Prayer as Silence – Advent sermon series 4

In this concluding sermon in a series on prayer this Advent, I invite you to consider prayer as silence. In the first, we acknowledged prayer as growth – that there come times in our lives when God invites us into a deeper communion of prayer; and so, a different way of praying. In the second sermon, we considered that the fundamental work of prayer was to listen – listen to the other and listen to God. Last week, we reflected upon an important type of prayer that often is missed especially during times of the year we are called to be happy; the lament makes our relationship with God real and our ultimate joy authentic.

The eagle changes its flying posture depending on the state of the air around it.  When in flight it encounters noisy, turbulent air, the eagle folds its wings straight down and underneath, riding the agitated, unstable winds in as compact a body mass as possible.

But when the air is calm high above the earth, the eagle will spread its massive wingspan to its farthest limits. It will expand its body mass to its fullest potential as it coasts and glides on the silent, peaceful air.

Silence gets a bad rap in the Protestant church especially. Since the Reformation and Enlightenment, we are suspicious of anything that is interior or to do with experience. When we still our minds, we are afraid that we will let the devil in! 

And, we will straight away point to bad silence – like the violence percolating beneath the surface of giving someone ‘the silent treatment’. Or, we rightly condemn the complacent, fearful silence in face of injustice. In both cases, words must be spoken. And better loudly at that!

Yet, there is a silence that is healing, transformational. We find it in nature. We find it in the stillness of predawn dew resting on flowers and blades of grass. We experience it the first night in the bush after driving all day away from the loud, noisy city. 

We also find silence in the bold action born of convicted hearts, action that happens behind-the-scenes. Not in the spectacular, the sensational. Not in attention-grabbing largess of personality shock-and-awe. But in the quiet, dedicated, barely perceptible giving of those who know themselves and respond to the still, small voice speaking in their hearts.

This is Joseph. He appears, indeed, to be the strong, silent type. But not because he is afraid to say or do anything. But because he has the courage to respond. He begins his risky venture with Mary “after waking from sleep.” Even though he went to bed “considering in his mind” all the problematic aspects of his relationship with Mary, “resolving” to leave her, his course of action changed dramatically after he stopped the busy-ness of his mind, the activity of his consciousness – as good and righteous as it was – and went to sleep. And dreamt.[1]

There is a difference between the absence of noise and silence. Something is already happening in this holy silence. Something we’ve been too busy, too rushed, too loud, too distracted to notice. Where God already is, in between the words, in between the spaces defined by our cerebral, ego-driven impulses and imaginations.

This is good, Lutheran theology! The grace of God already exists in our lives. We don’t have to make it happen. Really, we don’t! God is in the world, already. It is given. God is present. God is waiting for us, in the silence of our hearts. God is waiting, already, in the circumstances and situations of the world. God is always listening to us. 

But are we always listening to God? Are we willing to step into the river of God’s action and Spirit? Will we immerse ourselves into the prayer already flowing in our lives, a prayer flowing into the ocean of God’s presence and love? The late Thomas Keating was known to have said, “Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.”[2]

It is in silence where we can be fully and truly who we are. We don’t have to hide anything. We don’t have to meet anyone’s expectations, put on a good impression or please anyone. We can let go and let all that is there come to the surface in the confidence that all of it is held in God’s love – the good, the bad and the ugly. We can stretch to our fullest without judgement. We may be, in truth, letting the devil out, not in.

May we step into the spaciousness of God’s mercy, peace and joy just waiting for us in the silence of God’s ever-present love. May we learn to pray in the gift of silence, especially when we may so desperately need it.


[1]Matthew 1:18-25

[2]Cited in Theresa Blythe, Fifty Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006) p.32

Alive with the sound of music – a funeral sermon

“The hills are alive with the sound of music.”

Do you know where that comes from? Yes, the Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, released in 1965. It was my favorite movie for many years. In fact, it was the first movie I saw as a little boy in the theatre.

