Slo-mo prayer

Everyone’s happy for the extra time off in March. For those in school, children and teachers can enjoy some leisure and vacation time. Then, at the end of the month, comes the extra long, four-day weekend at a time when Spring and warmer weather brightens our days.

Indeed, the holy days are upon us. But it’s not really just party time. It looks like that on the surface or at the start: The singing of hosannas, palm branches waving, praising the coming of the Messiah into Jerusalem riding a … wait. A pony? Is this a joke?

Palm Sunday starts the final leg, so to speak, on our Lenten journey. And what seems on the surface like the start of a holiday (that is, to relax and enjoy some well-earned leisure and play) is in truth an invitation to go deeper and reflect not only on the good life, but to go underneath and look at our suffering and pain. In Christian language, we call it the crosses we bear.

It is time now to look at the big picture of our life without ignoring the present sometimes difficult reality. How can we do that?

This Holy Week we are invited to slow down. And take a deep breath. And be honest, with ourselves and the truth of our lives. Not to grovel in a depressive, morbid mire of self-hate. But to lift to the light everything that has been hidden, kept secret, denied, overlooked, suppressed in the shadows and dark recesses of our hearts. In the end, it can be cause of a deeper joy and freedom; at first, though, it can be distressing and anxious-filled.

The path of Jesus shows us the way through it all. Where Jesus goes and how he does it offers us a way to forgiveness, release and true happiness. But first we must bear our cross. As we slow down, we pray.

Pray. As Jesus, on the night of his arrest, commanded his sleepy disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane not once but twice: “Get up and pray, that you may not come into the time of trail” (Luke 22:40,46). Jesus not only shows us what to pray, but also how to pray.

I follow the Ottawa Senators NHL team on Instagram. And before every game they post a short video montage, lasting no more than 15 seconds or so, of the players getting ready for the big game.

What’s attractive about the video to me, is to see how they splice together several brief clips of various moves the players make on and off the ice: back-slapping a team mate, practising a slap shot, the goalie making a glove save, skating towards the puck, a pre-game ritual.

But what keeps my attention is where the editors choose to speed up and slow down a few of the segments. Strategically done in an appealing way, the montage goes back and forth between periodic slow-motion action clips and real-time moves.

The whole presentation is enhanced because the real time rapid action shots are interspersed with slow motion shots. In fact, because they slow down some of the action, I can appreciate and enjoy a particular move even more — for all the skill and intention it entails.

In other words, it’s not boring. Slowing down, from time to time, actually gives energy. Slowing down, from time to time, gives clarity, focus and meaning to the activity and the whole picture. Slowing down, from time to time, allows me to get a good look at what is actually happening in all that I do.

And that’s what we do when we pray as Jesus did. Throughout his life of ministry, Jesus moved around a lot in the region of Galilee — healing people and teaching them about God. He covered great distances by foot. He didn’t even have a home base. 

But as was his custom, even before suffering betrayal, arrest and branded a criminal to die a horrific death on the cross, Jesus slowed things down. He went to quiet places on a hillside, by himself usually, to pray.

The feeling I have every Palm Sunday is like I’m seeing a video montage of Jesus’ life, ministry, and Passion. Just short segments highlighted with the larger flow of the story. Certain shots are in real time, sometimes even sped up because we also see the cross on Palm Sunday. But then there are the segments that slow right down.

Jesus was already practised in the art of slowing down to pray, so that from the cross came two prayers that can not be rushed, denied, suppressed, hidden: There’s a prayer for forgiveness (“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” – Luke 23:34) and a prayer of relinquishment/release (“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” – Luke 23:46). (1)

Whom was Jesus forgiving? The disciples who deserted him, the Roman soldiers who killed him, the ruling religious elite who condemned him to death, yes. Was he forgiving us all forever, for all our sins? This is the Gospel.

