Prayer as Listening – Advent sermon series 2

Last week we met the hermit crab who needs to find a larger shell to grow into. We considered prayer as personal growth. That when we come to various crossroads on the journey of life and faith, we can either give up on a life of prayer or we find another form of prayer.

Today, we consider how important our community is to that journey. Indeed, our relationships are critical and vital to our health and well-being. In truth we cannot do without a community of faith if we want to continue maturing in faith.

After last week’s first in the sermon series on prayer, I was made aware of howthese hermit crabs will find their new, larger shell. Apparently, they find a spot on the beach and line up, together, in a little community of crabs. When a new member of that community finds them on the beach, that new crab drops its old shell at the front of the line. Shell-less, it then goes to the back of the line to wait its turn in finding a larger shell.

The crab at the top of the line – who has waited the longest – has first dibs at the new shell freshly deposited. If it fits, great! Off it goes to resume its life, wherever. If it doesn’t fit, it will keep its place at the front of the line until a shell is left there that fits. The second in line will then try it on. And, in this way, the line moves forward over time until each crab in the community has found a new, larger shell for its growth.

According to this pattern, no crab is left on its own to find its new shell. In this little community no crab is left by itself on the journey of searching, seeking and finding. The hermit crab’s growth is supported by a community of crabs on the journey they share, even as each crab occupies its unique place in line. No two crabs are the same, after all.

Often we think that what glues us together in community is talking, saying words. When we feel we must assert ourselves aggressively. We impose our opinion about who we are about and what we believe about things. We think we are doing the right thing by initiating our opinion. “Speak up!” is the mantra that captures what we believe binds us in community.

Here, we must confess that at the root of this strategy is a fear that if we don’t first assert ourselves in a dog-eat-dog world, somehow we are betraying our own beliefs. We are afraid that if we listen first, we’re not advocating for own ideas and why those ideas matter; we are afraid we’re giving up on our convictions.[1]

“Samar Minallah Khan, the feminist Pakistani anthropologist and filmmaker, was enraged. Local tribal leaders were trading little girls as compensation for their male family members’ crimes.

“These leaders, responsible for settling legal disputes in their villages, act as local judges. A long-standing practice was to address major crimes by ‘compensating’ a harmed family with a daughter of the family doing the harm. The guilty father or uncle was then considered ‘free’ and the village was told this issue was ‘resolved.’ Samar thought this tradition, called swara, was horrendous: It forever changed a young girl’s life, through no fault of her own.

“But although Samar was angry, she realized she’d never get to the outcome she wanted if she led with that anger. So, she tried something else. First, she listened more than she talked. She listened to the religious (male) leaders explain the use of swara and its benefits interpreted by the Prophet Mohammad. She listened to the fathers and uncles who allowed their crimes to be expiated this way. And, by listening, Samar learned so much that it enabled her to bridge a seemingly unbridgeable chasm of difference.

“Samar had first assumed that the fathers whose crimes were being forgiven this way were happy to let their daughters suffer for their crimes. But when she listened to them, she heard that they were not. They wanted another way.

“She [also] heard from local leaders that they placed an extremely high value on tradition. She heard from religious Muslim legal scholars that swara was a form of ‘vicarious liability’, which is not allowed in Islam. And finally, she heard that in earlier times, disputes were also resolved by sending a girl to an enemy’s family, but she didn’t stay there permanently; instead, she would be given gifts and then sent back to her parents’ home. All of this, she taped.

“She convened local communities to watch these videos and talk with one another about the tradition and its implications. One by one, local tribal leaders changed what they considered true justice. They decided that swara could be replaced by monetary compensation. Samar created change not by selling her idea, but creating a way for everyone to arrive at a new idea, together. What Samar did was to ask people to share their perspective, without trying to convince them of hers.”[2]

This process took time and a whole lot of patience. If we do this thing together, as Saint Paul advocates in his letter to the Romans, we need to be like those hermit crabs lined up together on the beach waiting for and taking turns in finding our next, larger shell.