A historical piece, it is set in the tumultuous days preceding the Second World War, in Austria. Julie Andrews plays Maria who is governess to the children of Baron von Trapp. The story is based on the real-life adventures of the Von Trapp Family Singers, one of the world’s best-know concert groups in this era.

In a public-school musical version of the story, I played Rolf, the young Nazi sympathizer who was courting one of the Von Trapp girls. I have come to know the songs and recognize them to this day. I can still see Julie Andrews running in the grass on a mountain side near Salzburg, her skirt twirling in the wind, and her face turned up to the sky. And she is singing at the top of her voice:

“The hills are alive with the sound of music.”

When we think of mountains—like the Alps in Austria or the Rocky Mountains in Canada—we think of the most outspoken aspect of all the various geographic land features. These are the kings of topography. This past summer my family stood at the base of Mount Robson looking up at the highest of the Rockies in Canada. Way up. Almost four thousand metres high.

It’s no wonder we’ve come up with the saying: “Shout it from the rooftops” because the higher you go, the louder you can sing and bellow out what you have on your heart. And Julie Andrews does just that.

I think of Edna with her bright, ‘mountain top’ way of expressing herself. Whenever she was in the room and had something to say, she expressed it with verve and vigor.

She was an outspoken advocate for community issues. Neighbors rallied around her strong voice speaking for or against certain municipal projects and policies. Edna spoke and people listened whether or not you agreed with her. Among thousands and thousands of hockey fans in the Canadian Tire Centre I am certain you could hear her voice above all the rest cheering on her beloved Senators. Edna did not hold back in letting her voice be heard in public and on Lowell Green -type radio call-in shows.

In the narthex of the church following worship, she talked to everyone in a voice we will never forget. Even during the prayers of the people when there was opportunity for the assembly to offer the names of those held in prayer, she always, always spoke up.

The prophets and poets, like Isaiah and David the Psalm-writer, look to the mountains where people gathered and good things happened. Isaiah describes a joyous feast that the shroud of death cannot overcome. We can’t imagine a table of rich foods and wines without the banter, laughter and voices heard loudly and emphatically. And so, the Psalm-writer instructs the faithful to look up, from where our help comes.

Mountains reach to the heavens and announce like no other vision the glory of God and the majesty and splendor of all creation.

And yet, when my family and I climbed (not Mount Robson!) a couple mountains this summer, something unexpected struck me when we were walking amidst the clouds. The silence. It was almost unnervingly quiet. The higher you go, the quieter it becomes. Moments of profound stillness.

“The hills are alive with the sound of music.” They say the spaces between the notes in music are part of the music. The pauses. The breaks. The rests. When no sound is made. Those can be the most important moments in a musical piece. The hills are still alive, even in the sound of silence.

At times in our lives when there is no sound, this can unnerve us. When life seems to screech to a halt. When nothing seems to happen. When no one says anything. When we feel unproductive. These moments can leave us feeling at best uncomfortable, and at worst anxious and despairing.

There are times when silence gives us all the opportunity to receive, not just to give. In a posture of receiving, of accepting, sometimes words aren’t necessary at all. At the Communion rail, we receive the grace and love of God. When Edna came forward and knelt in silence, she often had tears in her eyes. The feast on earth was for her a foretaste of the feast of heaven.

In her last moments, she was still ‘speaking’ with her body, her eyes. What strength she still could muster, she reached out with her arm to Someone ‘up there’ who was waiting. And, then, at the right moment, God reached out to hold her hand and bring her into the bosom of God’s eternal love.

We discover God not just when we feel the full force of the wind on our faces or when the waves crash on the beach or even when the mountains sing out the glory of creation. But also, just as real, when there is a lull in the breeze, when the waves retreat, when there is a pause in the music of life, when it is time to receive the Presence that has always been there for us.

The hills, indeed, are alive with the sound of music.

Search for love – a wedding sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With a smile.

 

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

The raising of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

[5]John 10:27

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

Behold, I prepare the way!