Did they “know what they were doing”? Only in part. None of us knows the full extent of our sinning or the full harm we do. God’s forgiveness covers all.

In his prayer of relinquishment, Jesus offers to his Father – Abba – what he has been offering all along: his life into the hands of God who is ever faithful. Jesus quotes Psalm 31, an evening prayer which may very well have been the bedtime prayer for Hebrew children and their parents. It is the prayer of “letting go”.

And Jesus asks his disciples to do the same. So, we can say, especially bearing our own crosses: “O God, take my sticky fingers off the controls, and place my life and life of my loved ones in better hands than mine. In your hands.”

It’s in our nature not to want to slow down. It’s in our nature to go-go-go. Slowing down, being silent and still, forgiving and letting go, is especially difficult in our day and age when we are so used to being stimulated by rapid-fire activity, lots of noise, and when we have total control.

The irony is that our lives of activity and go-go-go will have even more effect should we also intersperse that activity with regular times of slowing down to pray as Jesus did.

It has always been a tradition for Christians to pray silently, to just be, in the presence of God. We pray without having to do a whole lot. And this reminds us that God is already with us, Jesus already loves us and is already doing stuff in the world — even before we do anything. The practice of prayer has given Christians through the centuries great energy and peace for life, even more so had they not made the time for prayer.

If someone would do a video montage of your life to date — reviewing all the things you have done, places you’ve visited, people you’ve been with — would it also include shots of you being silent, still, praying by yourself and with others?

I think that would make a really cool video!

(1) – H. Stephen Shoemaker in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word” Year C, Volume 2, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2009, p.183

