The house built by fear

Reading from the bible can be scary. Sometimes a faithful reading of the bible will not bring calm and assurance. Just the opposite!

Today’s scripture can evoke fear.[1]When Jesus talks about Herod’s glorious temple crumbling to the ground and being betrayed by family members, our eyes widen in apprehension and we shift uncomfortably in our seats. Fearful of the future. What will it bring? Is God’s future good or something to fear. We do know, the way there won’t be easy.

From the Gospel, Jesus exposes two false ways in which people of faith try to deal with our fear. By that, I mean, strategies that we have employed for thousands of years in order to combat our fear. While these methods may be effective in allaying our fear, they also serve to block the way we connect with God.

The first such strategy Jesus exposes is our attachment to, and almost exclusive dependence on, what we build. Even, as we say, to the glory of God. These buildings. Glorious, adorned with carvings, intricate stained glass, spires making confident bids to the sky, and arches perfectly rounded and balanced. Architectural master pieces. To say the least.

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The pulpit alone, in Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica, is a wonder to behold. It is a sermon in itself – its spiraling, narrow staircase winding itself up into a small yet regally appointed platform high above the nave.

King Herod, for Christians reading the bible, was a paranoid despot. He killed innocent children was ruthless in defending and protecting his hold on power. Because he was afraid, afraid of losing it.

For historians and archeologists, however, he was a builder par excellence.

King Herod started building his temple in Jerusalem two decades before Jesus was born. During the time of the build he more than doubled the size of the temple mount. The temple proper was completed in eighteen months. But work on the outer courts and decorations continued throughout Jesus’ lifetime and still some thirty years after his death and resurrection. During this impressive season of building the temple, people gathered under the large colonnades and porches to hear speeches and witness healings.[2]

It was a gathering place, a central focal point for people’s identity in faith and source of authority and guidance for life. It was where you went to listen to and engage religious debate. It was where you went to deliberate truth. It was where you made animals sacrifices. Here, you found the rules and regulations and laws for a good life.

Less than a decade after everything was completed on the Herodian temple, it was pretty much destroyed by the Romans in the late first century. Jesus’ words in the Gospel text for today, calling for a day “when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down”, speak to events that were happening in the lives of Jesus’ followers during this time of the destruction of Jerusalem and its glorious, magnificent temple.

In reading this text carefully, however, I realized this is not just about buildings. Jesus isn’t just criticizing those who put all their religious stock in bricks and mortar. Jesus is exposing yet another related strategy for dealing with our fear. Not just in the glory of the buildings, but in the way we speak to one another and relate to one another. Not just in glory. But also in power.

It was, after all, the authorities who made the rules, sold the animals for sacrifice and mediated the people’s connection with God.

At root, the religious authorities persuaded the people that their relationship with God could only be mediated by the authority’s permission. If you didn’t follow the rules and authorities, you were not justified or in right relationship with God. The whole culture, the spiritual climate, surrounding the temple served to choke out freedom of a personal and direct intimacy with God.[4]

The Russian novelist Dostoevsky wrote the dismaying story with the title, “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov. The old cardinal of the church hears that the real Jesus has come suddenly to his town. The cardinal is alarmed that Jesus healed a blind man who had been coming to his church. Then, he hears that the real Jesus who has come to his town raised a young girl from the dead.

When the cardinal confronts Jesus he asks him: “Why, then, have you come to interfere with us?” He wants to rid the town of Jesus, because in his mind what Jesus did long ago is done far better by the church today. In other words, the cardinal has to admit to himself, the church does not need Jesus.[3]The cardinal really couldn’t give up the power he had. Not give it up for anyone. Even Jesus. The cardinal was afraid of losing his job — what it would mean for him and the church …

Seeking glory and defending power seem to be effective ways of dealing with our fear.  We attach ourselves to symbols and expressions of glory in our culture – the tallest buildings, the fastest cars, celebrities, newsworthy leaders and victories on the battle fields of life. This brings comfort, though momentary and fleeting. Because we can never be satisfied operating in this consumer and acquisition-fueled culture. There’s never enough, or it’s not good enough. Ever.

Jesus suggests we must learn a new language. A new way of being, with God and with one another. A way, marked not by successes in the eyes of the world—there were lots of tourists in those houses of worship we visited in Montreal. The world approves. But will we walk a different way – a way marked by love, faithfulness in suffering, and generous giving in the face of poverty, suffering and our fear?

Throughout the Gospels, the religious authorities asked Jesus for a sign of his authority. And, he never satisfied them with his answer. His answers usually appear to disturb their sense of right and wrong.

The truth, when it comes, seems to turn upside down our initial ways of thinking and doing. Here, Jesus says, “For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”[5]

These opponents were neither stupid nor un-educated. In fact they were the most articulate and brilliant of the age. So, there is something altogether different going on here. A different way of being with God. A way not encumbered by discursive thought and debate. A way not intimidated by rules and regulations and conditional statements of belonging. A way not defined by glory-seeking persuasion nor forceful coercion.

The confirmation class the other night reflected on the meaning of the Trinity—God the Father who creates all, God the Son who is with us, God the Spirit who gives us strength. On this poster they cut out images from magazines to place in one of three designated areas on the poster. These images evoked for them the meaning and feeling of what God is up to in the world today, through the various persons of the Trinity.

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In reflecting on the experience of doing this exercise afterwards, we pastors admitted this was rather an abstract exercise. We weren’t just memorizing definitions of the Trinity from the Catechism, difficult enough as that is! But in engaging the confirmands on another level, we began to see more than we thought possible.

We discover that we don’t find God by building glory or defending power — ways we use to avoid confronting our fears of the future. Rather, the good news is that God has already found us. In this world. In our lives. And in a multitude of ways.

Making this link, this connection, is much simpler than all the methods we have devised to combat our fear. We don’t need the tallest and most beautiful buildings to assert God in this world. We don’t need to merit, or qualify for, our relationship with God by building skyscrapers or getting straight A’s in school.  We don’t need degrees and a long pedigree to justify ourselves in faith. We don’t need to arm ourselves with book knowledge in order to defend against some opponent whether a family member or stranger.

All we need is an open heart and a desire to love and trust. Following Jesus is about going directly to intimacy with God in our deepest selves. And God is there, right there, all along.

We can respond, then, not out of fear. But out of the love of Christ for all and in all. Forever.

 

[1]Luke 21:5-19

[2]Acts 3:11; 5:12

[3]Cited in Eberhard Busch, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.310-312

[4]Ray Leonardini, Finding God Within (New York: Lantern Books, 2018), p.93-96

[5]Luke 21:15

God loves us uniquely, not exclusively

Some things Jesus says offend our most sacred held values.

In today’s Gospel Jesus basically turns against family. As one who drove 6000 kilometers this summer in a car with my family and then spent four intense but good days with extended family in Poland, I recoil at these words of Jesus. If we take Jesus’ demand literally, he is telling us outright to ‘hate’ our father, mother, wife and children and give up all our possessions.[1]How’s that for ‘family values’?

We cannot ignore this statement of Jesus, as much as we may want to. When we see the other places Jesus comments on family we begin to notice a theme emerge. Jesus redefines ‘family’ who shares not bloodlines but a common awareness of following Jesus and God’s mission.[2]

How do we pick up our cross and be faithful in following Jesus? How do we deal with this word ‘hate’ which brings up un-gospel-like connotations of division, conflict, anger and even violence?

In a historical fiction by Ken Follet entitled A Column of Fire he describes the early, raw conflict between Protestants and Catholics. Set in 1558, just some forty years after Martin Luther inaugurated the Reformation, Follet portrays through his characters the mindset of religious combatants in England and France.

In small towns where this religious war was waged in families and churches, to be caught with prohibited books from the ‘other side’ meant certain and immediate death. Underground Protestants were indiscriminately persecuted with the full force of the law when outed in Catholic regions. And vice versa. I had forgotten to appreciate the depth of the hatred that existed between coreligionists in the decades following the spread of Protestantism in Europe.

