things.

[1]Luke 24:48, NRSV.

[2]Richard Rohr & Andreas Ebert, “The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective” (Crossroad, 2001).

[3]Michael Harvey, “Unlocking the Growth: You’ll Be Amazed at your Church’s Potential” (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2012), p.52.

[4]Luke 24:36; John 20:19-21, NRSV.

[5]Brother Curtis Almquist, Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Brother, Give us a Word” on April 10, 2018.

[6]Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church is a testimony both to Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and to our bodies being the imperfect vessels for the transmission of God’s grace and wisdom.

[7]Cited in Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey, “The Inner Game of Music: The Classic Guide to Reaching a New Level of Musical Performance” (New York: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1986), p.95.

[8]Laurence Freeman, OSB, “Finding Oneself 2” transcript (Singapore: Medio Media, 2017), p.29.

Lifting up

Imagine the path slick with rainfall and mud. I took this photo at the end of a beautiful, clear day, on the Camino de Santiago (del Norte). But just as often as there were dry, sunny days on the way, I encountered trails that were treacherous in rain.

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It was at the end of my longest hiking day in northern Spain that I met with such a descent – almost a full kilometre straight down on uneven cobblestone into the coastal town of Deba. The rain had started moments before. And I had just walked thirty-three kilometres in the hilly Basque country, all the way from Orio, near Zarautz.

I was exhausted. My mind was obsessed with getting to the pilgrims’ hostel as soon as possible. I was ready to collapse in a heap on my bed. Negotiating a tricky, slippery path was the last thing on my mind.

I had read and heard from fellow pilgrims these horror stories of unsuspecting pilgrims breaking their ankles on these kinds of descents. It was all too easy to cut short a pilgrimage after such an unfortunate accident. The practiced and seasoned hikers would know that one had to be very mindful of each step made. Even when they were tired. Even when being mindful of placing one foot in front of the other was the last thing they wanted to do.

On the last couple of Sundays we’ve encountered stories from the Gospel of Mark about Jesus’ healing ministry.[1] Indeed, during Ordinary (“green”) time in the church – both during the relatively shorter season after Epiphany in January and early February, and during the longer summer months in the season after Pentecost – the Gospel focus is the ministry of Jesus which includes healing.

In Lutheran circles we tend to look only at his proclamation; that is, we focus on what he said and taught the disciples about the kingdom of God. From this, we emphasize that Christian ministry is primarily about the proclamation of the good news. Mission, then, becomes more about ‘telling’ others about God, thus spreading the Word.

We miss an essential aspect of work-in-the-name-of-Christ with this limited vision of mission. Because, as elsewhere in the Gospels, we find that healing has equal prominence in Jesus’ ministry. Not only do we read about the miracles of Jesus curing disease, but more an inner healing for people battling their demons, so to speak. Healing has just as much to do about a renewed mind, a refreshed heart, a changed spirit. A reconstituted identity.

Healing is emphasized in the Gospel story today. Not just through words. But changed lives. Jesus came not only so that we might ‘believe’ with our minds in the good news, but that we might be healed in our earthen bodies and spirits.

How does this happen? What does Jesus do? From the text given to us today, Jesus’ took the hand of Simon’s mother-in-law, and “lifted her up.”[2] Jesus touches the person, physically. Taking someone by their hand is a sign of accompaniment. God is not remote from our human struggles. God is with us, Emanuel, in the person of Jesus. God takes our hand, and then lifts us up.

Faith can be described as movement. Last week we looked at the movement of ‘leaning into’ what we are afraid of, as a step in the direction of our healing – and finding Jesus is there. This week, the focus on the movement of ‘lifting up’, being ‘lifted up’, by God. As Jesus took the woman by the hand and lifted her up to be healed.

The Psalmist knew intimately this uplifting aspect of faith. “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”[3] Many of the Psalm writer’s verses are called “psalms of ascent” because they were sung on the way ‘up’ to Jerusalem. The ancient pilgrim faithful needed to ‘look up’ as they made their way up the mount to the gates of the holy city. You know the hymn: “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.”