Not a passive remembrance

I catch myself whenever I pin my poppy on my lapel wondering: How is it that I am living out this symbol of remembrance? In my own life, and in the community of faith, how are we demonstrating the values of freedom and protecting the dignity of all people? For example, it is estimated that some 140 war veterans are homeless on the streets of Ottawa. Men and women who gave their lives to service of this great country are now destitute. What are we doing about that?
Because in the Gospel text today (Mark 12:38-44) Jesus condemns those whose mere formal, ritual observance characterizes their faith. When ‘saying prayers’ is the only thing we do as Christians. There may be times in our lives when that is all we can do. Yet if the practice of faith is enacted solely as a “pro forma ceremony”, it only reveals a questionable faith and a “fallow, craven piety” (1).
What problem does Jesus identify here? Well, the religious leaders “devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say their prayers” (v.40). Their heart is not in their religion, we may say. They typify the delusion of sacrifice — believing they give more than they should but less than they can. In the end, whatever they perform to impress others does not really change their lives. Their worship does not call forth from them any measure of risk and trust. It does not involve their whole being.
Are you, like me, feeling increasingly uncomfortable? As is the case with difficult Gospel texts, we may perform an impressive, interpretive slalom course around the issue. We may focus on the money, for example: “Shouldn’t the temple treasury be happy for the large amounts of money given by the rich? What is Jesus doing offending the rich? Not very smart!” 
Or, our self-justification may target the poor. We idealize the sacrifice they make. But to what extent? To justifying a social-economic system that maintains benefits to the rich and demands even greater sacrifice from the poor? But, in the end, Jesus’ words suggest that what is important here is not the amount of money, per se. Why? Yes, both the rich and the poor give varying amounts. 
But both give to the temple treasury that will soon be utterly destroyed. This gospel story in Mark is positioned right at the end of Jesus’ public ministry, and right before his temple speech and passion story — Jesus’ suffering and death on the Cross. In the verses that immediately follow this text, Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple — “not one stone will be left upon the other” (13:1ff). 
When you compare the amount of pages that the passion stories in all of the gospels occupy, that material is proportionally greater than everything else in the gospels including Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry. The story of the “widow’s mite” abuts right up against the beginning of Mark’s telling of Jesus’ journey to the Cross. This literary structure must therefore influence our reading of it. 
Jesus not only condemns the heartless, faithless pretence of giving, he shows that unjust, self-serving religious enterprise won’t last. You could say anyone giving anything to the temple was ‘throwing their money away’ to a worthless cause. At best, we could say that the widow gives everything she has to an institution that does not deserve it. 
The only true mark of religion is how the institutional community engages the poor. Our Sunday morning worship services mean absolutely nothing if what we do here does not translate into practical life-giving, grace-abounding giving of who we are and what we have to the world out there.
This passage gives us the opportunity to explore what it means to put in everything we have on the line, and all that we are to live on as people of faith. The giving of ourselves will have power when we put our heart, and our full trust, in God who will not abandon us in this giving.
An apple tree never tastes its own fruit. The fruit is meant to be tasted by others. Martin Luther would plant an apple tree even if he knew the world would end tomorrow. The point is the gift of grace is meant to be given. Our responsibility is not the preoccupation with the final result. The temple was going to be destroyed anyway. But did that mean no one should bother giving to it?
It is worth it! We are that apple tree, producing fruit to be enjoyed by all. If we stop producing fruit, then we stop being who we are as Christians. It is the free act of giving where value and meaning is experienced.
The test of a Christian community is this: If we asked the poor for a letter of reference, would they give it to us? How welcome do all people feel here? Do all people, regardless of their station in life, feel safe to be themselves in this place? Someone once said that a church without the poor is a place God has obviously left.
Who is our neighbour? As we look to our neighbours who are vulnerable, marginal and even despised — the homeless, Aboriginals, the physically disabled, newcomers to Canada, refugees, seniors, Muslims, gays and lesbians, rich and poor: these are our neighbours. They live among us, beside us, even in the church. If we say we are welcoming, does our congregation have a letter of reference from these people?
We shall not despair! Regardless of how we interpret the widow’s offering, this bible story ultimately is not about how much we should give.
It’s about how much Jesus will soon give for a people who do not deserve it.
The story of the widow’s mite, in the end, points towards the greater sacrifice Jesus will make — Jesus, who will give his life and his all for us, a people not deserving of God’s grace yet recipients of it nonetheless.
Where does that leave us?
To be changed, to change. We read in the Bible about people who are changed in Jesus’ presence: Peter, John, Paul, just to name a few. On the road to Damascus, on the beaches of Lake Galilee, in the synagogue and temple — When people encountered Jesus, their lives changed. How can we presume, then, that we ought not be changed ourselves in the presence of a God who pays attention to every detail of our life.
As we shift our gaze outward and reach outward to pay attention to who is around us, we discover that Jesus is paying attention to us. As he sat in the temple, across from the treasury watching people come to make their offerings, so Jesus notices us — not in a ‘ready-to-pounce’ judging way. Jesus is not the cosmic policeman watching to catch us in the act. But only to bring loving light to the truth of our lives.
In the end, Jesus pays attention to the details of our lives and beckons us to journey with him to the Cross. Because no matter how good we are, or how bad, Jesus gives himself for us out of love and grace. Though we may be unworthy of God’s love, Jesus still makes the ultimate sacrifice. We, and everyone else, are still worth it — still worth God’s incredible sacrifice and love.
(1) Emilie M. Townes in Bartlett & Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word: Year B Volume 4” WJK Press, 2009, p.286

Marriage: valuing difference

I am an identical twin. Whenever people see my brother and me together, usually the first reaction is to express how similar we look and act. People, it seems, naturally start with what appears to unite us and make us ‘the same’.

When two people celebrate a marriage, again what seems to be the focus is on what they must share in common, what makes them ‘one’. In various marriage traditions the unity of the couple is, obviously, presumed. In Christianity we read the scriptures about ‘two becoming one’; leave in order to cleave (Matthew 19:5; Ephesians 5:31).

We may therefore read into such a coming together a complete blending of the individuals, almost as if the two people in marriage must dissolve their separateness into one kind of amorphous blob. Somehow, it feels like individuality needs to be ‘erased’, we feel, in a proper marriage.