“Behold, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me … “ (Malachi 3:1).

It was the day after my birthday at the end of October, that the tree arrived. Much earlier than I expected all the way from Idaho. But I wanted to make sure this artificial tree, which was billed as the most realistic Balsam Fir on the market, would get all the way to Canada during a postal strike in time to decorate. The end of October was much too early for me, but at least you might say I was preparing well. Or, so I thought.

Meaning, I was getting things done early. I was on top of all the planning and busy preparations. In so doing, I was convincing myself that I was doing the preparation that Advent calls for.

Well, it’s the 2nd Sunday in Advent and the tree is still not decorated. In fact half of it does not light up. For all of November and almost half of December, I have sat in my chair in our living room, looking at an empty tree waiting for the replacement part to arrive. According to tracking, it’s supposed to arrive tomorrow. Pray for me.

It hasn’t been easy sitting there throughout this time looking at a tree that was supposed to be perfect but wasn’t. It was broken. It hasn’t been easy looking every day at that tree that was supposed to be decorated and functioning perfectly already but wasn’t. It hasn’t been easy talking on the phone umpteen times with the company about what was wrong with the wiring. It hasn’t been easy waiting for things to happen that should already have. It hasn’t been easy looking at what has become a symbol not of my good intentions, my industrious, conscientious hard work paid off; but, instead, a symbol of imperfection, failure and frustration.

One of the messages of Advent is that we must prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts and in this world. How, then, are we to prepare for the Lord’s coming? How are we to prepare, if not just upping our efforts at getting stuff done—the more efficient the better, the faster the better?

In several scriptures assigned for Advent, we encounter a unique word: “Behold!” Today, the command is to behold, my messenger comes to prepare the way. I prefer this old English translation in the King James Version which preserves an important nuance of this biblical command to behold. This is very similar to the behold from last week, from the prophet Jeremiah, commanding us to behold that the days are coming when God will fulfill God’s promises. (1) In other words, God is about to do something.

At least in today’s reading from the Hebrew scripture, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) opens with the more common, “See!” But we can work with that! In fact, that is not bad. When Philip asks Jesus, “Show us the Father”, Jesus responds, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” (2) Throughout the Gospels, the message is that in Jesus, we see God.

But, really see. That’s why ‘behold’ is better. Not just ‘look at.’ Not just a sidelong glance. Not just looking at someone askance, in passing. Not just the surface of how he looks. But to perceive Jesus, to look into the heart of the Lord. To ‘behold’ God. To be in and contemplate the presence of the One who comes to us. The One we cannot fully understand.

God is about to do something. When? Where? How? So, behold God—the One we cannot fully understand who comes nevertheless. Behold the mystery.

The story shared with me was of a lonely widower who was told by his friends that he ought to get a dog. So he goes to a pet shop to see what’s available.

“Have you ever owned a dog before?” the saleswoman asks.

“No.”

“Are you prepared to take it out for a walk two or three times a day?”

“I hadn’t really thought of that. I just wanted a little companionship.”

“That companionship requires something from you, no?” the saleswoman mused out loud.

“Listen,” she broke the awkward silence between them, “if you really want companionship, I’ll show you a talking centipede for about the same price.”

“You must be joking.”

“No, I’m serious, and what’s more, this little guy can even sing.” She leads the customer to a miniature house, and in front of it, in a barely visible lawn chair, is the centipede. Turning to the tiny creature, she says, “Would you say something for this man so he’ll know you can talk?”

“Okay,” says the centipede in a very soft voice. “What would you like me to say?”

“That’s fine,” says the saleswoman. “And can you show him your singing voice?”

“Of course,” says the centipede, who breaks into a barely audible rendition of “Sweet Caroline.”

The man can’t believe it. He buys the centipede and the tiny house and brings them home.

Later that day, he calls out, “I’m going for a coffee and I’d love to introduce you to my friends at Tim Hortons. Would you like to come along?”

