“¡Presente!”

Each of the four blessings is matched with a corresponding ‘woe’[1] First, Jesus says that blessed are they who are poor, who are hungry, who weep now and whom people hate. But, unlike Matthew’s version of the beatitudes[2], Luke doesn’t stop there. Luke doesn’t let us off easily.

Lest we become too enamoured with spiritualizing virtues or escape into some pie-in-the-sky notion of faith, Luke’s version of Jesus’ sermon only sets us up for being gobsmacked upside the head. In a stunning reversal to each blessing Jesus brings a ‘woe’—to those who are rich, who are full, who laugh now and about whom people speak well.

But wait—a secure financial future, a full stomach, a light heart, and a good reputation – aren’t these all values we want and seek? Aren’t these the things around which we structure our lives to obtain? Don’t these describe to a ‘t’ our five-year, ten-year and twenty-five-year goals?

A surface reading of this scripture can leave us picking sides. Am I on the ‘blessing’ side or the ‘woe’ side of the equation. Either / Or. Will we dare go deeper?

And, at the deeper currents of our awareness — when we are honest with ourselves — don’t we already know? Don’t we already know the truth of it—that, at best, wealth, a full stomach, a light heart and a good reputation are mixed blessings? They come at a great cost to health and relational well-being. They are temporary, fleeting. They can come and they can go.

Contrary to popular belief, rather than being evidence of God’s favour, prosperity can actually endanger our relationship with God, as was the case with the rich fool and Zacchaeus—both characters unique to Luke’s Gospel.[3]

What is common to both characters? Both came to Jesus rich men with full stomachs and their reputations intact. When they came to Jesus, both the rich fool and Zacchaeus were perfectly able to take care of themselves, to say the least.

The common trait they share as prosperous men of first century Palestine, is their self-sufficiency. This state is what separates them from God. And has them trapped. they are self-sufficient.

Elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel, we read that those who lay up treasures for themselves are not—and cannot be—rich toward God[4]because when we can take perfectly good care of ourselves, it is altogether too easy for us not to trust God. So, what jeopardizes the wealthy Christian’s relationship with God is the subtle temptation to think that we can go it alone and take care of ourselves.[5]

This underlying belief applies not only to our personal lives—and what we decide to do with our wealth, our investments, our properties our material blessing— but, also to the way we do church.

Will we be a community that lives only unto ourselves, or for the sake of others? Meeting the challenges of church today, how do we move forward? What decisions will we make with the resources we have? Will we abide by the code of self-sufficiency and go it alone? Or, will we seek out effective partners, neighbours and others on the journey of faith? Will we say God is only here inside thesewalls alone? Or, will we seek God’s work out there in the world?

What with all the competing values and programs for success beating down the doors of our hearts and minds, to follow the Christ of the cross is not easy. It’s not a technique or strategy that we can simply employ. In light of the beatitudes from Luke, the way of Christ cannot be an add-on. It cannot work that way, as another activity to add to the schedule of our already busy lives.

It comes to us as a complete package. It’s a call to transformation – a whole-life make-over. I understand the hesitation. Because life in the fast lane has its perks. Maybe we don’t want to give them up. Not easily, anyway. Seeking after self-sufficiency is too much of a lucrative deal for our egos.

Therefore the message of the Gospel can really be a downer! After all, how can we ever live faithfully when immersed in our world and its values?

But, perhaps, the message of All Saints provides an antidote to the despair and the grief. And give us hope for the journey. After all, the Gospel is not just about how to get into heaven after you die, but actually more about how to live in the kingdom of heaven on earth before you die. Not just the saints of heaven. But the saints on earth.

I want to close with a brief reflection on the meaning of a couple of words. First, ‘blessing’. “Blessed” is sometimes translated as “Happy”. I prefer the translation of the first word in the Psalms[6]which incidentally is also often translated to “Happy are they …”:

The Hebrew word here is ‘ashar, which means, literally, “to find the right road.” So, in offering the beatitudes, Jesus is saying: “You are on the right road when you are poor, when you hunger, when you weep, when you let go, when you don’t hold it all to yourself.” I prefer this translation because it implies a direction rather than a moral state. It acknowledges a journey of becoming. And any path of growth and transformation will include honest struggling and striving and letting go.

It is human to struggle with these things. On one hand, we do need to learn early in life how to take care of ourselves. Learning vital skills around self-care are important. Along the journey of maturity and growth, however, we must also learn how to balance this skill towards attention to others.

The second word is ‘presence’. This word doesn’t appear in the biblical texts for today, but it is implied in our ritual of All Saints. In Spanish, you hear the word said aloud: “¡Presente!”—which literally means “here” or “present”. There is a long tradition in Latin American movements for justice of invoking the memory of those who have lost their lives in the struggle.