As a twin, I am continually intrigued by what challenges not only my twin relationship but other kinds of relationships as well: It is more difficult to consider our differences, what is dissimilar, between people as something to celebrate and lift up.

I am impressed by your differences that stand in sharp relief this weekend as you exchange wedding vows. Because, the very foundation of the way you are getting married is based on your differences. Not on something you share as the same.

Each of you come into the marriage union with a different and distinct set of religious beliefs. One is baptized Christian and the other is Hindu. In order to celebrate the marriage, you participated in a Hindu ceremony on Saturday, and then a Christian worship service on Sunday.

Using this experience as an important marker on your journey of life, I want to encourage you to continue celebrating the differences between you. Stand on your own two feet, albeit side by side. A healthy marriage will reflect two, distinct points of view. Don’t deny the individual journeys and identities of each person that brought you together in the first place, lest not those identities be diminished, ignored, suppressed or repressed in the course of your marriage. A healthy marriage will reflect an activity and character that results in two sets of feet moving in tension as in a dance, albeit in the same direction.

Kahlil Gibran, born in northern Lebanon, was an early twentieth century philosophical essayist, novelist, poet and artist whose 1923 book, “The Prophet”, is considered a classic in Arab literature. It is in this book that his poetry on marriage highlights the paradoxical nature of a true coming together, and a true unity of separate souls:

You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.

You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.

Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.

But let there be spaces in your togetherness,

And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another, but make not a …[smothering] of love;

Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.

Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf

Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,

Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.

For only the hand of Life [God] can contain your hearts.

And stand together yet not too near together:

For the pillars of the temple stand apart, 

And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.[emphasis mine]

“Let their be spaces in our togetherness.”

What you are showing us is that we need not be afraid of what is different in the world today. We need not be afraid of what we don’t understand, just because it is a ‘mystery’. A mystery is not something we can’t understand; a mystery is infinitely understandable. Always unfolding. Always yielding and revealing new insights. Always inviting us to learn more, appreciate more, and love more. This is the true adventure and ongoing discovery of marriage and love.

You see, there is really only one reason, one motivation, one activity that gives charge, energy and purpose to your differentiated union. It is love. It is the passion and pure first love, born in the human heart, despite all the differences of our lives. Not denying them. Simply placing those differences in the perspective of love. The movement of love in your heart brings you into conversation and dialogue in the first place. And then, this love leads you both into deeper expressions of joy and intimacy.

Without needing to control the other, or force the other to change into our likeness. Love does not demand subservience. Love does not force another into submission. Love is not controlling of the other. Instead, love respects another who is different, seeks to understand the other. Love forgives the other and listens to them.

God is love. And that is why we are here today. As Lutheran pastor and teacher, Dr. Kristen Johnston Largen, writes, there is “inherent value in difference – even religious difference” (Interreligious Learning & Teaching, Fortress Press Minneapolis, 2014, p.79). Religious difference, in truth, is “part of God’s plan, rather than an obstacle to it.”

Love calls us out of our comfort zones, into the sometimes challenging and messy realities of being with another and participating in another’s field of life. On the one hand respecting one’s own integrity in doing so; at the same time, boldly entering another’s life. Marriage, in this way, is one of the best schools of love.

Raimon Panikkar, who was one of the most creative voices working in the area of interreligious dialogue encouraged people of different faiths to remember that “We belong together, even if our notions and codes are incompatible” (quoted in Largen, ibid., p.81). We belong together, in relationships of love. The scriptures you chose for your Christian wedding reflect this central tenet of Christianity (1 John 4:9-12, 1 Corinthians 13:4-13).

In the Christian faith, God is understood in a relationship. We call it, “The Holy Trinity” – three persons as one God. The truth of our lives is demonstrated most clearly in relation to one another. Because each of us has gifts and strengths to offer the other. In marriage, you individually have something the other needs, and the other can teach you a thing or two – I am sure! Each can learn from another, each from our own areas of strength.