The centipede does not answer. He repeats the questions, and again there’s no answer.

He decides to ask one more time. He goes right up to the little house and says in a loud voice, “For the last time, I’m going out for a coffee. Would you like to come along?”

“I heard you the first time,” quietly says the centipede. “I’m just putting on my boots.”

Beholding God requires something of us. It calls us to get in sync with where God likely is and how God tends to work. We are called to interface with the presence of God. Admittedly, this is challenging for us because, as one Japanese theologian remarked, God, like the centipede, is going three miles an hour. (3)  How fast are we going?

The refining fire of growth and change is not waiting for us to feel good about it. This Advent, we are simply called to behold the mystery of God’s ways and respond from the heart to the truth of how God is revealed to us. And trust, that in God’s time and ways, all that’s good will come to pass in our lives and in this world.

It might be counterintuitive but a better way to prepare during this season might very well be to slow down and be silent more. To listen for what God is already whispering into your own soul. And to see what God is already doing all around you.

I’m not saying that preparing is not a good thing to do. But, inevitably, times come in life when no amount of preparation can prepare you for what you must endure. So, you wait.

And, in the waiting, you may find some time to acknowledge what is missing in your soul—“your longing desires, your deepest needs, the questions where you don’t, yet, have answers.” (4)

And, then, pray in the awareness that God knows. And, in the end, it is not my or your preparation that is the most important during this time of Advent, but God’s. God is already preparing your soul for its healing and wholeness once again.

“Behold! I am about to do a new thing,” God says. “Do you not see it?” (5)

  1. Jeremiah 33:14-16
  2. John 14:8-9
  3. Kosuke Koyama, “Three Mile An Hour God” (SCM Press, 2015)
  4. Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) “Longing – Brother, Give Us A Word” (3 December 2018), http://www.ssje.org
  5. Isaiah 43:19

Postscript: On December 13, the part finally arrived! And, it seems to work. Well worth the wait!

Leaning in

The man with the unclean spirit is ordered by Jesus to “Be silent!”[1] After Jesus speaks to him, the unclean spirit obeys, and leaves the man. The man is thus transformed, healed, made whole in this dramatic Gospel encounter with Jesus.

We need to note, before going on, that Jesus speaks in the synagogue in Capernaum. He is at the beginning of his ministry. And what better place to start his preaching than on home turf, on familiar ground, in the rural community with people he likely knows, and who know him?

If you’ve ever lived in the country, or farther up the Ottawa Valley, you know that in small towns, people know each other. And when it comes to annual fairs, big events or musical shows, everyone attends. So, when in the lake side village, a home-boy comes to preach in the local synagogue, well, who wouldn’t show up? The synagogue is crammed full. Standing room only.

The point here is that the evil spirit resides and comes out within this rather homogenous community. The evil is not out there, somewhere – in Jerusalem the big city, or out there across the lake among the heathen Gentiles, or expressed within other groups with different belief systems and faiths. The evil is right there in the middle of the common, familiar, comforts of home.

The man with the evil spirit is a person like us. We know him. He is our neighbour. He, or she, is our friend, co-worker. She is the person who comes to church and sits beside us, Sunday after Sunday. The person with the evil spirit is not a stranger to us. That person is us. Each of us.

The Gospel of Mark – indeed the entire New Testament – is a primarily message to and for the church. Not to Islam. Not to Wicca. Not to some Voodoo occult. Not to the so-called Axis of Evil. The finger of judgement is pointed directly at us, at our sin, our evil, the brokenness within us.

When we deny. When we exclude. When we overstep our bounds. When we self-justify. And if you think you don’t have any of these and other problems – to quote what my Dad used to say and preach – you do have a problem!

It’s to this community, in awareness of the sin in our hearts, individually and collectively, that Jesus’ first words, spoken with authority, are: “Be silent!”

How do we change by being silent? I thought we were supposed to do something about our sin! Being silent sounds too much like being passive, lazy, self-indulgent and unproductive. How is it that we are changed when we are quiet?