The values of sharing, of collaborating, of operating in harmony with others – these are at the root of Saint Paul’s description of a community of faith, in Christ: May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify God.[3]

The search for God—this is our prayer life—begins with accepting our humanity. After all it was in the stable of Bethlehem, the stable of humanity that God has come in search of us. I like this translation of verse seven in chapter fifteen of Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Accept one another, therefore, as Christ has accepted you.”[4] We accept another by learning first to listen.

So, it’s not talking that binds us into community. It’s not needing to force our way in, somehow. In truth, when you think about your closest relationships, what binds you together—what functions as the cartilage—is the confidence and trust that the other truly listens to you. And therefore accepts you. Not, “Speak up!” but rather, “Listen up!” needs to be our mantra. Prayer is not primarily talking but listening.

I read that a true friend is someone who knows everything about you and still accepts you. Isn’t that our spiritual longing, our motivation to pray and connect with God? Isn’t that the dream we share? That one day each of us meets a person with whom we can really talk, who understands us and the words we say—who can listen and even hear what is left unsaid, and then really accepts us. God is the fulfillment of this dream.[5]And so, in prayer as in all our relationships, we listen to God whom we love as God listens to us.

In making room for another in the act of listening receptively, the irony – when we first listen well—is we find that we ourselves have found a place to be heard. Deeply heard, understood, and accepted. By others in community and by God who stands beside us in line and waits for us to find that larger shell.

 

[1]Nilofer Merchant, Mindful Listening: Emotional Intelligence Series (Boston: Harvard Business Review, 2019), p.75.

[2]Ibid., p.69-71.

[3]Romans 15:5-6

[4]Patrick J. Howell in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.38.

[5]Ibid., p.38-40.

Prayer as Growth – Advent sermon series 1

In the movie, “Good Boys”, three young friends explore the meaning of friendship and growth. On the journey towards maturity, Max, Lucas, and Thor discover what it means to be in a healthy relationship that can change over time.

Everything is going fine until each boy begins to pursue individual goals. At the same time, they realize that what one of them wants to do is not necessarily what the others like to do. It looks like they are going their separate ways. And the friendship group appears to dissolve.

When Lucas sits down with his parents in tears, bemoaning the breakup of his friendships, his parents offer some sage advice. They recall an old pet Lucas used to have – a hermit crab. But, when Lucas was much younger he wasn’t told how exactly his hermit crab had left them. His parents, now, tell him the truth:

The hermit crab had to find a new shell, they say. And died on its way to the beach. They explain that a hermit crab eventually outgrows its shell. And must find another shell that is larger into which it can continue to grow. If it doesn’t find a larger shell, it will die one way or another.

Lucas makes the connection that he is growing, and may need to find a larger shell to grow into – a larger social group, new friends, other activities. Leaning on this truth, Lucas is freed from the self-blame for the recent troubles with Max and Thor. It is normal and healthy to go through these growing pains in relationship. As it turns out, the boys learn to find a new way of relating with one another – a way that respects each other’s unique talents and personalities.

Throughout his letter to the Romans, Paul describes a healthy relationship to God.[1]And as we grow in this relationship, we change. And the way we relate to God changes.

In this first part of the series of sermons in Advent on prayer, I would like to underscore this theme: Prayer as growth, in our relationship with God.

There are times in our lives, events and circumstances, that give us this sense that our whole person–our deepest desires, the core of who we are–is actually waking up. At first some experiences may not feel particularly enlivening. Ironically, it is often difficult, challenging times in life that cause this re-birthing within us.

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: “Wake from sleep, now is the moment! Shed your clothes of darkness and ignorance and be clothed with Christ.”[2]This imperative is a common theme in Paul’s writings; to the Ephesians he writes: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead!”[3]

And in our Gospel text today, Matthew records Jesus’ instruction to “Keep awake!” especially at the time when you are in the darkness of not knowing, or in grief, or loss or some kind of suffering. This is the time to wake up, for God is doing a new thing for you.[4]Do you not perceive it? It is time to get up. It is time to slough off the old and make room for the new. It is time “to live into the reality of the new age about to dawn.”[5]

We hear the call at this start of a new church year and the first Sunday in Advent. We hear this call to spiritual renewal as we seek to deepen our lives of faith and wait upon the coming of the Lord into our lives. The call to renewal starts with prayer.