For God bringing us together today.

For God bringing you both together in love.

Amidst the diversity, difference and distinctions of our common lives.
We give thanks. And praise be to God.

Amen.

Rules of the Gate

“I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out, and find pasture” (John 10:9).

It would seem to me that the “gate” that is Jesus, ought to channel my thinking, my values and my directions in life.

Admittedly, there is a very strict etiquette to gates; a rule book that you must follow because not to do so may cost dearly, or lead to death, or destroy a family’s livelihood. What are the ‘rules of the gate’?

Well, the first that comes to my mind is, ‘shut the gate after you.’ It’s okay to open the gate to let yourself through but you must make sure it’s closed and fastened just the way you found it, once you’re the other side.

Other rules perhaps aren’t so obvious – if the gate’s held open, under no circumstances must you shut it, especially if you live on an farm with herds of cattle, sheep, horses, etc.. After all, the herd’s access to water is through that open gateway; if you close it disaster may follow: Animals may force themselves through hedges or fences onto a railway line or highway in their search for water with consequences too horrible to dwell on.

Rules also apply to climbing over the gate rather than opening it. Always climb near the hinges so that your weight doesn’t put a levered strain on those very hinges and potentially bend or even break them. The same applies to where you aim yourself if you’re going to vault the gate.

And if you’re tempted (and supple enough) to crawl under a gate – don’t – you’ll wear away the ground and encourage others to do the same until eventually animals will also do likewise. And, of course, always use the gate no matter how much extra effort it involves because to avoid it by scrambling over a wall, pushing through a hedge, or scaling a fence has potential for damage that animals will seek out and follow.

With gates there are rules. With gates there are principles of which to be aware. With gates come obligations that every person should follow. These are things to think on when Jesus calls himself the gate.

Whatever else the metaphor means, it’s clear that it’s about Jesus as the single entrance to the community of the faithful. We can only be part of this flock by going through this one gateway – and in that is our security and our protection. There is no other way in. Jesus is the very gate itself. The strength and clarity of that image is, I think, obvious.

But that isn’t the only thing this images means.

Jesus, the master of parables, uses metaphor in a rich and involving way that encourages his hearers to think long and hard about the images he uses. He requires of us that thinking because it makes us part of his people. We are involved in using his thoughts; musing on his meanings; and engaging with the pictures he himself has given us.

His story-telling style is one that asks effort on our part so that we can live within the images and symbols that he thought important. He speaks in a way that deliberately draws us closer to him. He makes us active participants in his telling, his living, of salvation. We are never just the audience.

An English lad got himself a summer job working on one of the Canadian Great Lakes – it was a real adventure for him. Of course on the application form he had to answer certain questions about his suitability for the job. When it came to the vital one about whether he was able to swim, he wrote: ‘Yes, I learnt the motions of swimming at my secondary school.’

Inevitably the day came when he fell off his employer’s motor boat. There followed wild splashing and shouting. He was clearly in trouble and had to be rescued. When on the lakeshore he had recovered from his ordeal he was asked about his answer on the form. ‘Yes,’ he said, I learnt the motions of swimming at school but I found them hard to put into practice.’ (Thank you to Christopher Burkett for many of the words and illustrations here come from his sermon, “Finding the Gate” in the online resource: Preacher Rhetorica, 2014)

And indeed they are! You can only learn swimming by swimming. Knowing the motions helps, but that’s no substitute for getting wet! It’s the difference between ‘knowing about’ and ‘knowing.’ This is why the Jesus method of teaching requires of us practice. He doesn’t tell us about living faithfully; instead he asks us to know faithful living from the inside. It’s not ‘You might compare my place in our community to something like a gate,’ but ‘I am the gate.’ It is as easy, but also as engagingly complex, as that. ‘Work out your living with me as the gate,’ says Jesus. Take this image and make it part of your living.

