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.

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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

Love: The Body speaks

I jumped out of bed Labour Day Monday ready for action: I had my traditional ‘to do’ list around the house, tasks reserved only for that most auspicious of holidays: Labour Day. Neatly positioned at the beginning of a new school year, Labour Day promises the beginning of a new season of programs, commitments, work, setting goals, ideals and visions of our aspiring.

I only did certain jobs on this day of the year. You know, like Spring cleaning, these were things that needed to be done once in a while, but aren’t really activities that are particularly pleasurable, to say the least. So, I put it off to Labour Day. I need that annual calendar day to help me stay disciplined. And that is good.

One of those jobs was cleaning the HRV – the Heat Recovery Ventilator. This is the contraption attached to the furnace that recycles the air in your house. On the sticker inside the ventilator, it suggests that the filter should be cleaned once every three months. Yeah, right. Who has time for that?

So, on Labour Day every year, I dutifully remove the heavy box containing the filter, and hose it down. I wash the spongy fabric and hang to dry. I meticulously wipe out the interior of the ventilator with a damp cloth. I vacuum out all the cobwebs, dead wasps, flies and dust mites. I use pipe cleaners to clean the plastic, transparent drain tubes. And when everything is done I put it all back together. Usually it takes me a couple of hours. And then it’s on to the next item on my Labour Day ‘to do’ list. You get the idea.

I knew I had a full day’s agenda of those odds and sods sort of jobs.  Jess and I had just pulled the stove away from the wall to clean the floor underneath (yuck!) when all-of-a-sudden the doorbell rang.

With beads of sweat trickling from my forehead stinking of sweat in dirty clothes, I looked up with ‘surprise’ at who was smiling and waving through the front door pane: my parents-in-law! They were inviting us out for lunch at the local truck stop.

With herculean effort to switch gears and rush into ‘receive-and-respond-to-guest’ mode, I quietly complained to Jess in the bathroom as we quickly washed up that I didn’t appreciate this interruption to the day’s agenda of hard work. Likely all the work wouldn’t get done. And how long were they going to stay at our place after lunch? Throughout the lunch hour I fought the impulse to be resentful and angry at this unplanned, unwelcomed intrusion to the important Labour Day work.

Nevertheless, have to say I enjoyed lunch out. It was a treat. And the conversation helped take my mind off other pressing matters. After only about an hour, we came home, and my parents were off to complete errands. I was surprised by how just one hour of gift, of grace, of unscheduled act of love actually gave me the energy to finish all my Labour Day tasks in a shorter amount of time than I had originally anticipated.

Love has a way of doing that. Love does not steer clear of the structures, agendas, immediacies of our lives. Love does not exist on some surreal, other-worldly plane, dis-associated from ordinary life. Love is not a fantasy trip. Love operates right in the middle of the messy, honest reality of our lives.

We call it other things, which leave us empty:

Whenever we project our wants onto something or someone we don’t have. We delude ourselves in believing we will experience love when we yield to this mirage of desire. This is the ego’s impulse. But if we are honest, getting what we want only sets the ground for wanting more and more. This strategy for life is a prescription for perpetual unhappiness bereft of true joy, because pursuing this frantic desiring is predicated on the assumption that it is never good enough. We are always wanting what we don’t have. Wanting and desiring do not fulfill love.

Neither does the law. We skim the surface of love when we try to please God by merely following the rigor of the law. This is the ego’s attempt to prove one’s self-worth by measuring it up against some ideal. But if we are honest, this effort at loving God and others is really self-centred and only exposes our failure to live up to that ideal. This strategy for life can lead to a stifling legalism, judgmental attitudes towards others and self-hate. Our success at following all the rules is not love. Paying attention to another person is. “Love is the fulfilling of the law,” Paul writes.[1]

Love is free. It is not bound by our ability to control outcomes. Love happens when we are not in charge. Love is a gift, given and received freely. There is no guarantee, from our human perspective, that all our good efforts and good works will make things right. Author and teacher Belden Lane writes: “We love and are loved by God in the act of relinquishing every guarantee of love.”[2] In truth, when we stop our striving if only for a moment, when we release our need to be in control, then we are in the position to experience God’s grace and love. Through others. In ourselves. And from the least expected of places and people. Indeed, as C.S. Lewis expressed, we are surprised by joy.[3]

The ego doesn’t like this because the ego wants to get in the way.  But, love is expressed to another without preconceived expectations of what the other person needs. Love is expressed without giving what we imagine to be best in the situation for them. True love is not striving for what particular results we want to engineer in a relationship. True love, as Belden Lane describes so well, is “a love finally purged of the ego’s calculating desires, a love without strings.”[4] We simply be with the other, and listen to them. And go from there.