At political gatherings their names were read out loud, one after another, not unlike we read the names of the saints earlier. After each name the crowd says together: “¡Presente!” as if to say: “You are not gone, you are here with us. You are not forgotten, and we continue the struggle in your name.”

It is human to struggle in the mission of God on earth. But we are not alone. Not only are the saints of heaven among us in spirit and in love, God is with us each step of the way. On the journey of life …

“Blessed are you who are poor – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who hunger – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who weep – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who are despised – because you are not alone!”

“¡Presente!” “¡Presente!” “¡Presente!”

 

[1]Luke 6:20-31

[2]Matthew 5:1-12

[3]Luke 12:16-21; 19:1-10; E. Elizabeth Johnson 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.239-241.

[4]Luke 12:21

[5]E. Elizabeth Johnson, ibid., p.241

[6]Psalm 1:1

The loved migrant: a ‘washing feet’ analogy

The disciples need to have their feet washed.

It was not only customary in ancient times to wash the feet of guests into your home, but necessary. Calloused and muddy feet were the norm in an age of open-toed sandals and pedestrian highways. Providing this service was a kind and appreciated gesture offered to the weary pilgrim.

But no one else had volunteered to do it. The disciples had followed all the Lord’s instructions to prepare for a meal in the upper room. They had bought what they needed in preparation for the Passover. They had gathered the bread and wine. Check. Check. Check.

So, what made them miss this important act of hospitality, friendship and welcome? What blinders did they have on?

Perhaps, we can’t underestimate the state of affairs among the disciples. Recall, they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest.[1]And for any one of them to volunteer to wash feet would be to lose the argument. Because only servants and slaves washed the feet of their superiors.

So Jesus got up to do it—shocking them all by his disregard for social and cultural convention.[2]

And then, as if that wasn’t shock enough to the system, Jesus looks up at the disciples, looks them square in the eyes and says:

“If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (v.14)

How good are we at ‘washing one another’s feet’? We’re not doing it in worship tonight on Maundy Thursday. I don’t believe we’ve ever done it here at Faith. But maybe we need the practice.

Since my father’s death earlier this year, I’ve been reviewing his life story, going over certain details. Especially in his formative days when he migrated from Poland to London, England, in the mid-1960s, I see a pattern emerge.

The small town in southern Poland where he was born and raised was and has been the largest concentration of Lutherans in a predominantly Roman Catholic nation. They called themselves the Lutheran Church of the Augsburg Confession. And, the church whose bishop he assisted later in London was the Lutheran church ‘in exile’ from Poland. This church was taken care of by the Missouri Synod Lutheran church.

Even though commissioned to serve ELCIC congregations when he and my mother immigrated to Canada in 1967, Dad was still called upon to serve Polish-speaking Lutherans once a month in an independent Lutheran Church in Toronto during the 1980s. This congregation has since become part of the Missouri Synod.

When our long-time family friend from Toronto visited us here in Ottawa a couple weeks ago, I was reminded again of this pattern: My father had been, in the first part of his life certainly, born and bred in the culture and beliefs of the Missouri Synod/Confessional Lutheran Church, worldwide, you could say.

The question I’ve pondered is: What made him change his allegiance? Why not continue to remain serving the denomination and church culture of his childhood and youth—even in North America? Why did he change? What made the difference?

It wasn’t doctrinal, by and large. I remember several debates we had around the kitchen table over the hot button issues in the church during the past few decades. And he usually tended towards the more conservative stance. It wasn’t doctrinal. It wasn’t about beliefs and confessions of faith. It was something else.

When he was serving the Missouri Synod church in London, he met someone over lunch after worship one day. This man, William Dase, had been a pilot in the war. A Canadian flying with the British Airforce, he had made many runs over London. And, after the war, decided to make London his home.

He was also a major benefactor of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary. In conversation over lunch, my Dad expressed a desire to learn English, and not anywhere people knew him. Somewhere far away from any Polish-speaking Lutherans, he felt he could master the English language. Following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he also didn’t believe he could ever return to Poland a free person.

And so Dase posed a simple question, with significant consequence: Why not spend a study year at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary in Canada? Dase would sponsor my Dad’s study and booked passage for both my parents on the ocean liner, Maasdam, to set sail from Southampton to Quebec.

Before my parents landed in Waterloo, the Dean of the Seminary at the time, Professor Dr. Hauser, had already arranged an apartment in student housing and a job in the cafeteria kitchen for my mother which paid $75 a month. This was just enough to cover the rent for the apartment.

After completing his master’s degree at Waterloo, my Dad was appointed to serve a small rural parish north of Stratford, Ontario. He needed a car. So, Assistant to the Bishop, Dr. Berner, of the Eastern Canada Synod, went with my Dad to the bank to arrange a loan to buy a VW Beetle. Dr. Berner used his standing with the bank as collateral for the loan.

