The great un-doing

This past week I heard from someone how they overcame their addiction to smoking. A middle-aged man, he said he had been a smoker for many years until he started feeling the ill-effects of the habit. He had tried many gimmicks and treatments to quit, to no avail.

It wasn’t until he let go of his need to control the outcome of his efforts, that he succeeded. In other words, when he was able to tell himself: “I can’t do this on my own,” he finally found the capacity within himself to quit. He was able to stop smoking only when he accepted his own limitations, when he released the false notion that he was the master of his own destiny. Even to do something healthy, good.

He didn’t need to accomplish this on his own. What he wanted (to quit smoking), he needed to let go of. What he sought, he needed to release control over.

Whatever you want, you first need to let go of. Counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Usually when you want something, you go for it. And you don’t let up until you have it, eh?

So, what’s going on here?

What did the rich young man in the Gospel story want (Mark 10:17-31)? He wanted to prove that he was a righteous, good man. He wanted to show Jesus and others that he had fulfilled all the rules of his religion and therefore he was worth his religious beans. And who could compare?

The rich man approached Jesus thinking he had it in the bag. His question—”What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)—sounds disingenuous, inauthentic. In a manipulative, self-congratulatory way, he thus approached Jesus, even kneeling before him.

He had self-righteously fooled himself into believing he already knew the answer. The gospel writer doesn’t even assign the rich man a name, underscoring the fake, artificial nature of the man’s attitude.

But Jesus cuts through the crap, skims the fat off the top, and goes to the jugular! Indeed, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). Jesus sees through the rich man’s pretense, and uncovers the real, authentic person beneath the surface. There he finds an enslaved heart, and brings to light the truth:

In order for the man to be liberated and set free, he has to surrender what owns him, what captivates and grips his soul: For him — it’s material possessions. For someone else, it might be different. But he has to learn, if he wants to grow, to let go and not hold on to those things that keep him stuck in false beliefs about himself, God, and the world around him.

What he wasn’t expecting, was an answer from Jesus that undid him. The one thing that he wanted to get—an unscrupulous, beyond reproach reputation as a religious superman—he would now have to let go of. He would have to let go of everything that made him, that put him in a position of power and wealth in his community and that gave him the grounds to boast.

He would now have to sell his reputation, literally, and become poor. And what do the poor have to show for their religious prowess? Wasn’t (and isn’t) being impoverished a sign of God’s dis-favour?[1]

All the texts assigned for today reflect the nature of relationship with God. Relationship with God is at the root of our spirituality, our church lives, our purpose in life and the meaning of our lives. Relationship. Relationship. Relationship.

And what the lectionary offerings are inviting us to consider today, is the nature of our relationship with God. They ask us to be honest, first, about who this God is we are supposed to relate to.

Let’s say, we want God. Well, detach from what we want. That is the key. Let go of our false conceptions about God. For example, an underlying assumption we will make about God is a transactional, mechanized God. Such assumptions were criticized by reformers like Martin Luther in the 16thcentury but also those before him like Meister Eckhart in the 14thcentury. This image they condemned, was God the “reward machine”.[2]It goes something like this:

God is the great rewarder-in-the-sky. And, if you put enough quarters in the slot, God will send down the candy-bar. In Martin Luther’s world, the criticism focused on the sale of indulgences—the more money you paid to the church, the more spiritual benefits you accrued.

These false beliefs about God then generated attitudes and actions that placed the onus all on us and our capacities and resources as individuals. That it was up to us to garner favour with God and so we would earn, and deserve, our salvation and even prosperity on earth.

I believe this is what is behind the rich, young man’s presumption and approach to Jesus. Certainly, he of all people deserves God’s favour.

And Jesus’ response is, essentially: If that’s what you want, you need to let go of it. And, it’s going to hurt before it gets better again.

Whether it’s a bad habit or false understanding of God or anything else that puts you in the driver’s seat of your life, God is looking you in the eye and challenges you to let go of that pretense. Whatever it is you want, first let go of it, and feel the pain of it. Detach yourself from your attachments if you truly want to be healed. It ain’t easy.