I started by saying there are occasions in our lives that become opportunities—divine invitation, you could say—to try a different way of praying.  Like spokes on a large wagon wheel, there are different ways to pray—intercessory praying, devotional prayer, prayers with lots of words, prayers without using any words, imaginative prayers, body prayers, sacraments, song, music, art.

A variety of prayer forms give us ways of growing and deepening our relationship with God in Christ. Because at the centre of every wheel—even one with several spokes—is the hub, which is Christ. The ever-present, living Lord, moves with us and in us down the road of life.

As we grow older, for many of us, the only real question is: Why doesn’t  God answer my prayers? Because of this conundrum alone, many of us frequently just stop praying and hope for the best. Hopefully on our life’s path, when we meet others we listen to them and discover that no two of us have exactly the same spiritual journey.[6]So, why would we believe there is only one way to pray or only one way of understanding what happens in prayer?

We are each like the hermit crab, seeking to find a larger shell to grow into.

But how can we be encouraged to find a larger shell? How can we even believe that we are growing, that our broken lives so weak and stained by life’s hardships be the place wherein Christ makes his home and through which Jesus’ light shines? How is this even possible?

I heard this week the story of someone recently walking through the woods. Without yet any snow on the ground to brighten things here in Ottawa, the landscape is shrouded in browns and darkish colours. Blah. While walking the forest path, she stopped at large, oak tree which still held its leaves.

But the leaves weren’t full and vibrant with life as you would see in late Spring. They were curled at the edges, no longer pulsing with life-sustaining chlorophyll. Like crumpled, dried paper, these leaves hung there, lifeless and dead. Just waiting for the inevitable drop to the ground.

In that instant, the clouds high above suddenly broke. And streams of sunlight immediately penetrated the darkened woods and shone upon these listless leaves. In that moment of brilliance the leaves were clothed in the light. They were animated in the sunshine and restored to an incredible vision of renewed life. They absorbed and reflected the light. Their previously deadened state was transformed.

In the darkness of predawn, it is indeed hard to believe there is anything but the night. But arise, awake! The light is coming. And when the son comes as it does every morning, we are transformed and renewed in the light. And our lives reflect again God’s grace and love.

 

[1]Patrick J. Howell in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.18.

[2]Romans 13:11-14; ibid., p.16.

[3]Ephesians 5:14.

[4]Matthew 24:42; Isaiah 43:19.

[5]Howell, ibid., p.14.

[6]Ray Leonardini, Finding God Within: Contemplative Prayer for Prisoners (New York: Lantern Books, 2018), p.1,41.

Faith alone not our faith alone

“Increase our faith,” we pray.

Isn’t that what we want? More faith to get us through the tough times. More faith to make us better people. More faith to tolerate things in life that set us off course. More faith to believe in things that are not easy to believe in. More. If only we had more.

In the BBC television series called “Broken” actor Sean Bean plays the role of Michael, a parish priest in a small, industrial town. In one of the episodes he answers a question from someone in the youth group curious as to why he chose the priesthood.

He tells the story of when he was eighteen years old he went one day with a crowd of people to visit a falconer on the side of a hill. To see such a large bird with a with a vast wingspan take flight was a treat for the villagers, many of whom had never before seen a falcon. The falconer took time describing the bird to the villagers and even had some of them feed it.

Then they all watched captivated by the sight of the majestic bird lifting off from the falconer’s outstretched arm. Michael saw the bird circle once overhead before heading out into the vast sky overlooking the valley below. The falcon became smaller and smaller—a small dot over the horizon—until it finally disappeared from view.

The afternoon wore on. People looked at the falconer and each other, wondering what to do. But the falconer did not move from his place on the side of the hill. The hours turned and the sun was setting in the western sky. What had started as a large crowd dissipated until there was only the falconer and Michael standing alone there. Michael wondered why the people had left.