However, after the year was up, my parents’ temporary student and visitor VISAs were expiring. And so, the Dean of the Seminary, Dr. Hauser, promptly took my parents to the immigration office in Kitchener to vouch for an upgrade to landed immigrant status— ‘my parents would make excellent citizens in Canada’, he told the immigration officer without hesitation. They received their immigrant status on the spot.

When my brother and I came along a couple of years later—twin boys—thus creating an instant family that doubled in size literally overnight, my parents experienced a sudden strain on the household budget.

The bishop of the Eastern Canada Synod, then Bishop Lotz, immediately arranged for a changed call to the three-point parish in Maynooth, Raglan and Denbigh—because these parishes were able to offer a higher wage.

That was then, this is now. I understand. Nevertheless, I am impressed in reviewing this history how church people who were in a position to do so could make such a positive difference in the lives of those in need. No just once. But consistently. Over time. And in response to various needs.

I can say with certainty that it was the love shown in practical, simple, ordinary ways to my parents when they immigrated and settled into Canada, that made all the difference.

The disciples needed their feet washed, after all. Despite all their debating and power struggles and determining who was right and who was wrong. Jesus showed his disciples, and shows us, that to help another is to put oneself on the same level as the other. Not to ‘lord it over’ in a condescending manner, but to recognize the common humanity we all share.

Jesus shows us what it means to fulfill the ‘new commandment’ of love.[3]If the world will know that ‘you are my disciples’, it has nothing to do with agreeing on doctrine, creedal statements, confessions of faith. In fact, arguing about these things, as the disciples tended to do, hinder this expression of true discipleship.

In the Gospel of John, the disciples do not and cannot understand the significance of Jesus’ actions until after Easter.[4]Even then, their faith still falters.[5]In John, “the disciples’ divine election and sustenance do not depend on how much they understand. Their faith is perfected, not in knowledge, but in how much they love their fellow lambs (21:15-19; cf. 1 Cor 13:12-13).”[6]

Jesus tells his disciples after washing their feet, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”[7]

It’s about loving action, not knowledge/understanding.

St John of the Cross wrote: “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” I concur. When all is said and done, at the end of the road, we will be asked: “How have you loved your neighbor?” not “Did you believe the right things?”

Just like washing one’s feet is messy, and uncomfortable, so at first it may feel out-of-sorts to be so vulnerable to one another. There are boundary issues when it comes to feet, to be sure.

We are not used to small and ordinary acts of self-giving for another. We need to practice. In an age when congregations and denominations are significantly divided over doctrinal, social, and other issues, and sometimes have difficulty even gathering at the same table for a meal with one another—what do we need? What do we really need?

More debate? More information? More knowledge? More convincing arguments? Really?

The disciples just needed their feet washed.

 

 

[1]Luke 22:24-27

[2]Jim Green Somerville in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.276

[3]John 13:1-17,31-35, the Gospel text for Maundy Thursday, according to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[4]2:22; 7:39; 12:16; 14:26

[5]20:19-29; 21:20-23

[6]C. Clifton Black, Feasting on the Word., ibid., p.279

[7]John 13:17, emphasis mine.

Love got down and dirty

I am not a pet person. In the sense that we don’t own a pet and we don’t have any animals currently living in our home.

However, we do enjoy visiting with the pets of others. And, if we did have a dog at home, I would probably consider a terrier. The word, terrier, is derived from the Latin word terra, meaning, earth.

And, I’ve heard, a terrier will eat dirt. And dig holes in the dirt. It is a solid dog with short legs. It is scruffy and tough. A terrier is, indeed, an ‘earth dog’, living very close to the ground.

Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent. This long season of the church year, some forty days’ pilgrimage, leads us somewhere. It is not an aimless wandering. Though it may sometimes feel like it.

The forty days is largely symbolic, let’s be honest. Though the Lenten season is an ancient Christian tradition going back in its variations to at least the fourth century after Christ, our observance of it today is slight, for the most part.

How can we re-discover its meaning?

At the beginning of any journey – I prefer to see the progress of life and faith as a journey – I want to see in my mind’s eye at least, the destination – the finish line so to speak.

Before I set out on the Camino pilgrimage in Spain last Spring – some 800 kilometres long – I needed to know my destination, which was the city of Santiago. Not only did knowing the destination help me navigate the trail, it motivated me on the way.

What is the finish line of the Lenten journey? Easter, of course.

I said the observance of the faith journey is marked by symbol or ritual. These rituals in the church take the form of sacraments, such as baptism and Holy Communion. At Easter – the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection – we not only receive the promise of our ongoing transformation and new life in Christ, we have arrived at the destination of the Lenten journey of our healing, our forgiveness, our change.

Because of Easter, we can do Lent. The disciplines of Lent would be groundless without the Easter promise guiding our way. The joy of Easter is the destination – the very point – of the long Lenten discipline.