Love starts here. It is hard work to love. It is a labour of love – for self, others, creation and God. And it is a work in progress – a journey – that can last a life-time and beyond.

Paul continues in the Epistle text for today, that we are to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”[5] Here, it is helpful to substitute the word, ‘ego’ for flesh. Christianity is an incarnational religion. God is, for Christians, a human being in Christ. The divine entered humanity. God knows the human body intimately. We do our faith a dis-service when we neglect, shame or deny our physical bodies as well as the human dignity of others. Our flesh is not bad. Your physical body is, according to Paul, “a temple of the Holy Spirit.”[6]

We exercise the love of God by paying attention and listening to our own bodies and paying attention and listening to the suffering of humanity all around us. “The glory of God,” Saint Irenaeus said in the 2nd century, “is the human being fully alive.” We celebrate human beauty and strength, yes, but also not ignore its pains.

I sat alone in the Bilbao hotel room looking at my body. On the surface, everything looked fine. Even great. In eight days I had walked one hundred and thirty kilometres through the Basque hills along the coast of the Bay of Biscay in northern Spain. I had even lost several pounds and buffed up a bit.

My feet were fine. So many pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago develop serious problems with blisters and tendonitis. Not I. Now, I did give regular attention to my feet: I made periodic breaks during my hiking, taking my shoes and socks off and gently, lovingly, applying moisturizing cream around my toes, under the ball of my foot and around the heels. They say foot care is paramount to the successful completion of any Camino pilgrimage. I was the poster boy for that piece of advice.

Yet, these superficial indicators did not reveal the truth of the matter. You see, even before I had left Canada to fly to Barcelona, I was coughing.

Besides the cough, I was feeling fine when I headed out of Irun at the start of the Camino del Norte, near the French-Spanish border. But eight days later, a few kilometres outside of Guernica, my right knee blew out. And, in that moment, I realized that I was in trouble. The systematic repetition of hefting my 200-pound body weight and additional 20 pound pack, leading with my right knee finally screamed protest. At first, my pilgrim friends suggested what I was thinking: A few rest days in Bilbao would renew me enough to continue my pilgrimage across northern Spain.

But after three days of rest in Bilbao, I was feeling worse. Not only did I continue to cough, all my muscles were aching not just my knee. I didn’t even feel like travelling to visit with my extended family in Germany.

My body hath spoken. And I was going to listen to it. When I saw my doctor in Ottawa a few days later, she ordered an x-ray and ultrasound which confirmed the diagnosis of pneumonia. I had, literally, ‘walking’ pneumonia on the Camino. All the medical staff, my family and friends complemented me in being able to ‘listen to my body’. And even though I didn’t realize and know how sick I really was at the time, I didn’t push it for the sake of some higher, abstract goals or principles. I came home to heal. My body was telling me something I needed listening to: Stop. Stop the frantic desiring. Stop the restless striving. Just stop. And be still, for a while.

They say the body never lies. We can deceive ourselves in our heads, play all kinds of mind games with ourselves, providing ceaseless self-justifications and employing conniving self-defense mechanisms that would confound any therapist. But what the body presents – the physical manifestation of who we are – is the truth indicator. What the body proclaims is truer than what anyone says.

Any journey towards health and love begins by paying attention to what your body is saying. And go from there. We may slow down. We may pray. We may embark on a journey to search out meaning in our lives, to explore the multi-layered regions of our hearts and souls. We may seek medical help, and rely on the gifts of medical science. We may even make major changes in our lives. In other words, we learn the truth about ourselves. Beginning with what the body says.

Someone asked me what I learned about myself during the sabbatical. You could say, I had the chance to just be myself. I experienced my humanity without the usual trappings of roles, titles and responsibilities. I met with and explored myself as a human being. I am human. Not just a talking head. I don’t just live out of my head. I live out of my body, too.

And, to be honest, I didn’t always like everything I saw, there, in my human nature. Yet, I will confess that in that mess of my humanity I re-discovered Jesus. It wasn’t so much in the usual places but in those other pilgrims I met, the help I received along the way, and in my own, ordinary self – stripped away from all the usual distractions, comforts and busy-ness of life – that grounded me in a love that endures.