He sympathized, for sure. Perhaps, as he was feeling, there was no point in hanging around anymore. The falcon was gone. How would it know to return to this very spot after ranging across a sky which was so vast and covered the whole world? Why would the falcon even care to return? It was now free to roam wherever it wanted to go. What more could it want?

To Michael’s surprise, but not it seemed to the falconer’s, as the darkness descended on the hillside he heard a flutter and rush of wings. The falcon had returned and now sat perched contentedly on the falconer’s arm. Michael could see the white of the falconer’s teeth showing from behind a smile that stretched from cheek to cheek. Michael laughed with delight.

Here was faith. And it was the falconer’s witness of faith that inspired Michael on his life journey. That the falconer had waited on that hillside for what seemed like forever. To stay there, when everyone else had gone home, even if it meant waiting alone. To have no guarantee that the falcon would return. To not have control over how long and when. And if. But only do what he was called to do: Let the falcon go. Let that bird with whom he had a relationship, to be sure, go.

“Increase our faith.”

Maybe it’s not our faith that is at stake here. These texts assigned for today can easily lead us into yet another guilt trip or glory trip—as if that’s what faith is all about! We are either not worthy enough, not good enough. Or, look – I’ve moved mountains! If only we had more, even more, faith!

“Increase our faith.”

The faith talked about in these passages are Christian, but perhaps not in the sense of the faith of the Christians. Because dwelling exclusively on our faith alone often gets us spiraling into dark holes of depression and feelings of unworthiness, defeat and failure. We hit walls of misunderstanding when we separate our faith from the faith of Christ, the One we trust. Here the central understanding is not our faith but faith in Christ, a faith that mirrors the faith of Christ.

It is like eighteen-year-old Michael watching the faith of the falconer.  What Michael ends up doing with his life is secondary. What is at stake, what is the most important thing in Michael’s experience on the side of that mountain one long afternoon, is not his own faith but someone else’s.

Timothy is charged to ‘rekindle’ the mustard seed of faith that is within him. The mustard seed is tiny, almost undetectable to the naked eye. We don’t often recognize the gift that is already there.[1]

Perhaps we too need to wait on the side of that hill, and not just give up and go home.

Timothy is encouraged that there is something good within him working long before he even became aware of it. He has to be reminded that “grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began”. And that we are called to good things, “not according to our works but according to [Christ’s] own purpose and grace.”[2]

In prayer, in our relationships and interactions, the search-light of consciousness turns off ourselves and onto the living Christ. When the attention turns away from our stuff—good and bad—and onto Jesus, I believe we may feel a needed lift. Our heart alights. The pressure for performance relaxes. The guilt dissipates. And we can start by simply being in awe about the One whose purposes and faithfulness and love reach far beyond our own self-preoccupations, weaknesses and accomplishments.

What transformed eighteen-year-old Michael was not an argument about faith, not a debate which he won or lost and convinced him either way what to do with his life. What transformed Michael was an encounter with someone who showed him the way, who practiced faith. Our call is not to win all the arguments but to forgive as we have been forgiven and to love as we have been loved.

We are called to get in touch with the Giver of the gift of faith. We are called to give thanks for the One who beckons for us to stay on the journey, calling us not worthless, but friends along the way.

Let our prayer of praise therefore shout from the rooftops: “Great is Thy Faithfulness!”[3]Amen.

 

[1]Luke 17:5-10

[2]2 Timothy 1:1-14

[3]Hymn 733, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006).

Search for love – a wedding sermon

There once was a little boy who decided he wanted to go find God. He knew it would probably be a long trip to find God, so he decided to pack a lunch, four packs of Twinkies and two cans of root beer.

He set out on his journey and went a few blocks until he came to a park. In this park on a bench, sat an old woman looking at the pigeons and feeding them.

The little boy had already walked quite a way, and thought it might be a good idea to sit down for a bit. So, he sat down on the park bench beside the old woman. And he watched the pigeons too. After a while he grew hungry and so he pulled out some Twinkies. As he ate, he noticed the woman watching him, so he offered her a Twinkie. The old woman gratefully accepted it and smiled at the boy.