That is why baptisms and confirmations happen during Easter. This so-called first sacrament of the church, baptism, involves using water to make the sign of the cross on baptized forehead.  In some churches, the congregation gathers literally by the river to participate in a baptismal celebration.

Diana Butler Bass grew up as an evangelical Christian. She remembers that more often than not, “The water would be murky, seemingly impure rather than sanctified … The pastor would dunk the newcomer anyway, a drenching testimony of sin washed away and new birth in Christ.” But she wondered “how one could be washed of sin when the water itself was not safe to drink.”[1]

It seems, we cannot avoid getting dirty on the road to Easter and new life. In truth, is there not something good about dirt?

Some years ago, Diana Butler Bass spent the forty days of Lent focusing her discipline on priming her vegetable and flower garden in Spring. Obviously, she lived farther south than where we are. During Lent, she readied the garden, worked the soil, coaxed dirt to life. And, she concluded,

“Dirt was not dirty – it was beautiful. God made it. I was tending it. Caring for soil is hard work. The last thing I wanted to imagine was it being washed away. I was fighting for the dirt. I wanted more dirt, better dirt, richer dirt. I was adding stuff to it to make it mealier. I wanted dirtier dirt.”[2]

Yet, I would agree with Butler Bass, the symbols of the church have become sterile over the centuries. We have become germ-a-phobic, averse to dirt. And this, to our spiritual peril.

“In many dictionaries, the definition of ‘soil’ as a noun is typically scientific” – a particular kind of earth, a portion of the earth’s surface, the ground, etc.”

But the second definition, as a verb, turns sinister: ‘to soil: to make unclean, dirty or filthy; to smirch, smudge, or stain; to sully or tarnish, as with disgrace; defile morally. Its synonyms are ‘blacken, taint, debase, pollute.’ The term ‘dirt’ is perhaps even worse than ‘soil’. ‘Dirt’ comes from Middle English … meaning ‘mud, dung, or excrement’; or related ‘smutty or morally unclean.”

It’s easy to understand the theological leap from dirt and soil to sin and evil.[3] This is why we need Ash Wednesday in our faith journey. We need to feel the dirt on our foreheads in the sign of the cross as much as we make the sign of the cross with baptismal water, impure as it sometimes is.

This may seem like “a tempest in a linguistic teapot”[4] except for the fact that the bible points in another direction:

“Biblical creation stories abound with praise for the soil: God creates the ground and calls it good. Then the land brings forth life, and God calls it good. Humankind is made from the dust; God breathes life into the soil and Adam is born, this ‘soil creature’, and God sees that as very good.[5]

Humans beings are, literally, made from the humus, the ground. We are, simply, animated dirt.

In the famous Gospel story of the sower and the seed – where some seed falls on rocky ground, other seed on fertile, deep soil, other seed on the path, and other seed on shallow soil – Jesus explains that the seed is God’s love and the soil is us. The moral of the story?

“We are not soil-y enough! Spiritually, we would be better off more soiled rather than less. Being soiled is actually the point. You could say: ‘God loves dirt more than plants, soil more than what it yields. God is a dirt farmer, not a vegetable gardener.’ Soil is not sin. Soil is sacred, holy, and good. When we care for it, we are doing God’s work. Soil is life. And it is time for us — Ash Wednesday is a good time, symbolically at least — to reclaim the dirt.”[6] Why?

God became humus. God’s love got down and dirty. In the person of Jesus, God’s love was shown – in a human being. God is, according to Paul Tillich, not apart from us “but who is the very core and ground of all that is.”[7]

God is part of us, because of Christ Jesus and the incarnation. I read that every day more than sixty tons of cosmic dust fall to the earth. These are microscopic elements we can’t see, travelling in space from the farthest reaches of the universe. This cosmic dust enters our atmosphere where it mixes with existing soil on earth and enters the food chain.

Imagine, this cosmic dust is a source of ongoing creation. We eat and breathe it. Quite literally, human beings are made and being made of ‘stardust’. As the biblical story reflects: the divine and the soil, the Creator and created, are part of the same, theological ecosystem.

The Easter baptismal celebration is the end goal. We see it now, from the perspective of the starting line: Ash Wednesday. Tonight, we also make the sign of the cross on our foreheads, not with water – pure or murky. But with ash. We start by embracing the soil in and of our own lives.

Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust. The traditional words spoken at the start of Lent, and significantly, when our bodies return to the ground. A reminder, viscerally by the imposition of ash on our foreheads, that we are not only mortal, but that we belong to the earth. A reminder of our own need for repentance and new life.

At very least, we have to say it starts with dirt. We are dirt. Really. We therefore have to care for the dirt that is us, and in the earth, on this journey.

“We are not tourists here,” writes philosopher Mary Midgly, “We are at home in the world, because we were made for it,”[8] a world God so loved.