The silence of which I speak, is first not the silence of denial. It is not a silence that happens when we remain quiet in the face of a great injustice. When a problem is not named, silence enables the problem to continue unattested. When there is something wrong, but no one dares to name the elephant in the room. This is not the silence of which I speak.

Neither is it the silence of combative conflict between people. When someone gives the other ‘the silent treatment’, silence serves as a weapon between people who need help to speak to one another about things that need saying in a safe way. This, too, is not the silence of which I speak.

Jesus is not scolding the man with the unclean spirit when he says, “Be silent!” He is not like the frustrated parent who has reached the boiling point with a disobedient child and just wants them to just shut up and go to their room.

When Jesus says, “Be silent!” he is inviting the disturbed and ill man to open his heart to being changed. Jesus first words are an invitation to be healed. And the first step in that direction is to put to rest, for the moment, the rampant flailing of a seemingly unstoppable ego.

This is a scary thing to do. How can we let go of our reactions, compulsions, need to be right? How can we be so vulnerable and leave ourselves wide open? How can we take this risk, let alone be healed by doing so?

One of my greatest fears as a child was to play on the round-a-bout. At the centre of the playground at kindergarten, stood the scary carousel-like structure. The round-a-bout used rotary motion, spinning around in a circle either clockwise or counter-clockwise. It was painted red.

A bunch of us kids would start by grabbing the four railings which fanned out from the centre like spokes on a wheel. We then started running, really fast, around and around pushing the carousel to dizzying speeds. And then at the moment when we couldn’t run any faster, we threw ourselves onto the spinning platform.

My instinct, at first, was to hang on for dear life at the edge of the round-a-bout as it spun ridiculously fast. It seemed to me the closer I could be to the edge, the more control I had over when I wanted to get off. Doing this, however, I didn’t step off when I wanted. I flew off when I couldn’t hold on any more. So much for control. When all I wanted when I played on the round-a-bout was an evacuation plan.

In order to best stay on the round-a-bout, and not fall off, I had to lean in towards the centre. I had to do the counter-intuitive thing. I had to grab hold of the centre wheel – the hub, the heart of this fearful reality. This way, not only did I last longer, I actually had some fun.

We overcome the evil within not by denying it. Not by turning away from it. Because denying and turning away already exposes another negative disposition. Actual repentance is served best by turning toward that which frightens us. Transformation is realized by moving to our fear not away from it.

And surprise, we are not alone there. We find our strength and our victory in turning toward and leaning into … a very loving, very much present Christ. Jesus is even there, yes.

Like a pine tree on the Canadian Shield rocky coast of Georgian Bay leans into the gale force winds to survive and thrive in that environment, so, too, we turn towards that which assails us in life. As you know, I love the White Pine – native to this part of the world. And one of my favourite Group of Seven pieces of art is A.J. Casson’s “White Pine”.

This painting, in particular, depicts the rugged, often inhospitable places where the white pine flourishes. Spreading its roots just beneath the surface of the ground, the white pine can find foothold in rocky, sandy earth. What is more, along waterlines, the pine will grow sometimes leaning, like the Tower of Pisa, into the gale force winds, not away from them. By doing so, even with its shallow root system, it will not fall. At least, not for a long time.

Naturally, we resist this counter-intuition. Many say that when they meditate, the first half of the period of meditation is hell. When the flood gates are opened. That is when all the thoughts, distractions, and emotions scream to the surface. That is when we fight our greatest battle in prayer. Not against the thoughts and feelings themselves, but against the experience of being still and silent. Because all that has been hidden and suppressed in the dark recesses of our lives finally can come to the surface and is exposed even burned in the Son-light.

It is too easy to give into the ego at this point, which wants to have control, which drives compulsively towards having more, making more, producing more, taking more, defending more. Un-relentless is the ego, driving impulses we struggle with in those first minutes of quiet, still, sitting and praying. It is too easy to give up on the experience and declare, “This is not for me.” And return to the hurly-burly of life in the fast lane.