Early in the book we are introduced to Rollo. Rollo hates Protestants who are inflicting his English town. He bemoans the subversive, rule-breaking Protestants who are trying to alter Christian doctrines that had been taught in the old town cathedral unchanged for centuries. “The truth was for eternity,”[3]he pronounces. This truth is like the huge foundation stones of cathedral building which cannot be moved.

Of course, from today’s vantage point five hundred years later, we lay aside these trifling objections. Over the last fifty years especially culminating in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justificationin 1999, Catholics and Protestants together testify to the salvation that is bestowed only in Christ and by grace alone. In that almost incredible agreement, the objections and cause of divisions of the sixteenth century between the Roman Catholic church and reformers were officially removed.

Rollo’s problem was that he equated his interpretation of the truth with the truth itself. He believed his ‘take’ on the truth was the only take to make. And everyone else who didn’t conform to his take was excluded. In other words, his worldview was exclusive. Love of God, grace of God—these were exclusive gifts of God to a select few who conformed.

And damned be the rest.

Today, while the historical differences between Catholics and Protestants melt in the context of a changing cultural reality in the Western world, these troubling tendencies towards conformity, like-mindedness and exclusiveness nevertheless still persist in both Catholic and Lutheran circles worldwide and denominationally.

Think of the eye-glasses we wear. Some, to shield against the sun. Some glasses for short-sightedness, some for far-sightedness. Some glasses are bi-focal. Others are progressive lens. Important questions to ask in any study of scripture or tradition are: What lens do you use—your lens of experience, upbringing, learning, personality, opinion, background—what lens of interpretation do you bring to a reading of holy scripture?

What do you normally see in scripture? What do you first notice? The law? The gospel? Do you regard the bible as a legal book, or a historical book primarily? Or, do you look for promise, hope, forgiveness? Do you presume a punishing God who looks for mistakes and the follies of humanity? Or, do you see a loving God? Why? What are you afraid of? What are you looking for?

These are not easy questions to pose to oneself. But following Jesus is not blind. Obedience in the vision of Jesus is not like flotsam, driftwood, floating hither and yon.

Discipleship is a call to a commitment with focus and intention. Following Jesus calls each of us to a thought-probing, deliberative process in which we grow our ability and confidence to ask of ourselves the tough questions about life and living not only about God but especially of ourselves.

These types of questions are important to get some handle on before you can claim any part of the truth. In short, an honest self-awareness is necessary for healthy relating—whether relating to scripture or to someone else.

In families, relationships and organizations that are healthy, vital and growing, what do you see? I see people who are respected for their unique contribution to the whole. I see people who may be very different from each other and still value their own contribution because they know they are valued by others. Not because they conform. Not because they wear identical eye-glasses of interpretation. Not because someone else tells them what to do. Not because they ‘tow the party line.’ Not because they are like-minded in all things religious.

I know it’s not time to think of snow, yet. But I came across this past week an image of the snowflake. Of all the billions of people on this planet, no two are exactly alike. Even, as I am, an identical twin—I am not exactly like my brother. Of all the snowflakes that fall from the sky, no two are exactly alike.  Not one is a duplicate. Each is unique.

I don’t take the word ‘hate’ in the Gospel reading to mean we have license from God now to say and do violence to those we love most. That would constitute a false interpretation of scripture.

I do take this to mean we cannot, dare not, make any claim on another’s life. We do not own another person. We do not claim ownership and control them emotionally, psychologically, even spiritually. We are not responsible for another person.

Our growth with those we love means we release our claim over their lives, if we’ve ever had one or thought we had. I believe that is what Jesus is getting at here. Parents, even, are advised to remember that their role in raising children is to prepare those children for the world, and then release them to the world. In any relationship, blood-lined or missional—we do not control, own, or claim anything over another person.

And this is not easy with regards to letting go of our emotional attachments. But not claiming anything over another doesn’t mean we cut ourselves off from them, cutting all ties and never seeing them again. Releasing our emotional grip on another doesn’t mean we do not love them anymore. Letting go our claim over their lives doesn’t mean we do not care for them anymore. It just means we are not ultimately in charge of their lives. God is.

This can be a freeing prospect.

In reflecting on the cost of discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The call to discipleship is a gift of grace.”[4]It’s a call to freedom and transformation which is what Jesus nurtures in us: to grow, to move, to change for the better as persons created in the image of God.

And, what is more, when all those unique snowflakes fall to the ground what accumulates is a blanket of snow—that has its recuperative and restorative purpose upon the earth. Unique, yet each contributes to the whole.

God doesn’t love us exclusively. As if we ought to be better than ‘them’. God loves uniquely. Being faithful is not about comparison, competition, being better than someone else. God loves us uniquely not exclusively. That means, our take on the truth is partial. Someone else’s take on the truth is also partial. Each of us in God’s family brings something unique to the whole of the truth.

To follow Jesus is to practice the letting go of the ego’s compulsions, and embrace God’s unconditional love and grace for you. So, following Jesus is not about being perfect, or copying someone else’s ‘saintliness’. It is, quite simply, being authentically you and affirming the stranger, in God’s love for all.

 

[1]Luke 14:25-33

[2]See Luke 12:51-53, 14:12, 18:29-30

[3]Ken Follet, A Column of Fire (New York: Viking Books/Penguin Random House, 2017) p.76.

[4]Cited by Emilie M. Townes in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.48.

From spiritual childhood to adulthood

It was in the 1980s and 1990s when the phrase “kids of all ages” came into vogue. When its usage skyrocketed. People attending circuses, entertainment and other public events would often hear the invitation and address to “kids of all ages!”

It was also during the 1980s and 90s when baby boomers became adults. And when these adults—like no adults before them but all who followed—started acting like children:

Half the buyers of comic books and tickets to superhero movies were adults. The majority of video game consoles, cartridges and discs at the end of the last century were bought by people in their 30s. Video games, originally sold to boys to pretend they were grown up action heroes were soon bought mainly by grown men who wanted to play like kids.[1]

This was the time when it became acceptable for adults to play video games and fantasy sports. This was the time when it became ok for the likes of me to dress like teens, to groom themselves and even get surgery to look thirty years younger. The “kids of all ages” phenomenon has had negative repercussions on men and women alike, especially around issues of self-esteem and body image.

Emotional immaturity, narcissism, co-dependency and not taking responsibility for one’s actions tend to be the psychological effects of the kids-of-all-ages era. And we live with these effects to this day.

You can understand, then, why some contemporary theologians have expressed concern over an uncritical and indiscriminate use of the term, “children of God”[2], which appears prominently in the short text from Romans today.[3]

It is popular in the church to identify with being “a child of God.” We gravitate to images of Jesus rocking children on his knee, telling his disciples that they are to become like children to enter the kingdom of God. At baptisms and confirmations, we remind the candidate and ourselves that each of us is a child of God.

We are held in the arms of God, close to the bosom of Jesus. Yes. Such comforting images can be helpful during times of trial and suffering, for sure. Yes. Our following Jesus and our endurance and resilience in the spiritual does not depend alone on cognitive, intellectual knowledge—usually the purview of adults—but on a simple childlike trust. Yes.

I also agree with Stuart Brown who, in his book, promoted the value of play. That, what might seem like a frivolous or even childish pursuit can be beneficial to our mental health. That, paradoxically, purpose-less, unproductive activity from time to time can make one enormously more productive and invigorated in other aspects of life.[4]These pursuits normally belong to children but are of benefit our whole life long. Yes.

At the same time, when Paul uses the term ‘children of God’ he associates our identity in Christ with anything but childish states of being. He talks about not being enslaved in fear. He talks about living with suffering. These are realities, not fantasies, born of a life lived and experienced and embraced with the good and the bad.

Being a child of God doesn’t give us license to behave childishly. Being a child of God doesn’t give us license to behave irresponsibly, shifting authority and blame for one’s actions to someone else.