[1] Diana Butler Bass, “Grounded: Finding God in the World; A Spiritual Revolution” (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015), p.53.

[2] Ibid., p.53-54.

[3] Ibid., p.54.

[4] Ibid., p.54.

[5] Ibid., p.57.

[6] Ibid., p.58.

[7] Cited in ibid., p.31

[8] Cited in ibid., p.64

Traveling stones: a pilgrimage lesson in letting go

In the sixth century Saint Benedict said, “A monk should have death always before his eyes.”[1] ‘Death’ doesn’t need to refer only to our physical demise at the end of life but to any loss experienced in life. There are many deaths we experience in life: the death of a cherished pet, the loss of friendship, the loss of a job, divorce, death of a loved one, moving into another home. Any significant change, even positive ones, involve something lost.

In the second reading for today written in the first century, Saint Paul admonishes the Corinthians to live in this world “as though not.”[2] He is advocating a certain disengagement from the attachments and claims of our lives, including some of our most cherished relationships. The likes of Paul and Benedict reflect, as well, the wisdom of the prophets and poets of ancient Israel: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of God stands forever.”[3]

Our earth-bound attachments come under scrutiny here, no doubt. The question remains for each of us on our own journeys of faith and life – what are those things of which we need to let go in order to move on? After all, in the Lord’s Prayer the words, “Thy Kingdom come”, mean little unless we can also say: “My kingdom go.”[4]

Following Jesus means leaving things behind — as the first disciples did, in our Gospel reading for today (Mark 1:14:20).

You heard about the man who was hiking in the mountains when he slipped, and started to slide over the edge. Just as he was about to fall into the abyss, he grabbed a tree branch growing out of the rock ledge. He hung on perilously dangling in the air.

He didn’t know what to do. It was impossible to pull himself up since the branch stem was slippery and wet. He swung in the silence of the breeze contemplating his fate with growing terror. Finally he looked up to the sky and prayed: “If there is a God anywhere up there, I could do with some help, please.”

To his surprise and shock, he heard God’s voice respond instantly: “I will help you. But you first have to let go.”

The man was silent for a minute. He dared not look down. It was a long way to the jagged rocks of the canyon below. Again he looked up to the sky, and said: “Is there anyone else up there?”

A long-standing tradition in doing a pilgrimage is to bring a stone from home and lay it somewhere along the path. This home-stone represents a part of myself that I lose, and leave behind, where I have walked.

Last Spring when I walked a part of the Camino de Santiago, I wanted to leave my stone in the waters off the western coast of Spain, either in Fisterra or Muxia – both coastal towns are some one hundred kilometres west of Santiago.

I imagined this place a fitting resting place for my stone since I love walking by water and coastlines. Once, long ago, people believed the coastal town of Fisterra (French, for ‘the end of the earth’) was the physical limit of land – the farthest one could go. In my imagination, I saw myself facing the setting sun, having completed the 800-kilometer, two-month trek, looking west to the horizon line beyond which lies the land of my home in North America.

I imagined feeling satisfied at the end of a long journey, having reached my goal, grateful for the challenge and all the things the Camino taught me. In that moment of gratitude and joy, I would toss my stone as far as I could into the spume and depths of the Atlantic Ocean. That was the vision, anyway.

I found the perfect sized stone while wandering around my house one afternoon a week before leaving for Spain. Because I was running about making the last-minute preparations for the journey, I placed it temporarily on the landing railing in the garage, certain I would soon tuck it away in my backpack.

Two weeks later I was scrambling up a steep incline outside the town of Irun on the first day of my pilgrimage. As I expected that first day was incredibly tough going. The temperatures soared to above 25 degrees C and the sun shone brightly. Sweat pouring down my neck and back I struggled up that cliff wondering why on earth I chose to do this on my sabbatical. I dug my walking poles into the hard-caked sandy ground to make the next ledge and wondered sarcastically if I should have rather taken rappelling lessons in preparation for coming to Spain.

In that moment of physical and growing mental exhaustion, I realized I had forgotten to pack my stone. It was still sitting on the railing in the garage back home! I stopped in my tracks and exhaled deeply.

“What’s the matter?” my Dutch pilgrim friend asked me, huffing and puffing as I was.

“I forgot to bring my stone,” I confessed my failure.

“Don’t despair,” my co-pilgrim wanted to advise. “The Camino will give you an answer.”

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Several days later two significant things happened. The first was while I was walking down a slope towards the northern Basque town of Guernica, I thought I should take with me a couple stones from this path, as a keepsake from walking the Camino. So, I selected two small pebbles from under my feet where I stood beholding the town and valley below.

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That same day, my knee seized up, and I walked the remainder of my Camino in pain. Three days later, coughing and feeling very sick, I was on a plane homebound. Diagnosed with pneumonia back in Ottawa, I had to come to terms with my failure of not having reached my goal.