And the image is apt: Putting a camel through the eye of a needle is meant to communicate impossibility. And we say that in our own way every day. “Bah, I can’t change; people can’t change.” “We don’t change.” “People stay the same.” And so, we continue to get mired in unhealthy and self-destructive life-journeys. Transformation is inconceivable, we believe.

Maybe, before anything, our image of God needs transformation. If God is not a reward machine high in the sky, who and what is God all about?

It’s hard to believe with all the rain we’ve had in the past month that earlier this summer the lawns were brown, and the ground was bone dry. We’ve seen a lot of rain, lately. I’ve noticed local creeks are flowing again, and the grass on our yard is thicker and a dark, rich green.

I was reminded this week when I read that waterdrops in the atmosphere are created when water vapour condenses. That part I knew. But what popped out at me was the following sentence: water vapour condenses on tiny particles of dust. At the very centre of every raindrop is a particle.[3]

Our relationship with God is not between entities, to begin with. We don’t relate to being, a God among various God-beings out there in a religious marketplace.

We relate to God as the ground of our very being. Our connection to God already exists. Before we do, say, or think anything. Whether we know it or not. God is already connected to us, in our innermost being.

Saint Paul writes: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16); and, “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love (Eph 3:16-17).

We don’t add God to our lives, like filling a shopping cart in the grocery store. We don’t need to relate to a transactional God-the-rewarder-in-the-sky with our consumer mindset. The Reformation should have put that mechanistic view of our relationship with the Lord to rest. We still need the Reformation!

We don’t add God to our lives. We add our lives to God. Who is already there, at the very centre of our lives.

Imagine rain, falling. The raindrops have a way to go before reaching the ground. It may feel like a free-fall. Unnerving, dis-orienting, it is to let go of our deepest attachments. We experience like Jesus did a painful, momentary ‘forsaken-ness’ (Psalm 22:1). I wonder if the rich, young man had the courage to sell all he had to give it to the poor.

I would love to meet him, especially if had gone through with it. I have many questions to ask him. I suspect, however, that if he did it, if he did what Jesus called him to do — that in the letting go he opened his heart, confronted his greatest fear and experienced a free fall … right into the love of God at the very centre of his life. What a joyous surprise, to find the presence that will always be there, and has always been there!

It may seem impossible to do—this letting go—but in Christ all things are possible. And we discover in the journey: there really isn’t anything to lose that is of any enduring, lasting value.

[1]Today’s so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ implies that when you have it right with God, you will be blessed with material riches; the converse is true, too: according to the prosperity gospel, when you sin, God will withdraw blessing and you will be impoverished.

[2]Bernard McGinn, Praying with the Masters Today, Volume 2 (Meditatio Talks Series CD B, Track 5), 2018.

[3]Richard Rohr, “The God Particle” Daily Meditation 10 Oct 2018 (cac.org /Center for Action and Contemplation)

No life insurance

It’s like the spirited game parents play with their young children.

I remember years ago when the kids were still in diapers tossing our little ones up into the air, and then catching them on their way down. What makes this game so delightful is to watch the expression on the face of the child. If you slow-motioned the activity and zoomed in on the facial reactions of the child at each stage of the ‘throw and catch’ game, you would see a contrast of emotions:

From the catch to the upward toss, a smile and squeal of joy; from the falling motion to moment of catch, a growing sense of alarm as the eyes widen in concern and fear begins to creep into the picture. But, then, again the catch. And the grin returns. And the game resumes.

Can you imagine being the widow in the Gospel story (Luke 7:11-17) who has just lost her only son? Having lost her husband is one thing. You think it cannot get any worse. Yet, as is often the case in life, it does. Now her son. She feels the sharp edge of grief once again. Perhaps more deeply for the child she gave birth to, and raised with all her mother’s love.

Not only a personal grief, but the prospect of living in extreme need. Being a widow in 1st century Palestine was usually a ticket to poverty and low social status. A woman’s economic worth was almost always tied up in the men of her household — her husband or eldest son. This was much more than personal, emotional grief. This was a complete life-style change, from top to bottom, in a heart beat.