Should we, however, lean into the internal fray – not suppressing the maelstrom of thoughts, not doing violence against our ego – when we just let the thoughts and feelings come at us and go through us, we will find the rock of our salvation who will hold us up even if we are leaning a bit.

Our lives thus become a prayer of healing when, before all else, we heed Jesus’ call: “Be silent!”, when we seek to quiet our busy thoughts. Saint Isaak of Syria wrote of a way of becoming silent and experiencing our hearts as the temple of the Holy Spirit[2], the holy still centre, and the hub of our lives:

“Enter eagerly into the treasure house that is within you,” he wrote, “and you will see the things that are in heaven – for there is but one single entry to them both. The ladder that leads to the kingdom is hidden within your soul.  Dive into yourself, into your soul, and there you will find the ladder by which to ascend”, and by which God descends into our lives.[3]

Just the turning, the leaning in, is everything on the journey to transformation. “Be still before the Lord,” the Psalmist sings.[4] “In quietness and in trust shall be your strength,” the Prophet advises.[5] “Be silent!” Jesus invites.

[1] Mark 1:21-28, NRSV

[2] 1 Corinthians 6:19

[3] cited in Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe, eds. “God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter” (Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2015), p.91.

[4] Psalm 37:7; 46

[5] Isaiah 30:15

The life-giving gap

Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?” (James 3:11)

The writer, James, makes a case for integrity and authenticity in the Christian life. For us moderns, living in a day and age where how we look, our reputations, our social standings and our bank accounts seem to speak louder than anything else about who we truly are and what we truly want. Is our joy at living based on these ‘worldly’ values, when we are honest about it? 

It becomes particularly challenging for us Christians, whose value system is acutely counter-cultural. It becomes a real war, actually, to embrace the true source of our lives in a world of celebrity politicians and glory-seeking suburbanites. And I think, for the most part, we live a bifurcated existence. We say one thing — I believe in the God who asks us to bear our cross and follow him (Mark 8:34) — but so easily slip into a lifestyle that is really narcissistic, self-centred and selfish. The easy way.

It’s a rhetorical question. “Does a spring pour forth both fresh and brackish water?” In James’ mind, of course not. A spring will either bring forth, on balance, mostly fresh or mostly dirty water. The meter will lean one way or the other. 

Which way do you lean? In your work? In the way you invest? In how you spend your money? In how you spend your free time? With whom? In what and how you communicate?

In the Gospel for today (Mark 8:27-38), Jesus says some difficult, counter-cultural things about what kind of way Jesus — the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings, God incarnate, Almighty and Everlasting God — will travel the journey of life. And it is this God who beckons us to follow: in order “to undergo great suffering” (Mark 8:31). Really? That doesn’t sound right for a person claiming godly power!

In an upwardly mobile culture we are suddenly and shockingly presented with a downwardly mobile God. Naturally and understandably, through the lens of worldly value, we shudder. Peter rebukes Jesus. And it is in response to Peter’s communication that Jesus accuses Peter of being Satan.

The first lesson from Isaiah, the third chapter in the Epistle James and the Gospel reading for today are a call to discipline our speech — how we talk, and for what purpose. I would broaden this to say: How we communicate. The words we use. The body language we employ. They say that 70% of communication is non-verbal. I believe this truth is what prompted Francis of Assisi to say: “Preach the Gospel; Use words only when necessary!” It’s a cliche, but it’s true: Our actions speak louder than words.

We are called to pay attention not only to the words we use — important though they are, but our actions, our tone, our presence with another. We are called to pay attention to these details in assessing the quality of our relationships. Not to do so, to ignore and dismiss our attention to these aspects of relating, is evil. Not to hold ourselves accountable to what we say and how we say it to another is a satanic time-bomb waiting to happen.