Out of this awareness has grown a deep thankfulness for all the gifts of life. Gifts over which I don’t have ultimate control in having received: The gift of physical health and ability; The gift of this sabbatical – about which I express heartfelt thanks to the congregation; The gift of colleagues who take up the torch so to speak — thank you to Pastors Diane and Ted and musician, David: The gift of capable lay leaders who show remarkable abilities administratively and creatively when given a chance – Beth, Julia and Megan, especially; The gift of lay preachers who in their diverse expression reflect something beautiful about God and God’s ways – Jessica, Beth, Christa and Jann; The gift of a spouse and children who model the love of God by ‘letting me go’ for a while.

In Christianity, the word, ‘body’, takes on a broader meaning: The Body of Christ is the church, the community, the network of relationships. I am ever so grateful and encouraged. I learned another thing out of this sabbatical experience: There is love in the Body of Christ, to be sure.

 

[1] Romans 13:10

[2] Belden C. Lane, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality”, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, p.201.

[3] C.S. Lewis, “Surprised By Joy”, New York: Harper Collins, 1966

[4] Belden C. Lane, ibid.

[5] Romans 13:14

[6] 1 Corinthians 6:19

Cornered?

Have you ever wondered why this building was designed to be more-or-less round? Well, don’t you know, “The devil can’t corner you in here!” we say.

Like in the boxing ring, the combatants in the corner are at either end of the victory-defeat spectrum: In the corner they either have the upper hand, literally. Or, they are on the verge of collapsing in a heap.

Being in the corner is an undesired position. Cornering someone is to put them at a disadvantage. The one being cornered is vulnerable. Being cornered is to admit there are no options left.

We also use the phrase to mock contractors and builders worried only about the bottom line when they ‘cut corners’. Cutting corners may serve the bottom line, but in the long run cutting corners is a prescription for guaranteed repair and reconstruction work sooner than later.

At the same time, the latest fashion in contemporary urban design values right angles and sharp lines. The new buildings are rather square and boxy, aren’t they? Meaning, lots of straight lines. But a straight line can’t go on forever. Therefore, lots of corners.

People in many non-Western cultures don’t build as many corners as we do. The Zulus in southern Africa, for example, live in a less-carpentered world. They live in a history and culture where straight lines and right angles are scarce, if not entirely absent. (1)

What would it be like to live in a non-linear world? Where our material culture presents more rounded, softer, curved constructions such as our building!

And yet, there is a gift in the message of a corner. Not only can corners get us stuck. But they also are an indisputable sign that there’s always a corner to be turned. In truth, this is what we say, don’t we, when things are just starting to get better: “We’ve turned the corner on this.” When things are not yet better, we wonder: “When will I turn the corner on my illness, my fear, my problem, my troubled feelings, my strained relationships?”

Turning the corner means, nevertheless, there’s no turning back. Once you’ve crossed the line, there’s no going back to the way it used to be. That could be good. It can also be scary. Corners are necessary to find a way through a predicament, such as in a maze. Corners define clearly where one eventually needs to go, like it or not.

The story of Jesus’ resurrection is a huge corner turned in the cosmos of all that was, and is, and is to come. History is forever changed by the empty tomb. The ether of our very existence is transformed into the triumph of good that can be, for all time, for all people, and in every place. All the evil forces that led to Jesus’s crucifixion no longer need to triumph in the world today.

They say any lead in playoff hockey is a dangerous lead, as the first few games of the NHL playoffs have shown. More often than not the lead does not stand. If a team does have the lead however small, they are coached to employ the killer instinct:

Don’t let up. Don’t get too comfortable. Don’t sit back. Finish off your opponent with indiscriminating, ruthless power. Once they’re down, make sure they stay down. Hate your opponent. Don’t give them a chance to come back. Don’t be merciful, kind, generous, compassionate. Above all, don’t feel sorry for your opponent’s misgivings.

This is the philosophy of competitive play in professional sports. Why professional athletes and teams are so popular and generate billions of dollars in our economy is precisely because we humans are really good at believing this philosophy if not doing it from time to time.