There was something about her smile that fascinated the boy. He thought it was the most beautiful smile he had ever seen, and he wanted to see it again. So he brought out the cans of root beer, opened one and offered the old woman the other one. Once again, she smiled that beautiful smile. For a long time, the two sat on that park bench eating Twinkies, drinking root beer, smiling at each other, and watching and feeding the pigeons. But neither said a word.

Finally, the little boy realized that it was getting late and that it was time to go home. He started to leave, took a few steps, then turned back and gave the old woman a big hug. The old woman’s smile was brighter than ever before.

When he arrived back home, the boy’s mother noticed that her son was happy, yet somehow strangely quiet. “What did you do today?” she asked, trying to figure out what was going on. “Oh, I had lunch in the park with God,” he said. Before his mother could reply, he added, “You know, she has the most beautiful smile I have ever seen.”

Meanwhile, the woman had left the park and returned to her home. Her daughter noticed something different about her mother. “What did you do today, Mom?” she asked. “Oh, I ate Twinkies and drank root beer in the park with God,” she said. And before her daughter could say anything, she added. “You know, he is a lot younger than I had imagined.”

Often when we set out on significant journeys of our lives we have big expectations. We set out to find love, to find something of the divine, fulfillment in life, maybe even God. We make choices, then, that are based on these larger-than-life expectations.

The problem is, that when we don’t, when other people and experiences don’t reflect our utopic visions, we are disappointed and may even despair. But what we have failed to do is find God, or true love, or our deepest needs in the mundane, ordinary, common life, day-to-day experiences.

In many ways this day for you, Katherine and Max, is perfect. It is certainly a day set apart for you in exquisite ways. A unique natural setting. You both look beautiful. You are surrounded by the people closest to you. This place is beautiful, being outside in God’s natural creation. What a day!

At the same time, I hope you remain open to being surprised on your journey, moving forward. I hope you keep your eyes open to those moments, perhaps, when no words are said, perhaps in the regular routines of day-in and day-out.

They say the spaces between the notes in music are part of the music. The pauses. The rests. When no sound is made. Those can be the most important moments in appreciating a musical piece.

Being so attuned to one another in marriage, when sometimes no words are necessary. Experiencing the divine while sitting on a park bench eating Twinkies and drinking root beer of all things. Finding simple delight in the moments of grace, in the least expected circumstances of life, when Life smiles at you. When Love embraces you.

“Love only endures when it moves like waves …” I think that’s my favourite line in the James Kavanaugh poem.[1]Like the waves on the lake behind us there is a rhythm in nature that I believe describes well the pattern and truth of love and life. That we find it not just in its full-on force expressed like when the wind blows and the waves crash on the shore and the music is played at its loudest. But also, just as real, when there is a pause, when the waves retreat. When there is a moment of silence. Who would have thought? Are we listening, and are we watching there, too?

On your marriage journey, Katherine and Max, may you find the way filled with park benches, Twinkies, root beers and wordless silence where you can experience in each other the loving presence of a faithful God who will always find us.

With a smile.

 

[1] James Kavanaugh, “To Love is not to Possess”

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.

The raising of Love

If I told you that during this past week I bumped into a bunch of little, green aliens that landed in my backyard in their saucer-shaped UFO, I doubt you would believe me.[1]  I also doubt anyone would believe it if you or I brought someone back from death to life.

Yet, that is what the story from Acts implies. Following the resurrection of Jesus, Peter raises from actual death the woman named Tabitha. It isn’t Jesus that is now raising dead people. It isn’t Jesus alone performing such miracles. These are common men and women, like you and me.

How can we accept the miracle of resurrection? How can we believe that ordinary human beings can experience such an incredible degree of change within themselves and others? Death to life is probably the most radical change we can imagine. And yet, this is the very proposition of the resurrection.