Not only had I not reached Santiago and Fisterra, I had done nothing with my stone which I had forgotten anyway. By forgetting the stone, had I already destined myself not to finish the pilgrimage? These dark thoughts swirled in my mind.

After having recovered a few weeks later, my wife and I flew to Lisbon for a week of vacation to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Originally, the plan had been for her to join me at the end of my pilgrimage, where I would meet her in Lisbon. Nevertheless, this time, I did bring my stone from home, renamed my ‘glory’ stone.

My glory stone represented all my aspirations, desires, longings which I knew deep down the Camino had taught me to let go of. I had to surrender even my human yearning and goals to God.

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And so, at Cabo Da Roca near Lisbon, Portugal – the farthest most western point of land on continental Europe – I threw my glory stone into the Atlantic Ocean facing the setting sun. I had to practice letting glory go.

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It seems I was still bound to finish some kind of pilgrimage during my sabbatical. I didn’t have enough time to go back to Spain and finish the Camino de Santiago. But I did have enough time to walk the entire length of the longest contiguous sand beach in North America – fifty kilometres on Long Beach Peninsula in Washington State. There, my journey of letting go continued.

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There, on “Cape Disappointment” – fittingly named – I brought the two pebbles that I picked up in Spain on the last day I walked on the Camino. One glorious afternoon, I scrambled down into Dead Man’s Cove – also fittingly named – on Cape Disappointment. After reflecting on my disappointments of late, I realized on my journey of life not only did I need to yield all my dreams but also all my regrets and suffering. And so, I threw those stones of disappointment into the Pacific Ocean. I let these go.

 

I realized life is not lived well when we obsessively hold on to all those things that cause us grief. I had to offer these to God as well. Later, while I sat on a park bench near the lighthouse on Cape Disappointment looking over the Pacific, I met a couple of Americans visiting from Portland. In our conversation, we were able to affirm that “all great spirituality is about learning to let go.”[5]

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But I didn’t leave my pilgrimage empty handed. When I climbed out of Dead Man’s Cove that day, I picked up from the sand a smooth, round stone. Now, any rocks on the Peninsula are rare. Most of the fifty-kilometre stretch is sand, land created from the outflow of the mighty Columbia River as it spills into the Pacific Ocean. Most rocks you see on the Peninsula have been trucked in. So, I was delighted to take with me back home, a rare thing.

And hope is a rare commodity in this world of pessimism, denial, and despair. This is my “stone of hope”, that I hold forever, amidst all the human aspirations swirling in my life and all the disappointments and failures which I regularly need to practice letting go of.

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We hold not only that which we need to let go of, but we also hold hope throughout our lives. “We do not simply resign ourselves to the give-ness of the world, for we have planted within us a great hope that God’s kingdom will come on earth, as in heaven. This means we are a people who look to the future with trust and hope, confident that God is working God’s purposes out and that God’s realm is even now breaking into our world.”[6]

At this point in your journey of life, which stones are you holding — of dreams, of disappointments, of hope? Which ones do you need to let go of? Which do you need to hold on to? I suspect it is true when the likes of Saint Paul, and all the wise teachers over the ages, writes: “Hope does not disappoint us.” [7]

[1] cited in Ruthanna B. Hooke in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 1” (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.280

[2] 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

[3] Isaiah 40:8

[4] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Thursday, January 18, 2018.

[5] Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation, cac.org

[6] Ruthanna B. Hooke, ibid.

7 – Romans 5:5

Stick-to-it-ness of love

Terrorist bombs going off in Brussels during Holy Week should get our attention. Not only and primarily because of the sudden horror and tragic, senseless loss of life.

But also because Christians this week, the world over, are reflecting and imagining the path Jesus took to his own senseless, horrific death hanging on a cross.

Death is on the mind and heart of many these days. How can we approach this reality common to us all? How can we accept the truth of our own mortality, which will be realized some day in some unique way?

In a popular book about near-death experiences, people reported on how they saw a review of their life — the cliched ‘life flashing before your eyes’.

The people who had momentarily died detailed every single encounter they had had with another human being throughout their life. They not only re-lived it, they were able to feel what the other person had felt. In that life-review they knew what others felt because of the near-dead person’s words or actions in that particular encounter. (1)

You may be able to imagine how surprised some felt to know how their behaviour and words actually affected other people. To know what impact our lives have on others. We may not think that a simple action like a smile, or a scowling face, a gracious word, or an angry outburst, could affect someone else’s day — let alone their life.

A friend recently suggested that this is what they thought Judgement Day would be for us — to understand and feel fully what influence our lives had on people around us. And how much our lives mean, in relationship.