Easter is God’s come-from-behind victory. The way of non-violence, of loving self-giving, and of trust in God is a victory against all the odds. It is, frankly, an unbelievable, unexpected move from our human perspective. Jesus’ demonstration of non-violence, of loving self-giving, and of trust in God is validated and redeemed by his resurrection. The surprising, brilliant victory of Easter morning is a poignant witness to what God is really all about.

The way of violence of our will/my will over yours, of greedy acquisition for more, of cynical mistrust of others — this is the way of the world that crashes in a heap of defeat in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. Now, the way of God is before us.

Resurrection says a lot about the nature of God’s purposes. Because Jesus lives. And Jesus is Lord. We therefore gather today to affirm that God’s purposes are good. And, in the end, it is not all doom and gloom. In the end, God comes through.

One thing I like about the re-modelled communion rail around the chancel, is that we have those corners at both sides. Some have said they don’t like it at the corner, because they feel squeezed out. Well, we can help each other with that. What the corners force us to do is pay more attention to who is standing beside us; and make room for them. And that’s not a bad thing!

What these corners force us to do, is to face and look at each other when we are standing or kneeling at the altar. We are not just individuals coming to face the Lord God one-on-one in a straight line, not seeing nor even respective of who comes along beside us. Now, it’s no longer just about ‘me and sweet Jesus’.

It’s about ‘us’ and sweet Jesus. And Jesus is not always sweet. We are a community gathered around one table, a people who embody the living Body of Christ in the world today. We are also the broken body of Jesus, whose power is shown through human weakness (1 Corinthians 1:18-29). What better place than to see our sisters and brothers in Christ, eye-to-eye, and practice right here what it means to pray for others, to encourage them, to recognize our unity in the living God.

And then take in word and deed that awareness and message from this place, into the world out there: Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

1 — Wayne Weiten & Doug McCann, “Psychology: Themes and Variations” 3rd Edition (Toronto: Nelson Education, 2013), p.168

The good crowd

I was ten years old when my parents shuffled me and my brother into one of the front rows of the main, outdoor theatre in the small, Bavarian town. The crowd pushed and shoved for privileged seating to watch the story of Jesus’s last days acted out daily by the town’s folk every ten years.

In fact, the crowd on the large stage did not appear any different than the tourists who got up very early in the morning for tickets to the Oberammergau Passion play.  

This coming Holy Week is rich with story. And when we read the stories about the last days of Jesus — full of drama, plot, and character — we will naturally identify with elements of the story-telling. Our worship is designed to help us identify, for example, with the crowds.

This morning, we sing “Hosanna” and wave our palm branches identifying with the enthusiastic crowd that first day when Jesus entered the city. “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees …” (Matthew 21:8). Some years in Holy Week we dramatized and therefore simplify the trial scenes. We have individuals and groups speaking the various parts of the story. So, for example, ‘the crowd’ is played by the whole congregation who chants those lines together, such as “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” (Matthew 27:23) and “He deserves death!” (Matthew 26:66).

Undergoing some mysterious metamorphosis sometime between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday, the crowd turns to the dark side. In a tradition that goes back centuries, Christians have most often portrayed the Jewish crowd around Jesus during his last days as rabidly and violently against him. We see it in Passion plays, the most famous of which is at Oberammergau in Bavaria. The evil crowd is also central to Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ.”

This over-interpretation has unfortunately led to harmful, anti-semitic justification against the Jewish people throughout the dark side of Christian history.

It may be easy to identify with these ‘bad’ crowds more than anyone else in the stories. Through the journey of Lent, we have struggled with the shadow self of our own lives, carrying our own cross so to speak, alongside Jesus. We have confessed our sin. Indeed, at the climax of Christ’s Passion, we pound nails into the cross on Good Friday. We so readily identify with the crowds, even saying that ‘we’ have crucified Jesus by our sin. It is little wonder why we come to these rather negative views, from Scripture.

What these portrayals fail to address, however, is this: Why, if the Jewish crowd was so against Jesus, was it necessary to arrest him in the darkness of night with the help of a traitor from among Jesus’s followers? Why not arrest him in broad daylight? And why do they need Judas?

What we discover is a positive, more balanced approach to the identity of the crowd. First we need to understand why the high-priestly authorities wanted to do away with Jesus.

“[The chief priests and Pharisees] wanted to arrest him …” (Matthew 21:46).

If the chief priests and Pharisees let him go on like this, everyone would believe in him, and the Romans would then intervene and execute them (John 11:48). Moreover, the authorities were not just afraid of the Roman Emperor, who was the recipient of Judean tax money and demanded political allegiance from those put in a position of power by the Emperor to keep the Pax Romana in the region. Insurrection in Judea would not be tolerated by Rome.

