You can tell a pilgrim …

Before I took my first steps on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage a couple of years ago, I first had to choose my shell—the symbol for St James the Apostle. Along the roadways and paths of the 800-kilometre trek across the Iberian Peninsula in northern Spain you can tell a pilgrim by the shell they have attached to their backpacks.

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Wearing the shell attracted attention, often very positive. The group with whom I was walking came through a small suburb of the city of Guernica one Sunday morning. When we walked into the town square, we soon realized we were at the finish line of a marathon fundraiser for a local, special needs school.

There, some of the locals had set up large barbecues where they were grilling all sorts of meats for the marathon runners to enjoy after their race. We entered the square moments before the first runners crossed the finish line. But those preparing the barbecue called us over and without even asking our names or who we were offered us some of the delectable meats.

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When we expressed our gratitude, they asked us to say a prayer for them at the destination of our pilgrimage: the shrine in the city of Santiago, Spain—still some 700 kilometres away. I promised them I would.

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As you know, I didn’t make it to Santiago, falling ill to pneumonia and coming home early after only a couple of weeks on the trail. I remember struggling with my ‘failure’ to achieve my spiritual and physical goals. For one thing, I wasn’t able to offer a prayer in Santiago for those good people from Guernica who asked me to.

Was it worth it? Did my truncated pilgrimage do any good? Or, was the love and generosity those locals showed us and our receiving their gifts graciously, enough?

On Ash Wednesday, we begin a journey. And at the beginning of this journey, we are given a mark—not a shell, but the sign of the cross on our foreheads. It is a public act, a public ‘coming out’ if you will. By this mark the world will know we are Christians.

I hope you will wear your mark home tonight, wherever you go and whatever you still have to do—keep it visible. And see what happens. You might be invited into some meaningful, enriching conversations along the way. Some might even ask you to pray for them.

Go into the closet where no one can see you, instructs Jesus.[1]And pray to your Father in heaven who hears you, and will reward you for your faithful act. But even when we think our faith fails us? Or only for its visible success? Or only if we achieve our goals?

Arnold Lobel, author of his children’s book called The Frog and Toad Treasury describes the relationship of two friends and how they pass time together, explore the world together and support one another.

In one chapter, the action takes place in October. The leaves are falling. Frog decides to go to Toad’s house, secretly, and rake his leaves for him. “I will rake all the leaves that have fallen on his lawn. Toad will be surprised,” Frog says.

Now, his friend Toad has the same idea. Both manage to arrive at the home of the other unseen, ascertain that no one is home, rake the leaves, and return to their own houses unnoticed. On their respective ways home, however, a wind comes.

The wind blows and blows. The piles of leaves do too, so that the leaves are scattered everywhere. At the end of the day, neither Frog nor Toad realizes what the other has done, because both return home to leaves strewn across their yards. Both pledge to rake their own leaves the next day. Nevertheless, that night Frog and Toad are both happy when they each turned out the light and went to bed.[2]

What is more important: Our good intentions and motivation? Or, the outcome of our actions. Being authentic matters more than the results of our actions. The Gospel is not about the consequences, good or bad, of our good or bad intentions. The Gospel is not about achieving results and being rewarded for our good work, even with righteous motivation. In the end, the Gospel does not leave us stuck (and perplexed!) in self-centred piety, it points to what God is all about.

Normally when we hear the words of Jesus: “the kingdom of heaven is like …”[3]when someone does so and so, we think of the job we must do to enter that kingdom. And so, we imagine and want to be like that religious person, attending to ritual and prayer and acts of charity and justice our whole life long; the more we can do, the better.

Not that we don’t do anything or don’t keep trying. But we cannot ignore from these words of Jesus what Godis all about. I consider those scriptures about the kingdom of heaven as describing the character of God: A God who treasures each of us. And will stop at nothing to find us. And give up God’s very life on the cross—give up everything—in order to be with us and love us.

God is the one who sells all in order buy the field with the treasure buried in it. God is the merchant who sells everything in order to obtain the pearl of great value. Where God’s treasure is (God’s life, God’s mercy, God’s presence—in us), there God’s heart is also.