Two aspects of being an adult in Christ I want to underscore. First, it is to pay attention to our own desires, not denying them. Paul writes that the Spirit of God speaks to our own spirit. “It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” We have a human spirit. And God speaks through the deep desires and longings of our hearts. Unfortunately, whether we realize it or not, we use the identity of ‘child of God’ to deny our very human needs and desires. When we do so, are we not blocking God’s way of speaking to our hearts?

Saint Irenaeus, second century bishop of Lyons,  France, said that the ‘glory of God is a human being fully alive.’ God speaks through our very humanity. What gives us joy. What causes us pain. What is good and right. Our small ‘s’ spirit within us is the very thing God’s big ‘S’ Spirit connects with. The Psalmist paints an image of how God communicates with creation: “Deep calls to deep”.[5]We are part of, and participate in, the divine equation.

This divine relationship, from deep to deep, needs containment nonetheless. This is the second aspect of being an adult in Christ. Here, we turn to the words of Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopalian Church in America. You might remember his famous sermon he preached at the royal wedding just over a year ago. In it, he talks about fire—the primary symbol of Pentecost—harnessing the incredible power of love.

He said that the harnessing of fire was one of the great scientific and technological discoveries in all of human history.

‘Fire to a great extent made human civilization possible. Fire made it possible to cook food and to provide sanitary ways of eating which reduced the spread of disease in its time.

‘Fire made it possible to heat environments and thereby made human migration around the world a possibility, even into colder climates.Fire made it possible—there was no Bronze Age without fire, no Iron Age without fire, no Industrial Revolution without fire.

‘The advances of fire and technology are greatly dependent on the human ability and capacity to take fire and use it for human good.

‘Anybody get here in a car today? Fire—the controlled, harnessed fire—made that possible.Controlled fire in a plane gets us across this world. Fire makes it possible for us to text and tweet and email and Instagram and Facebook, and socially be dysfunctional with each other’ and act like children!

Fire makes all of that possible. Indeed, fire was one of the greatest discoveries in all of human history. And then Bishop Curry concluded that if humanity ever harnesses the energy of fire again, if humanity ever captures the energy of love—it will be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.

The passion, the spirit, the fire of love coming from within us needs to be contained. For it to have effect it must work within limits. The damage of forest fires and bombs we have witnessed both literally and figuratively throughout history and in our own lives. The passion, the spirit, and the fire of love needs containment. Then when its boundaries are respected, we can discover its true and divine power.

Poet and spiritual writer Anne Lamott says it best in describing the maturing Christian, as we grow from child to adult: “Grace meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.” In the implication there to ‘Grow up!’, we are challenged to continue to learn how to harness the energy, joy and passion of the Spirit within us, to use for the good of all.

The message of God’s love, the sending of the Spirit of God upon the church ever since that day long ago in Jerusalem, grows us into the adults that we are created and loved to be.

 

[1]Kurt Andersen, “Forever Young: Why Are Adults Acting Like Children?” The Saturday Evening Post (June 12, 2018).

[2]“As someone concerned with Christian moral practice, I lament the infantilizing of Christians as children, without the responsibilities of adult members of the household of God,” Jane Lancaster Patterson, Commentary on Romans 8:14-17 in www.workingpreacher.org

[3]Romans 8:14-17; a reading assigned for the Day of Pentecost, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary; in four short verses, Paul uses the term ‘children’ three times.

[4]Stuart M. Brown Jr. & Christopher Vaughan, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (New York: Avery Press, 2009), p.11

[5]Psalm 42:7

To see that we are seen

Because of the devastating flooding in the Ottawa region since Easter weekend, many conversations have turned toward the unprecedented levels of water in the Spring run-off. In 2017, we surpassed the 100-year levels. And just two short years later in 2019 we surpassed even 2017 levels. What’s going on?

When 16-year-old Greta Thunberg began demonstrating last year at the Swedish Parliament about climate change she rapidly gained worldwide attention. Among others, she inspired a whole generation of girls to be politically active.[1]

In Ottawa, the seat of the Canadian federal government, we are never short of political talk. We engage in daily debates over backyard fences, at the hockey rink and in coffee shops about the goings on in and around Parliament Hill.

We’ve heard the story before. This is not new, we say — the issues, the players, the opinions, the debates, the conflict. It’s par for the course.

Even as politics has taken a nasty turn in recent decades. It has become intensely personal. Conversations about politics now start with degrading remarks about the person and their character. Election campaigns have become platforms for disputing a candidate’s moral character. Scandals thrive on mudslinging and disparaging the ‘likeability’ factor of the major players. Never mind the views represented by these political players.

And you know we are sinking into a deeper moral hole when teenagers like Greta Thunberg are bullied by those who don’t share her political views—not with arguments about climate change but because she has autism. Neuro-typical people opposed to her politics have seized upon autistic traits Thunberg exhibits, “such as her ‘monotone voice’ and forthright manner, to liken her to a ‘cult member’ in an attempt to delegitimise her message.”[2]

Yet, we’ve heard the story before, we say. It gets replayed in different times and places by different characters and situations in history, no? Human beings will behave this way. In this day and age especially when information is shared immediately and globally.

It’s not a new story to us. We experience it on a daily basis. We can’t help ourselves. It’s either a joke. Or, we despair. And then we turn away.

For one thing, why can’t we distinguish the person from the issue? Maybe we don’t want to. Why do we so easily walk into the minefield of legitimizing the truth of something based on whether or not we like whomever represents the vision, the values, the policy, the idea? When the medium is the message?

We’ve heard this story before. It’s not new. People haven’t changed. We haven’t changed, we say.

When Jesus appears to his disciples after his resurrection, they don’t recognize him. Mary thinks she sees a gardener at the empty tomb.[3]The disciples at first don’t know it’s Jesus standing on the shoreline calling out to them.[4]Their vision is clouded, myopic.

We’ve heard this story before. I’m not the only one, I am sure, who has experienced not seeing someone while walking in a crowd. You know, you are in the mall going past so many people. Then I happen to be ‘looking’ at someone I know, but I don’t really see them. The only way I do is when they see me and call my name. And then I become aware that I am seen by them. That’s when it changes.

So, if that ever happens between you and me, you could always just say you thought I was my identical twin brother whom you don’t know!

The recognition happens when I see that I have been seen.[5]That’s when relationship starts. When you know you are seen by the other. When Mary, Peter, Thomas, John and all the other witnesses of the resurrection know that they are seen by the resurrected Jesus and recognized for who they are. Then they know and appreciate that they are part of the resurrection story, not distant from it but very much involved in the story we know.

The resurrection of Jesus means that not only have we heard this story before, not only armchair, arm-length critics of the story. But we are participants of it. Ourselves. We see that we have been seen.

We are Greta Thunberg. We are Doug Ford. We are Justin Trudeau. We are Jody Wilson-Raybould. We are Jane Philpott. We are all those people –whomever you first like to scrutinize, criticize, even demean and disparage. Because the person you first point a finger at is really about you, about your woundedness. When we judge another, we need to be aware that this judgement only exposes our own moral disparity. What we judge in the other reveals something in our shadow side, our weakness that we want to hide, suppress and deny for some reason. A part of ourselves that we have not been able to come to terms with and accept.

And yet, despite that dis-arming truth, the resurrected Jesus does not ignore us and walk by us in the crowd. Just as Jesus called out to Mary at the tomb and said her name, “Mary.” Just as Jesus called out to the disciples to let them know that they are seen and recognized by the loving, penetrating, all-knowing gaze of a gracious God – Jesus calls out to you and to me.

The resurrection story from the bible is not just a story we know, or think we know. The resurrection story is not really just a story about believing in the fact of the resurrection. It is believing that someone, starting with Jesus but not ending with Jesus, could be wounded and also resurrected at the same time.[6]

Resurrection is not merely about some perfected, other-worldly state that only few people achieve by their own strength or moral righteousness. That is the story the world believes. Resurrection is not some fanciful state of being, occupied only by Jesus, the Son of God. But because of Jesus’ resurrection, we all now can be seen for who we are. Like Christ we are all ‘little Christs’ (Martin Luther’s term) – wounded and resurrected at the same time. When we see that we are seen by loving eyes looking on us despite the woundedness therein. Despite the scars, the hurts, the ongoing struggles.