“… but they feared the crowds …”

Pilate and the high-priests also felt threatened by the whole crowd of people who, if they didn’t do something about Jesus, would eventually turn on them, which in 70AD (around the time most of the Gospels were written), did in fact happen. (1)

The Gospels reveal a clear disconnect between the high-priestly authorities who wish to execute Jesus, and the “whole crowd” who are “spellbound by his teachings” (Mark 11:18) and who “regarded him as a prophet” (Matthew 21:46).

This favourable support of Jesus by the predominantly Jewish crowd does not stop after the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday. It continues throughout the days leading to the Passover Festival in Jerusalem.

The crowds aren’t perfect, to be sure. Their motivations for supporting Jesus may very well have missed the mark, especially those who still sought in Jesus a violent solution to the end of Roman rule in Judea.

Yet, they are captivated by his teachings. There is some good, therein. The ‘whole crowd’ can be personified by each of us. Which part of ourselves identifies with the crowd that is for the most part good and supportive of Jesus, even during his last days on earth?

I ask this question, especially in the midst of the most penitential season of the church year. I ask this question, and make this point as a spiritual antidote to what can easily, and so often does, slide into self-hatred on account of all our sinfulness.

We must remember we live in Christ Jesus, and the living Christ lives in us through the Holy Spirit. There is some good therein. We don’t need to be so hard on ourselves.

“The secret of life,” say the American Indigenous people, “is in the shadows and not in the open sun; to see anything at all, you must look deeply into the shadow of a living thing.” (2)

We may begin Lent and Holy Week — indeed our Christian pilgrimage on earth — by confronting our shadow self. It’s important to do so. But by the end of Holy Week we cannot avoid the open sun and see the empty tomb. The ending is always as it was in the beginning when God created everything and everyone, and said that it was good. “It was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

 
1 — Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, “The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem” (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), esp. p.87-91

2 — cited in Joyce Rupp, “Walk In A Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons from the Camino” (New York: Orbis Books, 2005), p.161

Burn, fire, burn


I bought this t-shirt in Italy last month — featuring Andy Warhol’s artistic depiction of an erupting Mount Vesuvius.

There really isn’t anywhere you can go in and around Naples, Italy, without being in eyeshot of Mount Vesuvius. Whether you are boating off the Mediterranean coast around the islands of Ischia and Procida, landing or taking off from the international airport there, or driving one of the many autostradas intertwining a metropolis of almost four million people, the unique double-mound character of this famous mountain is never out of sight, from any direction.

Of course it is still considered one of the most, if not the most, active volcano in Europe. Since the catastrophic, violent eruption that levelled Pompeii in the first century, it has erupted about three dozen times, significantly once in the 17th century and most recently in 1944.

Geologists and volcano experts today expect another eruption from Vesuvius, and believe they will have about a 4-week warning period before the first signs lead to the eruption.

So, you can imagine the horror we felt when we saw smoke pouring from the peak of Mount Vesuvius. Just a couple days after climbing the famed Mount and learning all this history, we were driving into Naples from the north. After holding a sudden, collective breath, we exclaimed together: “It’s going to blow!”

Some of us with phones quickly called our friends. Of course I kept driving, but in Naples it seemed everyone smoked, talked on the phone and held their child in their lap while driving at 130 kms/h. You will be happy to know I kept both my hands on the wheel while my passengers did some quick research to find out that a grass fire on the south side of Mount Vesuvius was sending smoke over the top which made it look, from our point of view, like the warning signs of an immanent eruption.

Indeed we are terrified of fire when it is out of our control. I’m not talking here about the pristine and contained burn of a campfire at the end of a day of leisure play on a lake or in the backyard. People who have seen and witnessed the raging inferno of a forest fire — earlier this year in Fort McMurray, for example — can speak of the palpable terror of a consuming fire.

In the text from Hebrews for today (12:18-29), the writer describes God as a “consuming fire.” Indeed, the writer describes the religious awe from Exodus in the Old Testament as a terrifying experience: “Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.'”

What does fire mean, in the context of faith? When we experience and confront hellfire in our lives — describe it however you will, reflecting on the greatest challenges in your life now — what does the consuming fire mean? 