On the one hand, we know that nothing is the same forever. So says modern science: ninety-eight percent of our bodies’ atoms are replaced every year; Geologists can prove with good evidence that no landscape is permanent. And, apparently so do people of faith: In the introduction to a mainline liturgy for a funeral service it says: “Life is not ended but merely changed.”[2]

In the short term any change can look and feel like a death. Perhaps that is why we tend to be change-averse. What we really are is death-averse, even though dying must precede any kind of resurrection and new life. The challenge of the Easter message for us is to accept our part in the very natural yet incredible change that is happening in our lives.

Perhaps that is the miracle: to believe change to this degree is possible. And happening, already. So, we affirm the Easter proclamation: Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

How do we live Christ’s resurrection in our lives?

First of all, I believe we must confess the limits of words alone to describe the meaning of resurrection. We need to go beyond words to describe the truth surrounding the mystery of Christ’s resurrection. Apparently, it was too great a mystery for artists in the first centuries as well.

Until the 6thcentury, the moment of Jesus’ resurrection was deemed unpaintable or uncarvable.[3] Trying to capture, as we would today with a camera, how Jesus appeared and what resurrection looked like is a task too difficult to pin down in a one-time, concrete way. Understanding ‘resurrection’ is not easy but easily can bewilder us as it did those early Christians.

Eventually, certain symbols emerged as telltale signs identifying the Christ-like way and understanding. We know, for example, that before the cross became the central symbol for empire Christians, the fish identified followers of the Way[4] especially during times of persecution. These symbols helped non-literate early century people identify with the profound and ineffable meaning of Christ’s resurrection.

Another symbol that circulated among early Christians was the gazelle. Yes, the gazelle. The symbol of the gazelle became the all-inclusive mark of Christ-like love.

Where the early Christians struggled, for example, with how, or whether, to welcome Jewish people into the Way, the gazelle incorporated and communicated the love of God to do so. Should they include the circumcised? Or not? Could you be ritually impure, and still belong? The image of the gazelle communicated the emphatic ‘yes’ to the questions that Paul would later put in words.

The image of the gazelle pre-dates Christianity. In Jewish art the gazelle was used as a symbol for YAHWEH/God. Even more specifically, the gazelle was used to illustrate the life-giving character of YAHWEH. Why is this important for our discussion of the text from Acts?

Well, the author of this raising-to-life scripture story from Acts introduces the woman named Tabitha in both the Aramaic and Greek languages. That, in and of itself, is significant, in casting the message of the life-giving God to include more than just one group in early-century Palestine. At the same time, the bilingual reference may very well be a writing technique to draw our attention into the meaning of this woman’s name.

In Greek and Jewish culture, everything is in the name. So, let’s go with it. Back to Tabitha. Dorcas, in Greek, literally means ‘gazelle’. Now, bear with me, ‘gazelle’ is a word that literally comes from an older Arabic word for LOVE. We sometimes call this splendid creature an antelope.

I know that we don’t often encounter gazelles in Canada. But they are very common in the Middle East especially the variety that has become known as the Dorcas antelope, which literally means the “love love”. This is why in a culture where the majority could not read, images of the gazelle were used to represent the details of the faith and life-giving character of YAHWEH who is LOVE.

The woman—Tabitha/Dorcas—symbolizes something far greater than we can even begin to imagine at first. For she bears the name of YAHWEH who is LOVE. This story carries us beyond the physical resuscitation of the body of a first century woman. This story carries us beyond the mechanics of a resurrection ‘miracle.’

Clearly, the author here has set his listeners up for a story that expresses more than words can tell. Should we pay attention to it. And go there.

This is the story of the raising of love in the lives of those who follow Christ. This, alone, is a miracle when it happens. The life and love of Christ being raised in us and in the world around us! Can we see it? Can we perceive it? Can we hear the voice of Christ whispering in our hearts to ‘love love’?

Last year at this time when I spent a week in Algonquin Park, I didn’t meet any aliens. But I do recall talking to you about the ice on the lake. In the span of the few days I was there, the lake went from being ice-covered, to completely ice-free. It was incredible to witness such a significant change in the life of the lake, in such a short time frame. In fact, it came as a surprise.