There is the hope.

“Put your finger here,” Jesus invites Thomas to touch the wound in his side on his resurrected body.[7]“Come and see,” Jesus invites the first disciples.[8]  “Come, and have breakfast,” Jesus invites his post-resurrected disciples for a meal he offers to them on the lakeshore. Jesus turns to us, in our ordinary, broken, common lives, and sees us. Whether or not we at first see him.

That’s the miracle of Easter — not just a resuscitated body, but that this resurrection body still bears the marks of woundedness at the same time and in the same place!

We are seen, and are invited to follow Jesus. As we are. We need not be intimidated nor held back by our imperfections. Those first disciples bore the woundedness of their own lives: tax collectors (not a good job), fishers (lowest class), even political agitators like Simon the Zealot.[9]These were people on the fringes of mainstream, privileged society. Not perfect by any stretch.

The miracle of the resurrection is not saying that life in Christ is perfect, or should be, or should be for some others. The miracle of the resurrection is saying that new life can be experienced right in the middle of all the dying, suffering, and pain of our own lives. Now, because of the resurrection, we don’t have to wait for ideal circumstances before we can really live. We, too, can discover the grace, the joy and the life of God in us, and in the world around us. Now. And no matter what.

In the coming week, try turning off your cell phone for an hour each day—you determine the time. If you don’t have a cell phone, unplug your landline or turn the ringer off each day for a certain amount of time. Practice not being available to the distractions and expectations of others. Practice this uncomfortable state of not being attached to the latest gossip, the latest market fluctuation, breaking news or a friend’s reaction. Practice not responding right away to a message or text or call.

And, in that discomfort, close your eyes and breath. And remember that God sees you. And that, in the silence and uncomfortable disconnection you are fundamentally and eternally connected.

Perhaps, in that moment, you can see that you are seen by the living Lord.

 

 

[1]‘The Greta effect? Meet the schoolgirl climate warriors’,  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-48114220

[2]https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/25/greta-thunberg-autism-spectrum-critics

[3]John 20:14-15

[4]John 21:4; forming part of the assigned Gospel text for the 3rdSunday of Easter, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary

[5]Laurence Freeman, “Discipleship” (Meditatio Talk Series 2019A, Jan-Mar), Track 1

[6]Richard Rohr, “Jesus’ Resurrection”, Daily Meditation 23 April 2019, http://www.cac.org

[7]John 20:27

[8]John 1:39

[9]Acts 1:13, Luke 6:15

Super-hero busted

With Marvel and DC the biggest box office attractions in recent years, the popular culture exposes our desires and fantasies. These super-heroes are really just projections of our own wants and longings. We put ourselves in these roles, vicariously living out the super-hero life.

What from the super-hero culture inform and influence our real lives, you ask? What does it mean to be a hero, living day-to-day?

Last week, we concluded our Lent book study about our medical culture. When the stakes are high and decisions have to be made about treatment of serious illness, what do we want? How do we respond? In the book aptly entitled, “Being Mortal”, author Atul Gawande writes:

“The pressure remains all in one direction, toward doing more, because the only mistake clinicians seem to fear is doing too little. Most have no appreciation that equally terrible mistakes are possible in the other direction—that doing too much could be no less devastating to a person’s life.”[1]

Being heroic means doing more, not less. More power. More strength. Super-human capacity. Fighting evil means counter punch for punch—just harder, faster. Solving problems means finding more resources, generating more capacity to meet the demands. Doing things better. This is the culture of heroism in our day. We want to be heroes.

Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, is our biblical hero. We like him. We get him. He always wanted to be Jesus’ hero, protecting him from the suffering of which he spoke, jumping into the water not once but twice to be the first of the disciples to get to Jesus.[2]Jesus, at one point, even had to say to Peter: “Get behind me Satan” when Peter said he would not allow the suffering and death of Jesus.[3]

Even in the Passion narrative Peter is still delusional, believing he will follow Jesus, heroically, to the end. “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!”[4]Peter is the consummate hero.

The part from the Passion narrative where he then ‘denies the Lord three times when the rooster crows’ is a turning point for him.[5]And for us.

In the Passion of our Lord, the Cross is the central image and destination. And against the Cross our truth is exposed, and we are caught in the headlights. Our true motivations are squared against the values of the kingdom of God to which Jesus bore witness in his last days and trial.

Normally, I have understood Peter’s denial of Jesus merely as self-preservation. He doesn’t want to expose his vulnerability in that situation. He doesn’t want to be considered a threat, and be arrested himself. He wants to conserve and protect himself. And so he is caught off-guard, and quickly denies his involvement with Jesus.

But what if we saw Peter’s words of denial more as a confession rather than self-seeking, self-preservation? Peter confesses, at the end of the road, that he does not ‘know’ the kingdom of which Jesus speaks. Peter confesses that he is not a true disciple of Jesus.

Even at this end, nevertheless, Jesus knows Peter better than he knows himself. “Today, you will deny me”. Hours later, Peter stares into the flames of the firepit in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, and warms his hands by the fire. Finally, Peter comes to himself in all honesty and vulnerability. “No, I don’t know him. No, I don’t know this Jesus. No, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He is finally telling the truth, in his ‘denial’. Facing this truth is hard, and that is why he goes out and weeps bitterly at the end. Peter’s ideal image of himself—a heroic disciple of the Lord, a super-hero Jesus freak—has come crashing down. He is not the hero he thought he was. He does not have the courage to follow in the way of Jesus to the cross.

When, in the solitude of our confession, we confront ourselves in all honesty—we find ourselves at ground zero, that turning point, that event-horizon towards transformation and healing. Because further down that path of hero worship we cannot go. And, we wonder, seriously question whether we have what it takes to let go, and follow Jesus to the cross of our lives.

It is unknown territory, on the bottom. We do not know it well, if at all. We shy away from it, understandably. We are uncomfortable, here. “In solitude, we encounter our own poverty, incompleteness and brokenness. We see how petty we can be; how possessive and judgmental; how angry, resentful, and mean-spirited; how self-centered in our thoughts and actions. No wonder we are tempted to flee solitude and to lose ourselves in busyness and distractions. It takes courage to plumb the depths of our soul.”[6]

Peter in the high priest’s courtyard finds his bottom in honest confession, not unlike the Prodigal Son wallowing in the mud of the pig pen when he has his moment of reckoning.

It takes courage to come close to Jesus near the Cross. It takes courage to let go of our heroism and our compulsion to do more, to do better. It takes courage to let go being incessantly active and working harder as a way of avoiding ‘plumbing the depths of our soul’.

Are you willing to give up being a hero for Jesus? Are you still a disciple when Jesus leads you this close to the cross?[7]

Perhaps another story from the Passion narratives of the Gospels usually assigned for Holy Week can be helpful. It’s the Gospel text from last week, actually, when Mary lavishly anoints Jesus’ feet.

How does Mary respond to the reality of human limitation and vulnerability? How does she respond to the ‘ground zero’ reality surrounding her and Jesus? Remember, Mary knows what is going on with Jesus. Anointing was reserved for coronations and burials. Jesus qualifies for both. And his end was nigh. How does she deal with that?

In Luke’s version of the anointing story, Jesus tells Mary: “Your sins are forgiven.”[8]Why were her sins forgiven after anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume?

Not only because of her great sorrow, nor because she remembered all her sins, nor even because of any contrition she might have felt for her human weakness. Why then?

Because she loved, and loved much.[9]So, instead of sorrowing over her sinfulness, she gave abundantly and without reservation of her affection and love for Jesus.

Confronting our truth, as scary as that is, is not license to wallow in passive, self-preoccupation. Rather, this degree of self-honesty and confession leads to extravagant acts of mercy and love towards another. At ground zero, we realize that our lives are not ours, but God’s. At ground zero, we realize that we live for something and someone much greater than our individual problems and shortcomings.