Don’t only know about the motions – like the lad and his swimming. Don’t dwell on the theory, as essential as that might be sometimes. But rather let the image, the symbol, the story become the lens through which you see your living of the faithful life. You can’t get faith ready to wear, off the peg. It’s not a system you can be drilled, or forced, or argued into. No, faith is an adventure of heart and mind where you write the script that utilizes the ideas, the images, the symbols that Jesus provides. Jesus, the master story-teller, gives us enough material for a lifetime and more.

A way through the gate is what is needed. Helping each other to a way through – to the way through, is our witness as people of faith. How do we do that?

When Bishop Michael Pryse (Eastern Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) met with the Christian Council of the (Ottawa) Capital Area last week, he addressed some good questions about what keeps us from actively pursuing and growing relationships with people of differing faiths from ours. Bishop Pryse said that what motivates him to engage people who are different from him is that doing so always “brings out the best Christian” in him.

Contrary to what we might first think — that hanging out with Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, Baptists, United Church members or Anglicans could ‘water down’ our faith as Lutherans or Christians — engaging the diverse community of faith in truth enhances our loyalty to and conviction in our Lutheran-Christian identity. If anything we should seek out, not avoid, building relationships with those who are different from us, because it may very well encourage to “bring out the best Christian” in us.

The strategy, or rules of engagement, are threefold: First, be a friend. Second, make a friend. And then, bring a friend to Jesus. In that order! These gate rules are, essentially, about practising compassion, care and grace. That’s the best way to be a friend, then make a friend, then bring a friend to Jesus. NOT by trying to persuade the other they are wrong and we are right. That’s not how you be a friend — by trying to win one over against the stranger — to compete with them, to say, “My way is better than your way.” That’s not how you make a friend or keep a friend, is it?

You would expect me to say that the ways to go through the gate are the routes and rules of religion – faithfulness in prayer, in receiving communion, in working with the scriptures, in the giving of effort, time and cash to godly purposes. And that is certainly the case – these are tried and tested pathways. But the Jesus way of engaging us and the world in his saving life does more.

Remember, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment: to “love another” (John 13:34; 15:12). Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount: “There is no other commandment greater than greatest of these” — to love God and love neighbour (Mark 12:31). Paul writes to the Galatians: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (5:14).

The image of the gate asks of us effort, imagination and personal involvement. Jesus is the life. And we are to live in his way and dwell in his truth, that we may live his risen life. One of the things the resurrection of Christ means is that all the old criteria of judgement no longer apply – the ultimate criterion of death is no more.

We are to be a people who measure things not by the scarcity of death but by the abundant, resurrection life of Jesus. Let there be an end to cynicism and despair. We need each other to keep that measure bright and usable. Knowing each other; sustaining each other; bearing with each other; encouraging other; learning of each other; supporting each other – in joy as well as trouble.

Following these ‘rules of the gate’ will get us to pasture, through the valley of the shadow of death, and into the life, the light, and the love of Christ, eternal.

“There is a place we can find, a good place
like quiet meadows where flowers spread,
like green grasses by gentle streams;
a place where the heart feels nourished,
where the mind is hopeful, unhurried,
where the spirit is glad and at peace.
We’ll name this place fulfillment,
we’ll name it healing and thankfulness,
we’ll name this good place pasture
for there we seek to feed.

And there is a voice we can hear that calls us,
a gentle voice, melodious,
a voice like songbirds and laughter,
like a mother comforting her children,
like a shepherd calling his sheep.
We’ll name this voice acceptance,
we’ll name it mercy and forgiveness,
we’ll name it the voice of God’s love,
inviting us gently to feed.

It invites us to enter pasture
when we think we’re too hurting to listen,
too angry or grieving or fearful
to hear the voice that calls us to peace.