This is a fundamental message of Christianity. A message of One who comes into our life even in the messiness and despair of being human. Born a vulnerable baby to poor, teenage parents in a backwater town of Bethlehem. Living the life of a simple man from Nazareth, hanging out with fishers, tax collectors and prostitutes. Dying, even, the very humiliating death of a criminal, for all to see.

The message of Christianity is about a God who ‘sells it all’ in order to be with us, live in us and work in us, for the good.

God does all of this in order to know us, really know us. To love us. To grieve with us. To enjoy with us. To walk with us this often difficult journey that we undertake again this day.

And despite the difficult journey for which Lent is a metaphor, may the world in each step we take on the pilgrimage know we are Christians by our love.

And that’s enough.

 

[1]Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

[2]Cited in Lori Brandt Hale, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Vol 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.23-24.

[3]from his later parables (or stories) describing the reign of God, specifically Matthew 13:44-45.

It’s ok to fall (4): It’s the only way

It’s only the second Sunday in Lent. Time seems to drag during this long, hard season. At least Advent — a similar season of preparation, repentance, and waiting — is only four weeks long; things seem to go faster in December.

The pace for Lent is perfect for Sarai and Abram. They are old — in their nineties, now in the twilight of their lives (Genesis 17). They are, likely, slower in moving about and more reflective than the young. They are, likely, more contemplative and more aware of the mistakes they have made and the wounds they have caused — all of which is appropriate for the Lenten journey (Craig Kocher, “Feasting on the Word” Year B Vol 2, Westminster/John Knox Press, Kentucky, 2008, p.50). I agree — although it’s hard to admit — sometimes we need a slower pace, and a place to listen and pray carefully, to confess our sin, as we turn toward God.

I tried something for the first time this past week which goes against the grain of my personality. When I go for my 45 minute walks, my route takes me along streets, roadways and eventually into a beautiful multi-acred forest called ‘the Grove’ whose trails lead to the Ottawa River. 

But I always carry my smart-phone with me. I have justified doing so for safety reasons. My hyper-vigilant personality loves this — no matter where I am on this planet I am only a text or phone call away! If there is a crisis or emergency, I can respond with efficiency and lightning speed to get help.

As I pondered leaving my phone at home, before going for my walk, I reflected on how dependent I have become on this device. Addicted, perhaps? I wondered what I would have done before the smart-phone era — not long ago, but long enough! If there was an emergency, I would have sought a neighbour’s help by knocking on their door; I would have paid more attention to my surroundings and where I might find help. I would have prepared better for my walk. I would have rested more in the moment, trusting more in the interrelated fabric of life around me.

So, here’s the good news. (But the structure of this sermon goes like this: There’s good news, then bad news, then really good news. Stay with me!) First good news, from this experience: I felt liberated. Leaving my phone behind wasn’t really that hard to do — and yet, it was a small step in a healthy direction, a simple sacrifice for evaluating my life-style and making concrete changes for the good. I will now practice more often ‘leaving my phone behind’, for its obvious benefits.

These are the ‘small’ steps we can make during Lent. Others give up chocolate, sweets, meat. Others still will ‘add’ something to their lifestyle — exercise, working out, volunteering more, coming to church more often, giving more money for some overseas mission, spending more time in prayer — all these good disciplines that are popular for Christians in Lent. And these are good!

During Lent, however, we are called also to contemplate the journey of Jesus to the cross — and the implications of that kind of sacrifice on our own lives. And so — and here’s the rub, the ‘bad’ news: Giving up chocolate or the cell phone is not ultimately what the Lenten journey is about. Jesus’ death on the cross was not making a ‘convenient’ sacrifice. Jesus’ death on the cross was not a little discipline that pinched but really didn’t change anything significant when Easter morning came around.

Jesus’ sacrifice goes to the jugular of our lives; it demands a costly cost; it means a radical change and giving up of something that is near and dear to us.

God calls Abram and Sarai to change their names. And it was a big deal in their day. In our times, names are often considered nothing more than labels. In our world, names are often chosen based on nostalgia, diction or popularity.