The description of what God does, relating to the suffering servant in Isaiah 50:4-9 is important:

The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word …

The Lord God has opened my ear …

The Lord God helps me …

The Lord God helps me.[10]

When truth-telling can lead to acts of profound love for the sake of ‘the weary’, the Lord God helps us.

When our actions, tarnished even by our humanity, focus on love for the vulnerable and weak, the Lord God helps us.

When our limitations are offered to God in acts of love for others, the Lord God helps us.

And we are still the Lord’s disciples. Even Peter, beyond his moment not of denial, but acceptance. Jesus pronounced him ‘the rock’ upon which God builds the church.

And, we know what lies beyond this momentary tribulation. We have Jesus to thank for that. This is the promise of our journeys, rough though they may be.

And, through it all, we are still the Lord’s disciples.

 

[1]Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters at the End(Toronto: Penguin, 2017), p.220

[2]Matthew 14:28-31; John 21:7-19

[3]Matthew 16:23; Mark 8:33

[4]Luke 22:33

[5]Luke 22:24-34,54-62; John 18:15-27

[6]Br. David Vryhof
Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Brother, Give us a Word” 8 April 2019

 

[7]M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor As Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life  (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009),  p.79.

[8]Luke 7:44-48

[9]The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Ira Progoff (Delta Books: 1957), 100-102.

[10]Isaiah 50:4-9 NRSV, reading assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Passion Sunday.

The Prodigal story: Three in One

Most of this sermon today is the work of the Rev. Monika Wiesner who first preached it. A lay member of our congregation, Sharon Wirth, then also preached Monika’s sermon at Faith Ottawa last year. A heart-felt ‘thank you’ to both for this contemplative and grace-filled approach to a popular parable of Jesus.

 Many will regard the turning point of the story as the call to repentance[1], when the rebellious, prodigal son comes to his senses in the sloppy mud of a pig pen.[2]And therefore, according to this interpretation, repentance must be preached and communicated to others who have or are falling away.

You will notice with me, however, that it is not because someone in town or the farmer on whose land he was working told him to repent. When the rebellious younger son comes to the end of his rope and realizes his folly, it’s not because someone guilted him, pressured him, preached him into repentance. The message of changing the Prodigal’s moral direction did not come from outside of him. But from within.

Repentance does not precede grace and mercy. Rather, the other way around: First and foremost, compassion and love changes lives. The experience of the younger son at the end of himself was an inner experience. His changed reality resulted from something that happened within himself. The state of his inner life shifted somehow.

Within himself, the younger brother heard the voice of self-love and acceptance. Not once. But twice in the story. First, in the pig pen he came to self-love within himself. Enough love to stop hurting himself. Then, later, from the father, this Love was reinforced.

Since we see the turning point of this story as primarily a movement of the inner life, imagine then, that this family of three actually lives together within each of us, within our souls.

Within our soul we first have a younger son or daughter that is severely wounded. We might call this our “wounded inner child”.  This is the part of our soul that experiences shame. It is the part of us that feels there is something intrinsically wrong with us.

Within our soul, we also have a critical older sibling. We might call this our superego or our “inner critic”. This is the part of us that actually triggers our shame, telling us where we’ve done wrong, wagging their finger at us in judgement whenever we step out of line.

Finally, there is also within our soul a compassionate parent, the compassionate parent that can heal our shame. We might call this our True Self. We Christians, knowing that God lives within each one of us, might call this our God-Self or even our Sacred Self.

It is the message of Jesus’ Priestly Prayer to his “Father” for his disciples: “As you are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us… I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one…”[3]And again, Jesus said to his followers, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit …”[4]

I invite you to imagine that this family lives within your own soul: the wounded child in you, your inner critic and your compassionate divine parent. All live within you.

In the rest of this sermon, heads up, I will intentionally switch to both male and female pronouns, so that each one of us may connect more personally with the experiences of these three different persons in the story.

How do these three persons relate within us?

When we are born, our soul and God are one. As an infant, we smile when we’re happy and we cry when we’re unhappy.

Then something happens to this unity within our souls. We experience events that we interpret as painful or as trauma. Our primary caregivers may be limited in their ability to parent or they may over-worked and overtired. And they hurt us.

Or maybe we simply need to leave the security of mommy and daddy for the first time and we discover that the world does not revolve around us. We experience hurt and rejection and intense anxiety and fear. Have you ever watched a young child who is being taken away from his/her mother? Do you ever wonder what is happening within that child’s psyche? These separation experiences may be necessary. But they are experienced as wounding.

What’s important for us to note is that these first experiences of woundedness follow us a lifetime. They might be called “holes within our souls”. We experience those first feelings of not being lovable or not being safe or not being of worth. Because our souls and God are one, this is where we feel our first disconnect from God.

Over the years, more holes are created. Our intense feelings of anxiety, powerlessness, depression, anger or jealousy or shame all have their roots in these holes. Whenever you feel these feelings, you are in touch with one of these holes in your soul.

So what do we do? We try to fill these holes by looking outside ourselves. As young children, we learned to please people by doing things that would make them happy and then we felt lovable and safe.  As we grew in years, we became the responsible one, the wise one, the funny one, or the caregiver. We became beautiful or educated or rich. We did whatever the outside world said would make us feel valued.

We did whatever was needed to fill those holes in our soul that were wounded and crying out in pain. We believed the outside world held the answers.

That is exactly what the younger brother did in this parable. He took his inheritance and he spent it on everything the world suggested would soothe his wounded soul. But in the end, nothing worked. One day, he simply came to the end of himself … and he was drowning in shame.

So the prodigal child remembers her home and her parents. However, her shame went so deep that she believed all love was gone from her life. Her parents would never take her back, so she decided she would do whatever it took to earn her place in the household. She needed to earn their love.

But to her amazement, the prodigal child found loving parents waiting for her. When they saw her, they were filled with compassion and ran out to her, put their arms around her and hugged and kissed her. The wounded child began to confess what a failure she was, no longer worthy to be called their child. But her parents would hear none of it.

Instead, this prodigal child found herself in a beautiful robe … with the family ring on her finger … and a huge “Welcome home” banner hanging over the dining room table. A celebration was being prepared in her honour.

This is the compassion for oneself … this is where all healing takes place. This is where we experience the compassionate God … because God and our soul are one.

But there is one other character in the story, namely the older critical brother, our inner critic. Our super-ego. This is the inner critic who can’t accept the “easy” homecoming of the wounded child.

This older sibling doesn’t believe in compassion, does not believe in grace. And so she becomes critical and angry and refuses to participate in the homecoming. She’s the one who says to the wounded inner child, “You don’t deserve this!”

This is the inner voice that holds us back from experiencing the compassion of God within and for ourselves. This is the inner voice that uses those feelings of shame to stop the healing of those holes in our soul. This is the older sibling who sits on the doorstep and sulks, refusing to go to the party.

Oftentimes, Christians confuse that critical inner voice as the voice of God. It is not! It is not. If anything, it is the voice of our primary caregivers at their worst.

One thing is for sure – when we decide to return home, to find healing for all those holes in our soul, our inner critic will become very active and tell us we don’t deserve compassion, acceptance or love and we don’t deserve the healing we so desperately want. The inner critic will pull out all the stops to keep us feeling shame. But just remember, if it isn’t the voice of compassion, it isn’t the voice of God.

And so the wounded child no longer needs to listen to the voice of the inner critic because our soul and God are one and God has already embraced us in love. We need only listen to the compassionate, holy and sacred that lives deep within each one of us. And that sacred God-Self is saying, “I’m preparing a banquet in your honour! Come to the party!”

In this parable do you hear the voice of God embracing you in love? Welcoming you home? Herein lies the nugget of truth that is at the root of all emotional or spiritual healing.

So let the party begin! We’ve all been invited!

 

[1]Meaning: metanoia –a change of mind.

[2]Luke 15:1-3,11b-32, the Gospel for the 4thSunday in Lent, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL)

[3]John 17:21,23 NRSV

[4]John 15:5

The fig tree calls out

Hear today some wisdom from Thich Nhat Hanh:

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet, if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. 

“Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. This is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”

When 21-year-old Sharif Said was gunned down near the Trainyards in Ottawa four years ago, his uncle spoke to the media on behalf of the family.[1]What surprised me in his testimony was how he defended not only his nephew, around whom rumours swirled that he was involved in a gang.

But then he defended those arrested for his nephew’s murder. He said that they were also victims. Khalid Mohammad and Abdulaziz Abdullah, both in their twenties and arrested for Said’s murder, were victims themselves of a “senseless violence”, the uncle said. As a result they could not value life as “precious”.

A subtle twist in the tone of the message changes the direction of the conversation about these things. Making sense of any criminal act, to begin with, can leave us confused and hopeless. And we desperately seek to be on the right side of ‘right and wrong’. We do that most effectively by assigning blame.

Then, you throw into the mix a statement coming from ‘the victim’ that offers sympathy to the perpetrators, a word that levels the moral playing field, we don’t know what to do with that.

Are we all, each and every one of us, part of a culture that creates these problems? Do we all participate on both sides—all sides—of the moral equation? Isn’t that too confusing and wishy-washy? Forgiveness, and mercy, wreak havoc on any common-sense pursuit for laying blame. An act of kindness and forbearance in the midst of senseless tragedy takes the wind out of retribution.

Admittedly, we may feel more at home with the way the ancient prophets used the image of a barren fig tree.[2]One way we tend to lean is towards despair. The prophet Micah feels lonely and depressed in the face of scarcity and evil:

‘Woe is me! For I have become like one who, after the summer fruit has been gathered,      after the vintage has been gleaned, finds no cluster to eat; there is no first-ripe fig for which I hunger.’

Or, we lean towards vengeance. You can hear it in Isaiah’s tone when he speaks of his ‘beloved’ vineyard. Despite all his hard work to create conditions for abundant growth it yielded only wild, undesirable, grapes:

‘And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down …’

Indeed aren’t these the usual go-to’s when bad things happen to good people—we either slip into despair or shake our fists in anger against someone or something we blame?

When an Ethiopian airliner filled with people crashes and all are killed including eighteen Canadians onboard. When Galileans are slaughtered in cold blood by the hand of Pilate and the Tower of Siloam falls and kills innocent pilgrims at the pool of healing.[3]When randomly, bad things happen, and we can’t really make sense of it. Well, we try.

Do you despair? Or do you get angry and try to find who or what to blame? The people in the Gospel text today tried to get Jesus in on their blame-game and despair-mongering ways.

And Jesus comes back to the ancient, scriptural image of the fig tree again. When he first mentions the fig tree, the crowd must have gotten really excited. Because they knew where this story was going, knowing their prophets Micah and Isaiah: Despair. Vengeance. The lead-up sounds good.

But Jesus pulls the rug out from underneath their expectations. The twist Jesus offers to the familiar image of the barren fig tree is his emphasis on forbearance and mercy. Staving off a swift impulse to cut the tree down after three years of neglect and barrenness, the vineyard’s stewards will give the fig tree yet another year’s chance to bear fruit. The fig tree is given yet another second chance. The hope is that the fig tree will be rehabilitated.

It is important to note, moreover, that in the parable it is the gardener who allows for the possibility of fruitfulness. Not the fig tree. It can’t do anything, by itself. It is stuck in a cycle of barrenness (aka poverty, violence). First, the gardener has to plead his case, be the tree’s advocate, to the owner of the field. Then, the gardener has to do the work. By constant care, digging around the roots and applying manure, the gardener employs all the gifts and resources at their disposal to allow for a positive outcome.[4]

The fig tree calls to us. Who or what does the fig tree represent in our lives? Now, parables are not meant to be taken literally, so we can rule out any divine gardening tips here. This parable won’t appear in a google search for ‘how to grow a fig tree’.

Who is the barren fig tree in your life?

When and where do you sense in your life or another’s, a feeling of being at wit’s end? When all resources have been explored and used up. When a group of people or individual cannot to do it on their own any longer. When someone is stuck in cycles of behaviour that they cannot see the way out, by themselves. When a call for help is evident by a lack of fruitfulness in their lives.

You will notice that this parable comes to a rather abrupt end. The narrative is not neatly tied up into a certain, ‘happy’ ending. We just don’t know whether the fig tree will produce after all this advocacy and gardening work is done. You could say, it’s up to us to write the ending to this story. Will it be judgement? Or, salvation?

Every time we worship together, though, we pray not ‘mykingdom come’, not ‘our kingdom come’, but ‘Thy kingdom come’. Jesus tells a parable about a gardener determined to tend a fruitless fig tree because he is open to a future possibility that he does not control.

Our task, as American Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry says it best, “is to labor, without having all the answers, to acknowledge the deep mystery of it all. The task of the disciple is to witness and then wait, to take our best step and leave the rest to God. We labor now for a future we are not meant to control.”[5]

When forgiveness and mercy dictate public discourse in the media and in response to horrific, tragic and painful events around the world and in our lives, we may not be able to explain it easily. But maybe that’s not our job.

Maybe our job is to seek understanding in the other, and thereby show our love. Maybe our job in the church and as Christians is to speak and work for God’s values for the sake of others amidst pain and suffering.

And in hope and trust, let God write the end of the story.

 

[1]cbc.ca, posted May 7, 2015

[2]Micah 7:1; Isaiah 5:1-7

[3]Luke 13:1-9, Gospel for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[4]Daniel G. Deffenbaugh in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.96.

[5]Michael B. Curry in Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.95-97.

With us, snowed-in

I wasn’t able to remove the Christmas manger scene from our front yard in time, before the snowstorms left everything buried. As we’ve approached Lent, the joke in our household is that Jesus, like us, is snowed-in.

IMG_8042

It likely won’t be until late April now when I will be able to remove the tableau from the frozen earth and its snowy cover. When will Jesus be set free from the tomblike confines of winter’s grip?

When exactly, no one knows. Meteorologists are calling for a cooler-than-normal late April /early May. It might be a while.

The Jesus story, for us, begins in winter around the winter solstice on Christmas Day. We begin again our Lenten pilgrimage in the throes of winter, when snow and ice cover everything. When will the sky brighten and warmer temperatures heat the ground again? When does the journey end?

The poet, Mary Oliver, who died in January of this year, wrote primarily about winter. In several pieces she twins snow with wisdom, the capacity to live with questions in silence, surrendering to its beauty. “I love this world,” she wrote, “but not for its answers.”[1]

I’ve considered Christianity to be a winter faith. We, as people of faith, live with many questions that are largely unanswerable. Why do we still live in a world beset by injustice, intolerance, hatred—despite all good effort in the name of Jesus to the contrary? Why death and disease? When will we find the answers to our deepest questions? Why? Why? Why? Winter is a time for questions.

And so, we continue to search, wander, and wonder with Jesus snowed-in, by our side.

But, is Jesus in over his head?

The temptation of Jesus—as this story is famously called—happens near the beginning of his divine calling and ministry.[2]He goes into the wilderness, the desert, for forty days. He goes into a place of harsh simplicity, stripped of all creaturely comforts, to serve a holy purpose.

We wonder, will he survive the challenge?

Given his life purpose on earth, he meets with what could be his greatest vulnerability—the seduction of power and its forceful implications. The man who is the Son of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Almighty and Everlasting, the man whom people would look to for guidance and leadership, the man who many would lift onto a pedestal—would Jesus succumb to everyone’s expectation?

Would Jesus yield to the temptation that he, the Messiah, will now lead the revolt to free the suppressed and oppressed Judeans out from Roman occupation? Would he be the political rallying point around which the crowds would mobilize and generate an effective, political movement?

And, in fact, the evil one touches on this potential weakness. Notice in different ways each of the three temptations seduce Jesus to grab hold of power that would make him this kind of King: One who satisfies his every appetite and hunger using whatever means at his disposal; one who creates God in one’s own image by forcing God’s hands, one who offers blind obedience to those still ‘above’ them while climbing the ladder of ‘success’.