You might call it, the resurrection of the lake. A couple warmer days strung together and a day of rain and wind, and … voilà! When I hiked out of the bush on the last day I could not detect one chunk of ice. If it weren’t for the budding leaves on trees around the lake and the still-cool temperatures you would think we were in the middle of summer the way the lake looked.

How different it was on the first day of that week! A sheet of white ice had locked the waters in its icy grip. It looked like that that ice wasn’t going anywhere for a long time! To suggest the ice would be completely gone in a few days — I wouldn’t believe it. The radical change was imperceptible. Or, was it?

I sat on the banks of the lake shore on the second day, surveying the field of drifting snow and glimmering ice stretching across the entire surface of the lake. It was quiet, except for the occasional chirping of a bird and the sound of the wind through the pines above. But when everything was still, I heard it.

First, it was subtle, barely detectible. A cracking, a knocking, a whining and groaning. Things were shifting below the surface. The ice was beginning to break up!

Although I couldn’t notice it with my eyes, I could hear it. Just. The change was happening. But only by hearing it, being open to it, paying attention to it. And giving myself a chance, in the first place, to be present to it.

Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice … and they follow me.”[5] It’s not easy nor always quick to recognize God’s call amid the cacophony of sounds and distractions in our world. It’s not easy to discern the will of God in a complex society with moral questions and conundrums that can leave us spinning with confusion and mental paralysis . The noise can be enough to burn us out and leave us despairing.

The noise of delusion, false aspiration, needless worry; the allure of addiction, distraction and material comfort. It’s hard to hear that “still, small voice” of God’s resurrection change in the world and in our life. To recognize it, we must practice and learn how to pay attention, again, to the melting of the ice in God’s love.

Maybe, now that Christ is alive, it’s about a power that permeates all things. Maybe that power is a love that includes Jesus as much as it includes Peter, Tabitha, you and me. Maybe resurrection is about experiencing God’s love in all my relationships.

What a wonder to behold! What a love to live into!

No wonder so many are seeking solace in the practice of meditation—a safe place being in silence and stillness to practice paying attention, and listening to the voice of Jesus. Christians have meditated together since the early church in the form of the “Jesus Prayer”, for example. I encourage you to try it if you haven’t already.[6]

We all need starting points. The melting ice on the lake needed to start melting and breaking apart. Prayer in this way is a good starting point from which to live into the resurrection we share with all people and all of creation in the risen Christ Jesus. This prayer involves me in the life of Christ in the world that God so loved. I don’t have to worry whether or not I have the power to do these things—it is the life of Christ who works these miracles in me and in the world!

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! Thanks be to God!

 

[1]Please read the comprehensive and insightful sermon by the Rev. Dawn Hutchings, The Raising of LOVE: the ‘more-than-literal’ meaning of the Raising of Tabitha – a sermon on Acts 9:36-41 (www.pastordawn.wordpress.com). I gratefully draw on her alien illustration, her research on the meaning of Tabitha’s name, and the reference to the dorcas antelope/gazelle. Thank you, Dawn, for your words.

[2]Richard Rohr, Raised from the Dead; Jesus’ Resurrection(Daily Meditation, www.cac.org), April 24, 2019

[3]Richard Rohr, From Darkness to Light; Jesus’ Resurrection(Daily Meditation, www.cac.org), April 25, 2019

[4]Acts 18:26; 19:9; 24:14

[5]John 10:27

[6]Faith has a weekly Christian Meditation group, which meets at 5pm on Wednesdays. See www.faithottawa.ca/calendarfor details.

funeral sermon: with 4 wheels on the ground

I remember that winter day. It was -20c and the roadways were covered with snow and ice. And yet, I was feeling pretty proud of myself. Coming into the west-end near Stittsville, the Queensway was empty. And it was mid-morning on a weekday!

I was powering it through! A little snowfall wasn’t going to impede me. I was going at my regular speed in the passing lane and was wondering why very few were venturing onto the highway. And then I saw a car had spun out, resting against the guardrail perpendicular to me at the side of the 417 in front of the Canadian Tire Centre. And a little farther I witnessed another car spinning out of control.