It invites us to enter pasture
when we’re sure we’re too busy to listen,
too burdened or worried or pressured
to hear the voice that calls us to peace.

It says: Come in and go out and find pasture.
It says: We are safe with the shepherd of all sheep.
It says: Meadows await us, in this moment.
It says: Rest in love. Where you are. Joyfully feed.”

“Pasture”, from Andrew King’s web blog, A Poetic Kind Of Place

Mandela – true power

 

His life began with aspirations for security and success. His was, like many of ours in youth, a life learning all about – as Richard Rohr puts it – ‘a language of ascent’. He hoped for a safe career as a civil servant.

Then, responding to the ravaged politics of racism, he protested with others in the streets of South Africa and was arrested in a demonstration against apartheid.

He said he was willing to die for the values of equality among people in his divided country.

He didn’t die for his conviction at the time. But was sentenced to life in prison. Early photos of Nelson Mandela show a young, stalwart, brusque-looking man in exercise clothes. The impression is one of strength, emanating a ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude. He reminds me in this early time like a boxer about to enter the ring.

Instead, his time in prison taught him ‘a language of descent’, one that religion at its best teaches – teaches us to shed tears, weep, and let go.

What did he do in prison? He befriended his guards, and taught his inmates how to read. When he emerged from prison twenty-seven years later, he was a changed man. He entered prison as a wolf, and emerged more as a lamb willing not so much to dominate and exercise power over his opponents, but to serve them. Of course, it is in this stage of life whilst practicing a language of descent, when Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa.

I don’t think there are many world leaders who demonstrate, like Nelson Mandela did, the qualities of John the Baptist with his raw, initiating energy on the one hand, and the gentle, servant leadership demonstrated by Jesus on the other. And perhaps it is not ours to try to imitate these giants of history.

But maybe ours is the task to recognize our own calling to conviction, pursuit of justice, in the name of Jesus. John the Baptist was making a way clear for one who was to follow, one who was greater than him. Any work on our part to do the right thing will sometimes mean our needs for security and success will take a back seat. We will follow Christ, and make a way clear for him to come again, not by pursuing selfish goals, by hoarding and doing the safe things. But by practicing a language of descent, a letting go of our ego compulsions, and acting out of a conviction of Christ’s love for us, and for all people. As Nelson Mandela once said, “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

When we let the light of Christ shine through our lives, the whole world will see and be transformed.

Richard Rohr writes about the role of religion in teaching a language of descent, p.47 “Everything Belongs”, especially to men

Joy -erism

Last week an online article cited a new study that suggests “religious” people are more depressed than atheists. The study was published in the October issue of Psychological Medicine.  The researchers surveyed thousands of rural and urban people from seven countries over the course of a year to arrive at their conclusions.

Apparently those who claim to be religious tend to respond to life’s challenges, disappointments, failures and tragedies no differently than atheists — those who claim no belief in a God. Apparently, if we take this study for what it’s worth, Christians are just as prone to depression — if not more so — than those who have no faith.

Does this surprise you? After all, aren’t we believers supposed to live the ‘better’ life? Didn’t Jesus come to save us from sin so that we can live life “abundantly” (John 10:10)? Isn’t a life of prayer supposed to bring peace to our life? When we confess our sin, and receive the assurance of forgiveness — aren’t we supposed to be happy for that?

What is more, we often hear from those popular preachers on TV and in our local mega-churches a prosperity-gospel; basically promising the sweet, successful and affluent life if you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.

The prosperity preachers line their sermons with conditional promises — a self-help type of message — if you confess your sins, if you turn your life around, if you make better choices — then Jesus will come into your heart and make everything better. In other words, it’s all about us. Our salvation really hinges on our action, first.

But what happens if we do accept Jesus, and life still seems hard for us? What happens if we do confess our sin — day in and day out — but we still feel burdened by
temptation? What happens if we do express faith in a loving God, but we continue to fail — fail in our relationships, fail in our work, fail in our health? What if we do not prosper, even though we say we believe?