The eighth commandment reads: Do not bear false witness against your neighbour (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5). This means, what we say about them. Of course, first we have to look around and ask: Who is our neighbour? On Meadowlands Drive West, in Nepean, Ottawa, and in Canada. Who are our neighbours today? Do we know their names? Who are they? And then, what do we say about them, to them?

In his explanation of all the Ten Commandments, Martin Luther makes clear these are not simply about ‘not-doing’ — not gossiping, not slandering — but even more important what positive behaviour we do for the sake of the neighbour. He writes that it is imperative that Christians should do all they can to protect the good name and social standing of their neighbours — and he lifts up particularly the “sins of the tongue” in this context. (Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” in the Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb & Timothy Wengert, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p.420)

I can’t help here to think of the millions of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria. I can’t help here but think of the many ways Muslims are disparaged in the media in the West not only in the press, but also in those malicious forwarded emails that circulate “like a hydra with multiple heads: so pernicious and so difficult to stop” (Kristin Johnston Largen, “Inter-religious Learning and Teaching” Fortress Press, 2014, p.57).

James concedes to our human predicament. In the end, no matter how hard we try to do right by this, “no one can tame the tongue” (3:8). It’s as if the narrative of Scripture accepts the impossible capability of us, on our own, to get it all right all of the time. Even though Peter is in one moment ‘Satanic’ he is, in the next, the rock upon which the church will be built against whom “the gates of Hades will not prevail” (Matthew 16:18). Martin Luther’s well-known paradox can help us frame this apparent contradiction: We are simultaneously saints AND sinners (simul justus et pecator). 

This ‘word’ today may make us feel uncomfortable. It does, me. And, probably for good reason. Yet, there is good news. God speaks into this confused darkness of our lives. God speaks the Word of creation into this murky existence (Genesis 1). A Word of forgiveness, mercy and compassion. 

And the Word that God speaks sets up the endless harmonic of sounds in the world. And as we speak, and try to speak truthfully, perhaps what we are doing is far less hanging labels around the necks of the things of the world. And instead we try to find those divine harmonics and speak and act ‘in tune’ with that Word first spoken into silence and darkness.

The image I like of creation is that God first makes a great cave. And then breathes into it. Speaks into it. A Word. And from the cave the echoes come back. Differently pitched. Differently aimed. A world of Word. And we find our place in that world listening to those harmonics, trying to speak and act in tune with them. Not to speak and act from our will or our passion for control. But to speak because we want to join in what an earlier generation would have called the ‘music of the spheres’. (Rowan Williams, “The Spirit in the Desert” Meditatio Talk Series 2015 B Apr-June CD).

Those of us preachers and public speakers, especially need to think more about this. Paul says that the Body of Christ is made up of all parts, each important in their own right (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) — you are a hand, you a leg, you the eyes, you the foot. This morning, I am the mouth! And, like James, Paul also says that greater scrutiny and possible judgement will be brought upon those who speak (2 Peter 2:3;Colossians 2:20;1 Timothy 1:2-4). A timely word, perhaps, in a season of political campaign, mindless rhetoric and questionable election promises.

How do we speak in such a way that is authentic and true? Only by looking for the harmonics that that Word of God sets up. By refusing the mass pressures of culture. By becoming in our speaking as in our living a kind of invitation into the gracious harmonics of God’s world, into the resonances and echoes that are set up by that primordial utterance of God into the cave of creation.

Simone Weil used the concept of ‘hesitation’ to describe how to communicate in a healthy way For her, part of the essence of spiritual maturity was leaving the ‘life-giving gap’ between you, the act, and the other person (quoted in Rowan Williams, ibid.). Learning not so much to project straight away our ego compulsions into the other person; learning not so much to move right away into solving a problem on our own terms. But drawing away momentarily to listen for the sake of the other. And for the sake of the truth.

At the end of the day, we are called to check the compulsion to speak. And move back into a momentary stillness into which God’s draws us, and out of which God calls us to speak and to act with integrity and authenticity.

We would make James proud.