But that’s not what Jesus was going to be about. We know that. In order to embrace his true identity, what happens?

Jesus is first led by the Spirit into this vulnerable place, not away from it. He was to first meet this human, shadow side.

The point of Lenten discipline, whatever it may be for you, is to be led into that shadow place in our own lives that we, on our own, don’t want and even can’t go. The Spirit leads us to face that which we normally distract ourselves from, where we normally deny, avoid. What is that vulnerability for you?

What does the light and Spirit reveal in the dark corners of your life? Is it a fear? Is it a conversation you know needs to happen? Is it confronting a situation you have been trying to avoid? Is it coming to terms with what is really going on deep down in your heart?

How does Jesus respond to his temptation? How does he return to his identity in God?

The scriptural quotations he cites are signs of his true identity—his ‘touchstone’, if you will. The scriptures point to his true self. By citing the scripture, he reminds himself, he aligns himself, he allies himself, with what grounds him in who he is. By citing scripture he relies not on his own humanity and resources of his own making, but rather on God.

This text provides rich support for our own journeys of Lent. As we wander into the wilderness of our lives and continue to trudge through the snow wary of still slipping on the ice, as we wonder with our questions, we meet our own shadow sides. And are called to stay rooted in who and whose we are.

And what is your touchstone for remembering your identity in Christ? Is it scripture? Is it the bread and cup of the sacrament? Is it a song? Is it an act of repeated service for another? Is it a prayer?

In her poems about winter Madeleine L’Engle writes a word of hope for the journey:

“Snow does not obscure the shape of things. It outlines them, like an icy highlighter, revealing the deep structure of the world. We walk through the woods, seeing differently, and, when we glimpse the hidden structure, we ask questions even as we experience its stark beauty.”[3]

Writer-theologian, Diana Butler Bass takes it further: “Strangely I have found in my own life that it is only through a wintery spirituality that I am able to affirm summer and sunshine. A friend wrote me recently, ‘Winter reveals structure’. Only as the structure is firmly there are we able to dress it with the lovely trappings of spring, budding leaves, rosy blossoms. Winter is the quiet, fallow time when earth prepares for the rebirth of spring.”

The word, Lent, means ‘springtime’. While the Lenten journey begins in the frozen winter, we can say in faith that the purpose of the journey is to bring us to Spring. Because by the end of the Lenten season, the snow will be gone revealing the soft, verdant earth underneath where new life is just budding to sprout.

In the end, the disciplines of Lent, the questions we now pose and with which we struggle on the journey, these are gifts from God. They point us to God’s presence in our lives and in our world. In the end, that is what faithful observance of Lent is—“a grace-filled return to the Lord our God.”[4]

Who begins with us, snowed-in and under.

 

[1]Cited in Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage: A Winter Faith (January 18, 2019)

[2]Luke 4:1-13

[3]Madeleine L’Engle cited in Diana Butler Bass, ibid.

[4]Kimberly M. Van Driel, in 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.25.

Leaning in

The man with the unclean spirit is ordered by Jesus to “Be silent!”[1] After Jesus speaks to him, the unclean spirit obeys, and leaves the man. The man is thus transformed, healed, made whole in this dramatic Gospel encounter with Jesus.

We need to note, before going on, that Jesus speaks in the synagogue in Capernaum. He is at the beginning of his ministry. And what better place to start his preaching than on home turf, on familiar ground, in the rural community with people he likely knows, and who know him?

If you’ve ever lived in the country, or farther up the Ottawa Valley, you know that in small towns, people know each other. And when it comes to annual fairs, big events or musical shows, everyone attends. So, when in the lake side village, a home-boy comes to preach in the local synagogue, well, who wouldn’t show up? The synagogue is crammed full. Standing room only.

The point here is that the evil spirit resides and comes out within this rather homogenous community. The evil is not out there, somewhere – in Jerusalem the big city, or out there across the lake among the heathen Gentiles, or expressed within other groups with different belief systems and faiths. The evil is right there in the middle of the common, familiar, comforts of home.

The man with the evil spirit is a person like us. We know him. He is our neighbour. He, or she, is our friend, co-worker. She is the person who comes to church and sits beside us, Sunday after Sunday. The person with the evil spirit is not a stranger to us. That person is us. Each of us.

The Gospel of Mark – indeed the entire New Testament – is a primarily message to and for the church. Not to Islam. Not to Wicca. Not to some Voodoo occult. Not to the so-called Axis of Evil. The finger of judgement is pointed directly at us, at our sin, our evil, the brokenness within us.

When we deny. When we exclude. When we overstep our bounds. When we self-justify. And if you think you don’t have any of these and other problems – to quote what my Dad used to say and preach – you do have a problem!

It’s to this community, in awareness of the sin in our hearts, individually and collectively, that Jesus’ first words, spoken with authority, are: “Be silent!”

How do we change by being silent? I thought we were supposed to do something about our sin! Being silent sounds too much like being passive, lazy, self-indulgent and unproductive. How is it that we are changed when we are quiet?

The silence of which I speak, is first not the silence of denial. It is not a silence that happens when we remain quiet in the face of a great injustice. When a problem is not named, silence enables the problem to continue unattested. When there is something wrong, but no one dares to name the elephant in the room. This is not the silence of which I speak.

Neither is it the silence of combative conflict between people. When someone gives the other ‘the silent treatment’, silence serves as a weapon between people who need help to speak to one another about things that need saying in a safe way. This, too, is not the silence of which I speak.

Jesus is not scolding the man with the unclean spirit when he says, “Be silent!” He is not like the frustrated parent who has reached the boiling point with a disobedient child and just wants them to just shut up and go to their room.

When Jesus says, “Be silent!” he is inviting the disturbed and ill man to open his heart to being changed. Jesus first words are an invitation to be healed. And the first step in that direction is to put to rest, for the moment, the rampant flailing of a seemingly unstoppable ego.

This is a scary thing to do. How can we let go of our reactions, compulsions, need to be right? How can we be so vulnerable and leave ourselves wide open? How can we take this risk, let alone be healed by doing so?

One of my greatest fears as a child was to play on the round-a-bout. At the centre of the playground at kindergarten, stood the scary carousel-like structure. The round-a-bout used rotary motion, spinning around in a circle either clockwise or counter-clockwise. It was painted red.

A bunch of us kids would start by grabbing the four railings which fanned out from the centre like spokes on a wheel. We then started running, really fast, around and around pushing the carousel to dizzying speeds. And then at the moment when we couldn’t run any faster, we threw ourselves onto the spinning platform.

My instinct, at first, was to hang on for dear life at the edge of the round-a-bout as it spun ridiculously fast. It seemed to me the closer I could be to the edge, the more control I had over when I wanted to get off. Doing this, however, I didn’t step off when I wanted. I flew off when I couldn’t hold on any more. So much for control. When all I wanted when I played on the round-a-bout was an evacuation plan.

In order to best stay on the round-a-bout, and not fall off, I had to lean in towards the centre. I had to do the counter-intuitive thing. I had to grab hold of the centre wheel – the hub, the heart of this fearful reality. This way, not only did I last longer, I actually had some fun.

We overcome the evil within not by denying it. Not by turning away from it. Because denying and turning away already exposes another negative disposition. Actual repentance is served best by turning toward that which frightens us. Transformation is realized by moving to our fear not away from it.

And surprise, we are not alone there. We find our strength and our victory in turning toward and leaning into … a very loving, very much present Christ. Jesus is even there, yes.

Like a pine tree on the Canadian Shield rocky coast of Georgian Bay leans into the gale force winds to survive and thrive in that environment, so, too, we turn towards that which assails us in life. As you know, I love the White Pine – native to this part of the world. And one of my favourite Group of Seven pieces of art is A.J. Casson’s “White Pine”.

This painting, in particular, depicts the rugged, often inhospitable places where the white pine flourishes. Spreading its roots just beneath the surface of the ground, the white pine can find foothold in rocky, sandy earth. What is more, along waterlines, the pine will grow sometimes leaning, like the Tower of Pisa, into the gale force winds, not away from them. By doing so, even with its shallow root system, it will not fall. At least, not for a long time.