Have we done something wrong? Is our faith not strong enough? Are we not trying hard enough? Now, will we feel guilty? No wonder Christians are depressed!

I do not mean to make light of the clinical depression with which so many good people suffer. But I wonder why it should come as shocking that Christians, among those of other faiths, should be denied their humanity by implying that if religion was to be so good for us, religious people shouldn’t suffer like the rest of the world?

In the Gospel for today (Luke 10:17-20 St Michael and All Angels), Jesus draws a distinction between what can distract us from the most important thing. Jesus, while not denying the abilities of the missionaries to perform great acts “in his name”, cautions them not to lose focus and clarity in their faith.

We could interpret that news article from Psychological Medicine as yet another attack by secular society on the Church. But in our self-righteous defensiveness do we continue to look away? Is there not some truth here? I take an article like that more as an opportunity to do a reality check. If society is holding up a mirror in front of us, what do we see?

A joy -erism that is kinda fake? An artifice joy-mask that we put on just on Sunday mornings when we go to church, saying everything is hunky-dory when deep down we are feeling deep pain? A set-up-for-failure message that pretends I’m okay-you’re okay because it’s all up to us to make things right, if only we tried harder?

What is the ‘joy’ our faith speaks of? Haven’t we lost our focus?

A fourteen year-old told me this past week about her family’s annual summer trip to the property they own overseas. It is a beautiful spot to which she looks forward going every year.

This year, however, the trip had extra special meaning: her ninety-year-old grandma was coming with them, likely making the long trip for the last time. As this girl described to me the joy of seeing her grandma walk in the places where she was born, grew up and lived most of her life — a tear welled in her eyes.

True joy is not far removed from the painful realities of life.

Julian of Norwich, living during the so-called “dark” ages in Europe, gave people who came to her cloister window these simple words: All will be well. And this ‘wellness’ of which she spoke, I believe, was not based on being lucky or shrewd in avoiding the mishaps and dangers of life. “All is well with my soul” is a confidence that we are not alone amidst the mishaps and dangers of life.

The truth is, we are already saved. In the Gospel text, Jesus tells the seventy missionaries to “rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (v.20).

The truth is, I’m-okay-you’re-okay not because we are good at pretense. The truth is, I’m-okay-you’re-okay not because we have somehow conquered the demons in our lives, once and for all. The truth is, I’m-okay-you’re -okay not because we are super-Christians with an incredible faith to overcome everything bad in our lives. The truth is, I’m okay-you’re-okay not because everything is perfect in our lives and therefore we can always be happy and never sad.

The truth is, Jesus did all those things we delude ourselves into thinking we must do in order to be saved. Jesus saved us “while we are sinners” (Romans 5:8). Jesus loves us and saves us not in spite of our sin, but because we are sinners.

This is good news: We have an eternal relationship with the God of all creation because of who God is, and not because of anything we have done. This is cause not only for meaning, inspiration and motivation in a life of faithful service “in his name”, but of unspeakable joy.

Jesus was clear in his admonition: Don’t rejoice in what you have done — defeating demons, stepping on snakes and scorpions without getting hurt. This will only lead to a self-centered disappointment and depression. Because while our successes may give us a temporary high, what we do is ultimately not the point of Christian Faith.

The joy I have discovered in a life of faith is this: I’m not alone on this journey called life. My life is connected to something much larger than me and beyond what I can do. My life belongs — to the community of faith with whom I share opportunities to grow, to learn, to serve, to shed tears, to have fun, to find meaning in life; and, to God who holds all of creation ultimately with loving intention and purpose. I’m an important part of that whole; but it’s not just about ‘random’ me and what I make of it.

There’s this integrity to all of life that gives me profound joy, a confidence that our names are already written in heaven.

I thank you, God, for the gift of faith.