In the DC Comics recent film, “Suicide Squad”, our super heroes each have a special gift they use for the cause of good. One of them has the gift of fire. El Diablo is his name, and he describes his ability as the “gift of the devil.” Indeed, we make a direct association, through culture, between fire and sin, fire and evil. In Dante’s epic 14th century poem, Inferno, there are references to fire to be sure. But considering all the degrees of hell described therein, fire is not the singularly predominant symbol of hell.

In the last century, Scots preacher George MacDonald in one of his sermons poses a more nuanced reflection on the purpose of fire: “Can it be any comfort to us to be told that God loves us so that God will burn us clean?” How many of us want to be tortured? MacDonald goes on, “We do not want to be clean and we cannot bear to be tortured.” So, the natural, human tendency kicks in — better the devil we know than the devil we do not know. And we take the easy road: we remain stuck in our unhealthy life styles and viewpoints that are far from the honest truth of it all.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that for many of us, fire means punishment.

Either we want it to mean punishment, or we imagine other people do. So, we avoid the all-consuming fire of God’s presence in our lives. We don’t believe we can stand it. In the words of a famous movie line delivered in “A Few Good Men” by Jack Nicholson: “We can’t handle the truth!” And so, in our hearts at least, we run away from God.

But the bible (in Hebrews, Revelation, Exodus, and the Gospels at least) reveals that fire is not God’s punishment; fire is not meant to be torture. 

Fire is purification.

Fire is used to refine metals. The smelter melts and pours off the gold or silver, then skims off the dross until she can see her own face reflected in the molten metal — not a bad metaphor for God’s judgement. The question is, what gets purified? And the answer has to go further than merely ‘sin’. Because sin is so embedded in our lives, and will always be as long as we walk this earth. We have to go deeper. The purification of God goes to that place deep in our hearts that causes sin, that generates those unhealthy behaviours and thoughts:

Our false selves. All the excuses, the lies, the fictions, all the rationalizations, self-justifications, all the official versions and self-diagnoses we attempt to sell to others, all the self-adaptations and defensiveness to escape criticism, all the motivations that are fuelled more by selfish ambition and fear than an honest concern for the other. All these will be consumed in the fire of God’s love.

Ironically, what I often call ‘religiosity’ is also a target for God’s fire. When we are honest about our true motivations for coming to church: Is it to look good, to make a good impression, to merely reflect the group’s ideals taking on manners of speech, dress, belief, common sense, even political opinions that make us fit and feel good about ourselves? The mournful fragmentation of the Christian Church into a plethora of denominations today is an unfortunate testimony to this truth, I believe. Yet, God’s fiery love will clean us from that sort of religiousness as well.

And when all that happens, this is the joyous promise: When God’s presence breaks into our awareness, when we feel ourselves being utterly known, embraced, and accepted as we are. The embraced and accepted self is not the false self that reflects only our perfected self image; it is the real self that God created. In that moment, the false self becomes ashes. In the end, I believe that the harshest judgement of God’s consuming fire (read: mercy, love and grace) is friendlier than our own most lavish self-praise.

But do we want to go there? Do we want to change? Or, are we afraid of what we will find when we take off the masks of our false selves?

Perhaps we cannot do this. Perhaps we are too weak to confront the consuming fire on our own willpower. Perhaps our fear is too great, and we are trapped in cycles of self-delusion. Like the point of view in our sighting of smoke on Mount Vesuvius: It looked like an immanent eruption but in truth it wasn’t. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know. In that case, it was better the devil you knew! We choose how we want to look at things. What is our response?

I see a connection with the parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:2-14) where you might recall the king threw out a guest who wore no wedding robe even though the guest had clearly not anticipated attending a wedding when leaving home that day. However, a little know fact: it was up to the host to supply suitable robes to invited guests in that time and culture. The truth of the matter was that this man refused the offer, likely insisting he was OK as he was. Invited, yes. Fit to be present, not yet.

The invitation to the marriage feast is given to us. The joy and freedom is promised. Perhaps the consuming fire of God is an unavoidable mercy. And the only thing we can count on, is that this mercy will be offered to us over and over again throughout our lives regardless of how we respond to the events, people and circumstances of our lives. And so, all we can do is take the next step on the pilgrimage with our God, the all-consuming fire.

For that alone, then, thanks be to God.

Much of this sermon is adapted from Gray Temple’s fine piece in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds, “Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year C Volume 3 (Louisville Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p.376-380