After meeting Jesus, however, things change so rapidly. From a season of mourning and grief, to the astonishment and wonder of joy: Her son is no longer dead, but alive! No longer is she alone, vulnerable, a burden on society, worthless in the economy and social structures of the day. Now, she has her son back. She has family. And that means the world to her!

Although something has changed. This new thing is also scary. All who witnessed the miracle were filled with fear (v.16). What does this second chance at life mean? Things will be different now. No longer like the good old days.

The rapid and extreme change of emotions could make her feel like a yo-yo. Maybe life sometimes feels like that for you. From moments of exquisite satisfaction, pleasure and joy, to the dark caverns of grief, depression, loss, suffering, fear and pain. Life. Death. Life. Death. Life. Death. Life. 

In my first parish, which was in rural southern Ontario, burials were conducted (except during winter months) immediately following the funeral service in the cemetery right beside the church building. The recessional with casket proceeded to the grave side where the words of committal, prayers and scripture readings were offered. 

But then, the family stood by as the grave-diggers and funeral attendants lowered the casket, suspended up until that point on winches and ropes, down into the hole. In some cases, I had to assist by moving the casket into place as it slowly lowered. Once resting on the ground inside the hole, a family member used a spade to throw the first shovel-full of earth onto the casket — a symbol of the family participating in burying their loved one.

Today, especially in urban centres where funeral services are highly managed by market-driven professionals, most often the family leaves the grave-side before the casket is lowered and actually buried. I wonder about how the smallest of acts reflects our attitudes towards death and loss. 

Perhaps we can’t ‘go there’ emotionally so soon after losing a loved one and have to insulate ourselves in order to cope. The funeral rite therefore serves more as an anesthetic against the harsh reality of death and loss. I wonder: Does the experience and ritual of funerals only end up buffering the hard, emotional impact of loss?

Perhaps we are not used to ‘losing’, letting go, failing, surrendering, being powerless, vulnerable, at ground zero. We have little in life to practice this letting go before the final experience of losing a loved one. And perhaps healthy religion, as Richard Rohr claims, is about showing us what to do with our pain.

Is this too difficult an expectation of our faith? Because in making religion only about ‘feel good’ ‘warm fuzzies’ we might maintain our denial of life’s realities and only distract ourselves from truth. And that’s not what Christian faith is about — distracting us and keeping us from the rhythms of life, death, life, death, life.

Because in avoiding death, we also ironically, avoid life. And Jesus is about life. When we say this Gospel story is first and foremost about a miracle, we may be missing the point. It’s understandable that we do, because it is sensational. It captivates our imagination.

Focusing only on the miracle may just play into our fear and avoidance of death. As if to say Jesus performing this miracle was done for the boy’s sake. The enemy, death, was conquered! Therefore we can go on denying death. As if the boy will never eventually die an earthly death. As if to say Jesus performed this miracle solely to convince us to ‘believe’ in him — because no one else could do so (even though there were magicians/soothsayers and other miracle workers who performed incredible acts in Jesus’ day).

But the miracle, per se, is not the point of the story. Jesus raised the son from death not merely to show his divine power but to express his love and concern for the widow. He had compassion on her (v.13). And he couldn’t stand the thought that she would have to go it alone in a culture that marginalized the widow. Jesus brought the son back to restore a relationship, for living in the world.

God tosses us into the air. God throws us into the thick of life with all its challenges, disappointments, failures, weaknesses, joys, hurts, loves, pleasures and pain, satisfactions and accomplishments. God throws us into the air to experience fully this life we have been given. Life, death, life, death, life, death …

Then, to our happy amazement, God catches us again at just the right moment. God cares about what happens to us in our lives. God is interested in every minute detail and event in our lives — even those things we would rather cover up and hide in the darkest recesses of our hearts. God’s light exposes those secrets, even. We may feel vulnerable, challenged, unsettled for a time. And we may even wonder if we won’t just crash and burn on our way down.

Have faith in the One who’s tossing you. Because it’s part of life, for one thing. But most importantly, because God loves you and will quite unexpectedly be the One to catch you, at just the right moment.