I attended my brother-in-law’s retirement reception last week. He was retiring from the military after about twenty-five years. In his speech to the gathered friends, family and colleagues he concluded by saying something that stuck with me: “There’s lots that I’ve done over the years that I’m not proud of — as I stand here today. But, I’ve always and will always be proud of who I did it with.”

On Maundy Thursday, the main theme behind the actions of Jesus with his disciples is love. The commandment to love one another infuses the ritual of washing his disciples feet, of eating with them and instituting the Holy Supper, of instructing them and praying for them that ‘they may be one’.

The motif of loving one another is strangely underneath the surface of the high-tension, escalating conflict surrounding Jesus as he nears the cross — the ultimate place of his suffering and death. You wouldn’t think this is a love story, at first glance.

Yet, Jesus does not seek retribution for the injustice he endures. As Simon Peter did by taking a sword and cutting off the ear of one of the high priest’s servants who came to arrest Jesus (John 18:10). Instead, Jesus is about a restorative type of judgement — one that through love seeks to make right what has been divided or tarnished by sin. Judgement is ultimately always about restoring us, not avenging us for all our mis-deeds. To whom are we restored?

Our religion is not one of individual moral performance and accomplishment for our glory alone. The judgement we individually meet at the end is not considered in a vacuum. Our religion is constituted in a community. Our religion, more to the point, is practised and validated in the context of human relationship. Christianity is a social religion. You can’t do Christianity apart from others.

On Maundy Thursday, the focus is on the disciples meeting together for the last time with Jesus. And they do so around a Meal. This is the context, the meal and the companionship, however flawed and fragile. Sharing food, here, is not an individual indulgence as it is a communal sharing.

For many, in our culture today, to simply sit and eat and talk and to remain together until the end of the meal seems a quaint custom, perhaps incomprehensible, even an empty game: There’s always something else to do in my room — download something, fix something, watch something, communicate in some other media. The community of the table seems far less interesting once you have eaten your fill.

Yet eating with others is what prayer is all about. It is the time — like meditating with others or celebrating a ritual as we do this evening at the Sacrament of the Table — when we are fed and nourished by the One who is the food itself. We need to stay and wait and allow ourselves to be waited upon. (2)

And so, we need to practice doing things together. Practice. Not perfectly. Not always the right way. And not just when all is smiles and joy. Sometimes, in practising our faith together we end up hurting others, and being hurt ourselves. This is nevertheless the nature of practice. 

Like in any endeavour, physical exercise, any discipline, anything that is of value to us. It sometimes hurts. We need to challenge ourselves. We need what coach Dave Cameron of the Ottawa Senators said once in an interview explaining what his team needs in order to be successful in the NHL: ‘stick-to-it-ness’. 

‘Stick-to-it-ness’ is the quality of staying with the game plan, playing with the team; not, individual heroics as they and we are want to do. Stick-to-it-ness, even in the face of adversity or failure, or disappointment. Not running out the back door when things get tough or uneasy or uncomfortable. Not giving up on others or on yourself, even when they disappoint you. Staying with the game plan. Being persistent. Even when things are less-than-perfect or ideal in your life, and life with others.

‘Stick-to-it-ness’ is a quality sadly lacking in Christian culture today. We are so individually-minded that we delude ourselves into thinking we can go it alone. That we don’t need others. That we can live our Christian lives without being faithful to the community — the hassle or complication of others who will only disappoint and annoy — 

That we can leave a group of people and join another church. That religion is like a smorgasbord; and “I” am the centre of the universe, determining my destiny, choosing what I want and leaving behind what I don’t want. And being in total control.

In the acclaimed film, “The Way”, starring Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez, father and son together experience a walking pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. They begin their journey in conflict, estranged from one another. The son tells the father a truth that he learns by the end of the movie: “You don’t choose a life, you live a life.”

Practising our faith is not something we do by ourselves. Practising our faith is not motivated by trying to earn favour from God by all our good deeds. Practising our faith is not creating for ourselves the life we want. 

Practising our faith is first and foremost something we do together, for the sake of the other, and for love of the other. Even in the face of death.

We follow Jesus, who walked the way of life and death as we know it. We worship Jesus, these holy days, who showed us the motivation and stick-to-it-ness of love, of grace, of leading with a heart of mercy. For the sake of the other.

I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call upon the name of the Lord.

I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the Lord,

in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the Lord!

(Psalm 116:17-19)
(1) Raymond A. Moody, “Life After Life”, HarperCollins, New York, 2000, p.55-65

(2) Laurence Freeman, “Sensing God”, Novalis Press, Toronto, 2015, p.110

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

The healing power of memory

In suffering the pain of grief, memory can be a healing salve. Not only remembering stories of loved ones lost and recalling them at family gatherings. But when it comes to observing traditions and special occasions, such as Christmas or Easter. How do you navigate through a holiday without that special person? What do you do?