Faith is a ‘look beyond and upwards’ movement. In other words, the life of faith is not characterized by remaining stuck in the valley of our own suffering and misery. A faithful life, of course, does not deny our suffering nor is it pretending or distracting ourselves away from accepting its harsh reality.

Despite life’s imperfections, and struggles, however, to be faithful is to remain focused on others, on the promise of God, and on the hope we have. God takes our hand and is with us, and God sees it all. As Paul wrote, “we only see dimly now”.[4] Because we cannot understand all of life’s complexities, we need to trust in life, trust in good, trust in God’s time, in God’s way, that “all things work together for good for those who love and trust in God.”[5]

We are not just lifted up for our sake alone. We are called to lift others up, especially the downtrodden. Ours is the calling to lift others up – physically, emotionally, spiritually and materially.

We all know people who are ‘the lifters’. In their presence you feel lighter, lifted up. Whether it be their life story, their non-judgemental presence, their desire to show mercy and compassion, their interest in listening to you – they are an inspiration to us. They inspire us by their discipline, their focus in life.

The Gospel message is: We don’t need to be continually burdened by our suffering and narrow focus. We can be lifted up and transformed to be a reflection of God’s light to the world. In being truly ourselves, we can be ‘lifters’ too.

Remember: Resurrection is the end game of our faith. I mean not only of Jesus’ resurrection over two thousand years ago. I mean not only of our resurrection after we die our physical, earthly death. Because of Jesus’ healing ministry, we know that God also wants us to experience ‘resurrections’ in our own lives – on our earthly pilgrimage of living.

We can change, yes. It won’t be easy. It will take work. It will challenge us. We will need to move outside of our comfort zones. We will need to endure our momentary afflictions. On this journey of transformation, it will get harder before it gets easier. The truth will set us free, but it will first make us miserable. This is Christian truth. There is a cost. It is first the Cross of Christ; it is then the empty tomb of Easter.

There’s a woman from Tennessee whose name is Margaret Stevenson. She was in her nineties when I first read about her passion for hiking. You see, Margaret Stevenson used to hike ten or fifteen miles every day. She was a legend in the Smoky Mountains. She knew every trail and every plant and tree by its Latin and colloquial name.

Bill was much younger than Margaret when he hiked with her one day up Mt. LeConte. Now, Mt. LeConte is the third highest mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park peaking at just over 6500 feet.

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Bill’s first trip up Mt. LeConte was Margaret’s seventy-fifth. When she finally stopped hiking she had climbed Mt. LeConte more than 700 times. Her husband rarely went, even before he got cancer.

When Bill and Margaret set out, they came upon what Margaret described as the most unrelenting two-mile ridge in the whole area – two miles up with no break. And this after a hard six miles on a very hot day.

Bill liked to hike in spurts, so he said, “See you later, Margaret,” and took off in his usual fashion and got way ahead of her. At some point, he found himself lying flat on his back in half delirium. A blurred Margaret passed him by at her steady pace. Bill can still hear the click-click of her cane and with no pity at all in her voice, she said, “One more mile to go, Bill. I’ll see you at the top!” And so, she did, arriving well ahead of Bill without stopping once.

Not long after that, Margaret’s husband finally died of cancer. But because of her daily walk with God, their last few hours were spent not in sadness or remorse, but in joy and celebration. For when Margaret says, “I’ll see you at the top!” she means it. For her face is fixed on Christ. Her step is steady and sure. And she knows the meaning of Isaiah’s words:

Even youth’s will faint and be weary,

And the young will fall exhausted;

But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

They shall mount up with wings as eagles,

They shall run and not be weary,

They shall walk and not faint.[6]

[1] Mark 1:21-28, Mark 1:29-39

[2] Mark 1:31

[3] Psalm 121:1-2, NRSV

[4] 1 Corinthians 13:12

[5] Romans 8:28

[6] William J. Carl III in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B, Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.318-319.