Naturally, we resist this counter-intuition. Many say that when they meditate, the first half of the period of meditation is hell. When the flood gates are opened. That is when all the thoughts, distractions, and emotions scream to the surface. That is when we fight our greatest battle in prayer. Not against the thoughts and feelings themselves, but against the experience of being still and silent. Because all that has been hidden and suppressed in the dark recesses of our lives finally can come to the surface and is exposed even burned in the Son-light.

It is too easy to give into the ego at this point, which wants to have control, which drives compulsively towards having more, making more, producing more, taking more, defending more. Un-relentless is the ego, driving impulses we struggle with in those first minutes of quiet, still, sitting and praying. It is too easy to give up on the experience and declare, “This is not for me.” And return to the hurly-burly of life in the fast lane.

Should we, however, lean into the internal fray – not suppressing the maelstrom of thoughts, not doing violence against our ego – when we just let the thoughts and feelings come at us and go through us, we will find the rock of our salvation who will hold us up even if we are leaning a bit.

Our lives thus become a prayer of healing when, before all else, we heed Jesus’ call: “Be silent!”, when we seek to quiet our busy thoughts. Saint Isaak of Syria wrote of a way of becoming silent and experiencing our hearts as the temple of the Holy Spirit[2], the holy still centre, and the hub of our lives:

“Enter eagerly into the treasure house that is within you,” he wrote, “and you will see the things that are in heaven – for there is but one single entry to them both. The ladder that leads to the kingdom is hidden within your soul.  Dive into yourself, into your soul, and there you will find the ladder by which to ascend”, and by which God descends into our lives.[3]

Just the turning, the leaning in, is everything on the journey to transformation. “Be still before the Lord,” the Psalmist sings.[4] “In quietness and in trust shall be your strength,” the Prophet advises.[5] “Be silent!” Jesus invites.

[1] Mark 1:21-28, NRSV

[2] 1 Corinthians 6:19

[3] cited in Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe, eds. “God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter” (Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2015), p.91.

[4] Psalm 37:7; 46

[5] Isaiah 30:15

A wintery spirit

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The winter of 2018 has been record-setting, so far. And we are barely one week into the new year! Did you know it was Ottawa’s coldest New Year’s Day since records began in 1873? At 8am on January 1st, the mercury dipped to a frigid minus 30.2 degrees Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit); New Year’s Day also marked Ottawa’s sixth consecutive day with temperatures below -17 degrees Celsius (1 Fahrenheit), which made it the longest run in exactly one hundred years.[1]

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A full onslaught of winter can help us appreciate the meaning of Christianity. Though much of the bible’s stories and lessons were wrought out of the harsh desert climate surrounding the Mediterranean and Arabian seas, the winter realities we face in Canada are not that much different. I suggest, then, let’s take desert and winter as synonymous – meaning, essentially, the same things.

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American Lutheran theologian, Martin Marty, describes the importance of what he calls a “wintery spirituality”, defined by the shrill cry of absence, frost, and death. In contrast to a summer spirituality, winter is more given to being emptied than being filled. Winter is harsh and lean in imagery, beggarly in its gifts of grace and love.[2]

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Of course, Jesus goes into the Judean wilderness to be baptized in the Jordan River. And right after his baptism, he spends forty days and nights in the desert.[3] The desert is not a comfortable place to be. For one thing, it makes scarce and even denies the basic need for our survival – water. A desert is an arid region where annual rainfall remains miniscule. Some deserts average only one centimetre a year, with parts of the Sahara not receiving a drop of rain for more than twenty years.[4]

The word and image of water appears in each of the Hebrew readings assigned for this festival day in the church calendar, and is tied to baptism in the readings from the New Testament.[5] More to the point, water is given out of the chaotic void in the creation story, and in the arid wilderness as a gift and a grace. Water is thus a sign of God’s love amid the harsh winter or desert realities of our lives.

The prophets of old affirm that it is precisely in the desert where God expresses God’s love to the people. The grace of God cannot be received outside of winter. “Thus says the Lord: The people who found grace in the wilderness … I have loved you with an everlasting love …. I remember your love, how you followed me in the wilderness.”[6]

How, then, can we appreciate and even thrive, living out of this truth? How can we follow Jesus in his way? After all, the Baptism of our Lord is about Jesus beginning the journey to fulfill his God-given purpose in life. How he does it is of particular importance to us, if we are interested in following Jesus in our life-style.

Listen to a story first told by a nineteenth-century teacher, Awad Afifi the Tunisian, who drew his wisdom from the wide expanse of the North African desert:

A gentle rain fell on a high mountain in a distant land. The rain was at first hushed and quiet, trickling down granite slopes. Gradually it increased in strength, as rivulets of water rolled over rocks and down gnarled, twisted trees that grew there. The rain fell, as water must, without calculation. After all, water never has time to practice falling.

Soon, it was pouring, as swift currents of dark water flowed together into the beginnings of a stream. The brook made its way down the mountainside, through small stands of cypress trees and fields of lavender, and down cascading falls. It moved without effort, splashing over stones – learning that the stream interrupted by rocks is the one that sings most nobly. Finally, having left its heights in the distant mountain, the stream made its way to the edge of a great desert. Sand and rock stretched beyond seeing.

Having crossed every other barrier in its way, the stream fully expected to cross this as well. But as fast as its waves splashed into the desert, that fast did they disappear into the sand. Before long, the stream heard a voice whispering, as if coming from the desert itself, saying, “The wind crosses the desert, so can the stream.”

“Yes, but the wind can fly!” cried out the stream, still dashing itself into the desert sand.

“You’ll never get across that way,” the desert whispered. “You have to let the wind carry you.”

“But, how?” shouted the stream.

“You have to let the wind absorb you.”

The stream could not accept this, however. It didn’t want to lose its identity or abandon its own individuality. After all, if it gave itself to the winds, could it ever be sure of becoming a stream again?

The desert replied that the stream could continue its flowing, perhaps one day even producing a swamp there at the desert’s edge. But it would never cross the desert so long as it remained a stream.

The stream was silent for a long time, listening to distant echoes of memory, knowing parts of itself having been held before in the arms of the wind. From that long-forgotten place, it gradually recalled how water conquers only by yielding, by turning to steam in a natural cycle. From the depths of that silence, slowly the stream raised its vapours to the welcoming arms of the wind and was borne upward, carried easily on great white clouds over the wide desert waste.

Approaching distant mountains on the desert’s far side, the stream then began once again to fall as a light rain. At first it was hushed and quiet, trickling down granite slopes. Gradually it increased in strength, as rivulets rolled over the rocks and down the gnarled, twisted trees that grew there. The rain fell, as water must, without calculation. And soon it was pouring, as swift currents of dark water flowed together – yet again – into the headwaters of a new stream. [7]

Jesus instructs his followers to become the people they are called to be.[8] God is aware that our lives are like a journey through the desert. Or, as Canadians, we can say that our faith journey is not dissimilar from living through an Ottawa record-setting winter.

To thrive in this life is to see that this journey of becoming is not static. We are not called by Jesus to become mere swamp lands at the edge of the desert. Rather, the journey calls us to be vulnerable, to recognize what we may initially want to resist in us – like the stream that first struggled against yielding to the wind.

Our journey through life are journeys of vulnerability. Of taking little. Of trusting God. Of appreciating the value of small things. Of letting go into the Spirit wind of God. Then, we can, with the Psalmist see that, even in the wilderness, the Lord fulfills God’s promises and does indeed give strength to us and bless us with peace.[9]

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[1] Ottawa weather records, Twitter @YOW_Weather

[2] cited in Belden C. Lane, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.37

[3] Mark 1:12-13

[4] Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.38

[5] The Baptism of our Lord, Revised Common Lectionary Year B: Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

[6] Jeremiah 31:3; 2:2

[7] as written by Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.20-21

[8] read the entire section from Matthew 10:5-42

[9] Psalm 29:11, NRSV