The first step is to recall in your mind’s eye the past; linger with these memories until you can feel the quiet, reassuring love and pleasure of those moments. Stay with each memory long enough to understand what about it is meaningful for you.

Then, let your memories guide you in making plans — let’s say, for this coming Easter holiday. The point is not to make an exact re-creation of the past. This is not about making a simulation of past experiences.

I heard about a man who, in middle age, purchased a Harley-Davidson to try to live in the myth of the youthful, unfettered individual who is free to go anywhere at any time. He felt unsatisfied, however, after his solitary road-trips. Something was missing.

After more reflection, what he was remembering on a deeper level was the positive experience in his youth of the friends he made in a bike shop where he worked a job one summer. The meaning of memory was found in the relationships more so than the motor-cycles. He didn’t sell the Harley-Davidson. But he did inquire about local riding groups of folks his age. His interest shifted to making friends.

Memories of past Christmases or Easters can transform each new celebration. For example, a memory of a family bike ride on an Easter Monday decades ago can lead to a family train trek through the Rockies. What’s important is not to re-create the past, but to transform it so it’s meaningful for the present. Not simulation, but translation.

During Lent we reflect on the question of healing, on our faith journeys. What I am discovering is as we hear the various stories of healing from members of our community, a wonderful theology of healing is emerging. And one important aspect of healing, is to consider the power of memory. Because of one, small experience of God’s grace in our past — should we be able to recall such an experience — can emerge strength and encouragement and guidance for dealing with a current challenge, suffering or crossroad in our lives.

But even if we are not able to remember any good in our past, the faith that gives us power today is not about our glory, but about God’s. In the Gospel for today, Jesus heals a man, blind from birth (John 9:1-41). Those who witness this healing miracle want an explanation for his condition: Is it his fault that he was blind, or his parents’ sin that caused him this disability. A biblically sound question, since the Torah suggests that the “iniquity of the parents is visited upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-8).

Jesus avoids this kind of biblicism that seeks only to make technical arguments that focus only on our righteousness or lack thereof. Jesus turns our sites away from ourselves and onto God: The purpose of our lives, including our suffering, is to point to God, and God’s work. If we are to remember anything, it is to remember God’s mighty acts in relation to the people of God, including you and me. When the Psalmist delights in the past, his memory focuses on what God has done: “I remember the days of old, I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the works of your hands” (Psalm 143:5).

God’s vision is expansive and eternal, abounding in steadfast love. I wonder why the disciples weren’t that interested in the first part of that text from Exodus. Before talking about the iniquity imparted to the third and fourth generations, when the Lord spoke to Moses, he said first: “The Lord is a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation” — which is a lot longer than four!

And as we know, generations ago the world was a lot different than what it is now. I was watching on Netflix a show that I remember watching avidly in the 1990s. One detail caught my attention, when the characters were talking to each other holding the old, large, clunky ear pieces connected by a spiral, rubber cord to a hand-dial phone. In one generation, so much has changed and people are doing things in different ways.

And yet, one thing remains: The steadfast love of God. Whatever we do in God’s mission, and however we do it, we can be assured that God is faithful to us, that God has unbounding love for us. After all, God doesn’t look on outward appearances; God looks at our heart. When David was chosen to be king of Israel, God wasn’t looking for the one who appeared to have all the desirable qualities; God wasn’t looking for the tallest, the strongest, the best-looking one to be their leader. God was looking at the heart of David (1 Samuel 16).

We can be courageous, then, and bold to reach out and be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today. After all, it’s not, in the end about us. We find healing and wholeness for our lives in order to do, and by doing, the will of God. It is for His sake that we throw ourselves fully into life. It is for His sake that we are healed and restored.

The man who bought the Harley-Davidson was initially motivated by an individualistic worldview, that so often seeps into the life of the church. How often does our experience of worship, even, trend into being merely a disembedded, fragmented, personal experience in a crowd of strangers. As if worship was meant only for what you (individually) can get out of it for your own personal self-help agenda. No wonder many of us sometimes get frustrated with worship experience.

That is why a regular, weekly celebration of the Eucharist — the Holy Communion — is so vital to our life together. In this sacrament, we are re-membered as the Body of Christ. We remember what Jesus did and what God has done throughout salvation history; we recall these mighty acts of God, but not solely as a piece of history, a memorial. But as it impacts our lives today, in mission for others.

We come to the table, a diverse group of people. But we come as equals on a level-playing field deserving as one punishment for our sin but forgiven and showered with God’s mercy and grace — as one, by the self-less act of Jesus. We are empowered, through the broken body of Jesus, to be his broken body for the world, today. How that memory shapes us today may be different from decades ago. But memory continues to form us, and reform us. In our lives, the Gospel is translated for the world today.

Be thou, our vision, O God.

Thank you to Alan J. Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren in “Introducing the Missional Church: What it is, why it mattes, how to become one”, chapters 2-3