I decided to slow down, and tapped the brake. Mistake #1. I felt the wheels begin to float underneath me. I then stepped on the gas to try to get grip. Mistake #2. The fish-tailing was starting to feel like a swan dive. I was losing it!

Thankfully in that moment, I remembered what my drivers-ed teacher taught me thirty years ago: Step off the gas! I think we instinctively associate stepping on the gas with more control — in all circumstances; the more I give, the more I expend, the more I put myself out there — the better it’ll be.

But in this case, the solution was to let go and just keep the steering wheel pointed forward. And as soon as I let off the accelerator, the four wheels found purchase, and I was able to recover. It is a little bit counter-intuitive for us in our get’er done culture to divest ourselves of the belief that doing more about something will save us from whatever predicament we find ourselves in. Sometimes, in tough situations, we just have to let off the gas, a bit.

When a loved one dies, we must do what might feel counter-intuitive to what love is. We need to let go. To let-go takes love.

Life came to a crashing halt for you last week. The shock, the heaviness, the sudden change in your lives now that Mark is gone—all threaten to overwhelm you in grief. Maybe these days all you can do is bring to mind memories that stand out.

One very clear memory from your life with Mark is at the racetrack. Car racing—whether at Capital City before it closed, or Cornwall and Brockville—brought you together in the enjoyment of life.

God created each one of us to have 4×4 capability, to drive on the road of life. If you have four-wheel-drive, you normally have the option, when you need it, to engage all four wheels in the power-train instead of just the two front wheels. Four-wheel-drive comes in handy especially in snowy, icy winter conditions, or when you drive off-road in mud, over rocks and in fields.

Now, I believe most of us who have this four-wheel-drive option don’t really need it for 99% of the time we drive, even in winter. For most of our lives, things may go reasonably well for many of us. Life is good. We get by. We may even enjoy many of the blessings of a good life.

But there will still be times in our lives when we will suffer. There will be times in our lives when our health will fail and we come face to face with our limitations. We will suffer loss and even tragedy. We will suffer the pressures and stresses of family and work and the conflicts of being in relationships with others.

And when we do, we will need the four-wheel-drive option that is built right into our make-up. We do, so God created each of us, have the capability to engage the off-road bumps and potholes. We do, so God created each of us, have the capability to engage those slippery, icy, even dangerous road conditions.

Yes, using four-wheel-drive burns more gas. It’s not the most fuel-efficient way of driving. We use up more energy. It will be difficult, trying, even exhausting. Working through our grief pushes us past our comfort zones, to be sure. But we do have the capability, this gift, and we should use it. Try it.

And here’s the wonder of it: When we must engage the four-wheel-drive option and drive down that unknown, sometimes scary, road, being jostled about on the uneven, narrow way, we discover that God sits right beside us in the car.

You see, the engine won’t ever fail, because the capability for off-roading is a quality of God’s love. Love is the fuel, the energy, the power behind this effort. And this love is shown to us by God. God loves us, even when we make mistakes, when we falter, even when crash, even when we will have an accident. God is with us. And God’s love and unfailing presence sustains us.

In the scripture I read, I hope you heard those words from Saint Paul: “Salvation is nearer to us now, than when we became believers” (Romans 13:11). When we first become aware of the love of God for us, maybe a long time ago, that is great! This may be some significant turning point, or an incredible experience when the beauty, joy, peace and glory of life radiate all around us.

That was then, this is now. Since then, we may have thought little about God and dismissed any notions of participating in the life of the church.

It doesn’t matter, now. Because the point is, right now you are off-roading. And now that you may be using that 4×4 capability on the rough patches of the road of life, God is even closer to you.

Regardless of our past. Now that we may be suffering and enduring the pain of loss, God is even closer to us. It’s built right in. God “… will not forsake his people; God will not abandon the work of his hands” (Psalm 94:14).

God created Mark. God has not forsaken Mark in his time of greatest need. God has not abandoned Mark at his most vulnerable moment of life and death. And God will not abandon you.

After all, God is right next to you on the road of life.