In the ancient world, however, names reflected the character and destiny of that person. To be called by your name, was a big deal. To change that identification was radical! Names were wrapped up in the core of one’s identity and purpose.

The name of God, above all, was untouchable — literally. The Jewish people withheld from spelling God’s name in scripture, from saying God’s name out-loud in worship. To call ‘on the name of the Lord’ was an act of profound devotion. To call ‘on the name of the Lord’ was a radical act of identifying with an un-nameable God.

And yet, in this text, even God is given a new name. For the first time, God is given the name “God Almighty” (Genesis 17:1). It is transliterated from the Hebrew, “El Shaddai” which might be translated, “God of the Mountains” (ibid., p.52).

So, here is my invitation to you today: Consider what profound and deep aspect of your life God is calling you to change. You may object, on the grounds of scriptural interpretation alone: “This text is not about us needing to change! God called Abram and Sarai to change their names. That was them. But not us!” 

Yes, we may think on occasions — even religious in nature — where we do still change our names — at weddings, some women will change their last names; and in Christian baptisms practised in some churches, babies take on their “Christian” name for the first time.

And yet, when we read this Old Testament text, and while we would do well to acknowledge its original context and meaning to the first people who received it, we are still asked today: What does it mean to us? How can this text become alive for us today?

And when we relate this text to the Gospel for today (Mark 8:31-38), where Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, where Jesus challenges us to ‘lose’ our lives in order to ‘gain’ life — what does that mean? It’s not just about throwing a little more cash in the offering plate, or not indulging in sweets.

What may God be calling us to change, in our own lives? What may God be calling us, whispering into our hearts, to ‘lose’? Are we prepared to fall? Big time?

Jesus shows us that it’s okay to fall, because it’s the only way to go: The Cross. If anything, don’t skip opportunities in Lent to worship — during mid-week studies, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. Why? Going to the Cross, through the Cross, is the only way for us to know and experience the joy and truth of resurrection. Being uncomfortable by facing our fear, anger and shame is the only way for us to know and experience the joy of life. If you yearn for true joy, satisfaction and rebirth in your life, being uncomfortable is the only way for you to be healed, to be redeemed and forgiven, to find your way in this world.

You can’t have Easter without Good Friday. We need to be prepared to ‘lose’ ourselves — to fall — in order to ‘find’ ourselves — to get up, again. In Christ. “El Shaddai”, God of the Mountains. Mountains define valleys. You can’t have mountains without valleys. Mountains encircle valleys — valleys of despair, valleys of impatience and sorrow, valleys of Lenten confession and discipline. Wherever you have a range of mountains, you will have valleys. But whenever you find yourself in a valley, don’t give up. Don’t get stuck in the valley. Don’t get comfortable there, either. Get up and keep on, because there’s a mountain just up ahead pointing our vision to the skies. 

And here comes the really good news (after the bad news, after the first good news): Abram is ninety-nine years old when ‘the big change’ happens. Ninety-nine! It’s never too late. Never too late for God to call us to change. Never too late for God to call us into ‘losing’ something that we have for a life-time believed to be important. Never too late for God to give us the strength we need to endure and follow-through on that change. Never too late for God to bless us with a wonderful gift of the new thing God is doing for us — whatever that may be.

God will never give up on us. God will wait a life-time, and then some! God is the God of Mountains. And mountains are steadfast and true. Mountains point upwards to the vastness and infinite beauty and glory of the sky and the stars. God pointed Moses’ vision upwards to see the Big Picture of God’s promises and God’s future.

Mountains will remind us, I pray, that God’s promises are sure. God’s covenant to us cannot be broken, even as we follow Jesus down this long, slow road. But, “whose destiny is our destiny: the cross, the grave, the skies” (ibid, p.54).

It’s ok to fall (3): Jesus leads us there

The beginning of a story introduces the characters, but it also sets things up for what readers can expect later in the book. The writer of a good story will craft, early on, a good ‘set up’ for the plot development. Here’s an example, and you tell me what you think will happen later in the story:

At the beginning of this story, we read about a couple of children walking home from school, as they always do, along a familiar path. However, their route goes by the town’s cemetery, a place they have never visited. It remains a mystery to them. The cemetery is guarded by spiked, iron-wrought gates and surrounded by tall, thick cedar hedges.

The children are coming of age when their curiosity is piquing, and they ask their parents if they can venture into the cemetery. But they are warned repeatedly from all quarters: “Don’t ever, ever, EVER play in the cemetery! Especially, after dark!”

Now, what do you think will happen as a result of this ‘set up’ in the story line? They’ll likely go there! — into the cemetery, at night, perhaps under scary or tension-filled circumstances. And, we want to read on to find out how, as our own imaginations grow! It’s true, when we are ordered not to do something in some unequivocal, unyielding, non-explanatory way, it’s something we will usually end up doing! The story is a snap-shot of life.

Social history bears witness to this human dynamic: In 1920, law-makers south of the border enacted the 18th Amendment which attempted to curb the evils of liquor. Laws were passed against the sale and trade of alcohol. The result? After Prohibition was finally lifted, historians showed that the consumption of alcohol by the general population actually increased during those ‘prohibitive’ years. (Strayer & Gatzke, “The Mainstream of Civilization since 1500”, Harcourt, Toronto, 1984, p.730)

“Brick-wall” parenting, as some call it, often fails. Because children don’t grow in an environment where the evils of the world can be talked about, reasoned through and struggled with in loving, patient and understanding ways. They just outright rebel.

Perhaps it was employing some reverse-psychology that spurred Martin Luther to say those infamous words: “Sin boldly … !” But I like to emphasize the latter part of that quote: “Sin boldly … and trust the Lord even more.” Luther doesn’t deny or hide away from sin. He just trumps it, with the Lord!

When I assert repeatedly the theme of this sermon series for Lent: “It’s okay to fall”, I am NOT encouraging you to sin. Because you don’t need to purposely go out and find sin and suffering. You don’t need to seek out suffering, as if it’s a choice we can make (eg. “I think I’ll go out and sin today”; or, “I don’t think I’ll sin today!”)

Sin is something that we must learn to live with. It’s a part of our lives. Sin is not something we can ‘will’ away by the force of our self-righteous toil to purge ourselves somehow. If you think yourself a good Christian, you may be good at hiding your sin. But honest, faithful, authentic Christians will struggle monumentally with their sin, and not need to put on masks of perfection when they come to church.

Life happens. Life is ‘done unto us’. Mistakes are made. I can’t explain why God created a world where suffering is so much a part of the journey of life. The better, more meaningful question, I believe, is to consider what the suffering and the sin has to teach us about ourselves in relationship to God, in the journey to redemption.

In other words, it’s okay to fall, because that is where Jesus leads us. In the Gospel text for the first Sunday in Lent, after Jesus is baptized, “The Spirit of God immediately drove him into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12) where he spent forty days, tempted by Satan. This part of Jesus’ life is for me the image I hold whenever I pray the traditional English translation of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation”.

Because, while Jesus does not cause my sinning, Jesus leads me into the wilderness of my life where I must confront all those temptations, the brokenness, weaknesses, despair, anger, fear, guilt — that cause my sinning. Jesus takes me there, into the barren land of my soul. He leads the way. I must follow.

The formal ‘Invitation to the Lenten discipline’ in most liturgies begins with a call to self-examination — even before repenting, praying, fasting and works of love strengthened by the gifts of word and sacrament (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Leader’s Desk Edition, Augsburg Fortress, p.617). Self-examination is an act of profound humility and honesty. And it could very well be the most difficult task in the Lenten journey.

Here is some good news: Jesus is not afraid. Because he has already gone to the darkest place of all — the Cross, and then even descended into hell as we affirm in the Creeds. I can persevere through any turmoil life may offer, because Jesus is there, right beside me, helping me get through it.

What makes the consequences of our sin worse, I suspect, is the kind of thinking that suggests Jesus cannot be present if or whenever we go into those dark places of our lives. Our prejudice may be that Jesus cannot be there in the shameful, anger-ridden, fear-devastated places of our suffering. We thus delude ourselves into believing “I am alone” in my suffering. The Gospel, however, teaches us otherwise.

I was so inspired by the record number of folks we had out on Shrove Tuesday for our pancake party — including almost a dozen folks from the neighbourhood who had never been with us before! We danced, we sang, we ate, we enjoyed music together.

When we are in the desert of our lives confronting our sin and suffering, it is so important to know, again, who your friends are, your family, your community, your church — and simply experience their presence. And by their presence, their loving support — even in the darkest time of our lives. Just being there together, can make a huge difference.

Therefore, I can be encouraged that as Jesus was waited upon by the angels who gave him the things he needed to get through his wilderness suffering, so then Jesus will not abandon me in my desert. He’ll be right there beside me, and give me what I need (and maybe not always what I want).

It’s okay to fall, because Jesus leads me into that place that I would rather avoid. And even that place where I might be tempted to go. Because I don’t go alone. Thanks be to God.

It’s ok to fall (1): Jesus lets us

There’s a bouncy feel to the rhythm of Mark’s story-telling. I can track the Gospel of Mark on a chart in terms of highs and lows:

The highs are the remarkable, miraculous, inexplicable even sensational events witnessed by story-tellers. Beginning with the baptism of Jesus in the first chapter (v.9-11) — voices from heaven, clouds parting, dove descending.

Then, mid-way through the Gospel Jesus goes atop a mountain and turns into this divine, ethereal being before the disciples’ eyes (Mark 9:2-9). Giants from Hebrew history — Moses and Elijah — appear out of thin air, clouds roil and again a voice from heaven. And, in the last chapter (16:9-20), of course, the brief but significant mention of Jesus’ glorious resurrection from the dead. These are definitely ‘highs’.

The lows are a bit more tricky. They represent the down-side of Jesus’ ministry — the temptation after forty impoverished days in the desert, the scrutiny of the Pharisees, all culminating in the Passion of Christ: his betrayal, arrest, torture, crucifixion, death and burial. Some original manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark end on a ‘low’: “So [the disciples] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (v.8).

Talk about bouncy, like what often happens with the outdoor temperature when seasons change!

These lows are tricky, because, as we shall see, they are not really ‘lows’. At least, they are not the final word in the story of faith. There is always an upside past the low. The troubling truth is that the high will not happen without the necessary, preceding low. In other words, before we rise we must know to fall.

I told this story already once before but it bears repeating. It illustrates the point rather well. And it is a summer-time, water-play story — and my imagination goes there frequently at this frozen time of year.

I was learning to water-ski. In fact, it was the first time I ever tried it, at age thirty. Jessica and I visited with some friends who had a cottage on a small lake nestled in the Bruce Peninsula north of Owen Sound.

It was a good lake to learn on. Few cottagers, even fewer boaters. A quiet, round lake. And my friend, John who drove the boat, assured me that we would just circle the lake a few times and when I wanted to stop, just to wave my arm and he would bring me close to shore.

John’s family, gathered with Jessica at shore to watch me. They assured me that it was normal to fall the first time on skis. In fact, they said they didn’t remember anyone ever being able to lift up and out of the water the first time without falling, when the boat accelerated. I think my friends were getting ready for a long afternoon of fits, stops and starts.

Well, were they in for a surprise. Including myself. Well, not really. Because, darn it all, I would employ all my strength and stamina NOT TO FALL!!!!

I was sitting with my skis submerged in the water, when John hit the gas and I felt the first tug. I gripped the tow rope handle with all my power and pulled myself out of the water, and voila! I was skiing! I briefly heard the cheering of my friends on the shore behind me before we were out on the open water and the waves were peeling off the sides of my skis. I enjoyed it for a few minutes.

But then, my back started cramping up, and my thighs began to seize up. We were around the lake a dozen times before I fully realized I was in some incredible pain. But I never wiped out once! It wasn’t until afterward that I came to the conclusion — after impressing everyone, I think — that I never relaxed into the experience. I was so tight because I didn’t want to fall.

And yet, I needed to fall. I needed to just let go into the water to know how it felt. My enjoyment of the experience was dampened because of an unrealistic, and inhuman (I might add) expectation of myself. Even though I never fell waterskiing that first time, even though I was ‘perfect’ at it — have I ever wanted to go again? No.

When I recall, as a child, those times that I truly enjoyed playing in the water — it was those times whenever a huge wave caught me off balance and threw me head over heels onto the beach. Those were the times I jumped up and ran back in with glee. It’s the same thing with water slides, and why we will run back up the steps all afternoon long. There is something important about sliding under the surface of the water, losing control, falling into grace, letting go into the sometimes tumultuous waters of our baptism.

This is the first movement of anyone’s true, journey of faith. The pull of the current is downward. Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, writes: “How surely gravity’s law, strong as an ocean current, takes hold of even the smallest thing and pulls it toward the heart of the world … This is what the things can teach us: to fall, patiently to trust our heaviness” (cited in Richard Rohr, “Falling Upward”, Jossey Bass, San Francisco, 2011, p.153).

What I am learning over time is that we are the cause of our sinning more than anything or anyone else. Because it is natural to fall, from time to time. But we don’t allow ourselves, give ourselves permission, to do just that. We resist, deny, suppress this movement downward. Part of the Lenten journey, I believe, is to reflect on why it is we don’t allow ourselves to just let go into the arms of God, and simply trust.

Admittedly our human nature is such, that we would rather avoid the low and shoot straight for the high. I get that. It is also true, we are up against a giant. We build our lives up against the fear of falling. We are a success-oriented culture. We construct our fortress of security, we incessantly compare ourselves to others and measure our self-worth against some notion of success plastered on the front covers of magazines and echoed through the voices of our sports’ heroes and business tycoons. We are an upwardly mobile culture, valuing even yearning for this trending in our own lives. ‘Up’ is the only way to go! What else is there to do?

So, beware of this prejudice against falling before we start! I ask you to consider all these real and important concerns we have in our culture against falling — whether they are physical, emotional, spiritual — and hold them before you, carefully, during the coming “down” season.

The glorious, divine vision of Jesus is hard to explain. It is a miracle way beyond human understanding. We may say that this event was meant to encourage and empower Jesus for his coming journey to the cross. We may say that we need to be reminded again of the divine nature of Jesus. We may say that what this text tells us is to be obedient, and “listen” to, Jesus, the Holy One of God.

But I like how the story ends. Mark, in his brevity nonetheless, does take intentional note of the movement of the disciples with Jesus “down the mountain” (v.9). This is the sounding bell for Lent. We are now ready to begin the journey downward, into the valley. We are now on a downward trajectory.

And the real question is: What will we do with that? Will we distract ourselves even more? Will we intensify our addictive behaviour and buy more toys to keep the pain at bay? Will we pretend that ‘all is well’ when it is not?

Or, will we face our fears, confront our internal poverty and our crisis, with courage? And I say, with courage, because there is reason to hope when we stand on the edge of the abyss. There is reason to persevere through the fall.

In Matthew’s version of the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration (17:1-8), describing with even more detail than Mark all that happened in this incredible mountain-top scene, the disciples who go with Jesus to see this heavenly vision and hear the voice of God from the bright, overshadowing cloud — what do they do? “When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear” (v.6). They fall to the ground. And not only that …

Jesus’ lets them. He doesn’t scold them for falling down by saying something like, “Hey, buck up; you are standing on holy ground before Elijah, Moses and my divine being! Don’t fall down and grovel in the dirt! Pull yourself together! You’re my disciples, after all! Show some respect!” No, he doesn’t.

Instead, Jesus let’s them be humbled before his divine presence. If but for a short moment, Jesus allows them their humanity. And then he says with encouraging, inviting words, “You don’t have to be afraid, get up” (v.7).

I hope you can join me in the coming Lenten journey, taking great comfort in the Good News of Jesus. I can almost hear Jesus’ loving voice whisper in my ear, next time I risk getting on water skis again, “It’s okay to fall, you know. You don’t have to be afraid.”