Rooted in the earth, rising to the sun

Recently I have been reading about people’s experiences on the Camino de Santiago — the eight hundred kilometre walking pilgrimage through northern Spain. This walk has become more and more popular among Christians of all stripes over the past couple of decades. It seems Christians around the globe are finding the pilgrimage a good place to work through personal issues, find focus in life again and seek re-connection with God, the world and themselves.

This past week I met with one such pilgrim from Ottawa who goes at least once a year to walk some part of the Camino; in fact he is leaving today for Barcelona. I sought his experienced advice for some practical considerations for the trek. His first rule of thumb: Pack only ten percent of your body weight. For me, that would mean no more that 20 pounds in my back pack — of all that I would need for the thirty to forty day hike. Twenty pounds is not a lot!

His second rule of thumb: What you wear on your back, put only one in your pack. That’s all. For example, if you are wearing a t-shirt, pack only one other t-shirt in your back-pack. If you are wearing a pair of shorts, pack only one other pair of shorts. And so on.

He laughed when he told me that about four days in — some one hundred kilometres into the journey — you find bins and bins full of personal items people left behind. These pilgrims had realized, thankfully sooner than later, that they were simply carrying too much — stuff they didn’t really need (extra shirts, pants, sweaters, books, jackets, bed mats, blankets, etc.). A final rule of thumb from my friend: If you do take something extra, then you need to have a good reason for it besides, “I might need it.”

This discipline reflects the quality of being able to let go. It can be described as a total self-surrendering, a giving up. The term “Kenosis” has been used among Christians throughout the ages to connote this sense of releasing that which we normally feel we need to hold onto tightly.

Fourteenth century German theologian Meister Eckhart said, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.” (1) In our consumer culture, religion and spirituality have very often become a matter of addition: earning points with God, attaining enlightenment, producing moral behaviour. In the ‘prosperity gospel’ so popular in North America, we often hear the message that Jesus approves of you when your material and financial wealth increases; the more you have, the more in favour you are in God’s eyes.

Yet authentic, Christian faith is not about getting, attaining, achieving, performing or succeeding. The solution is not just “work harder” or “get more” of something. Our culture and economy, indeed, is based on more and more. Whereas true faith suggests: less is more. Martin Luther’s theology of Justification by Grace through Faith suggests the very same: We cannot by our own efforts achieve anything worthy of God.

So, stop trying. In fact, start doing the opposite: Let go of your pretence to manage your life according to the creed: Bigger and More is Better. Let go of a paralyzing negative body image. Let go of the inner talk that is putting yourself down, that tells you you are no good. Let go of attitudes of hatred against people who are different from you. Let go of those material aspirations that tease you into a false sense of security. Let go of being paralyzed by fear.

Instead, focus on what is essential. Appreciate that you already have enough, all that you need. When Jesus gives instruction in the Gospel text for today (Luke 14:25-33) he is travelling out on a public road, on his pilgrimage to the Cross. Remember, ever since Luke 9:51, he is already on the way to Jerusalem, his final destination. When Jesus is walking towards his death and resurrection in Jerusalem, he offers what sounds rather harsh to our ears. What is called-for here is a ‘single-mindedness’ that is needed when you travel with Jesus.

Discipleship is about being single-minded about the purpose, the goal and the mission of Jesus in the world. It is about prioritizing what is important to life in the public realm where culture, consumerism and a whole host of other distractions can keep us from this focus.

This single-mindedness demands that we think ahead, and anticipate the cost of our journey. Setting out on the road to follow Jesus requires at least a little forethought and reflection. This journey is not a light matter. Sit down and think about it a bit. Reflect.

There is not only the blessing of the assets promised, but there are the liabilities, too. Discipleship is not just one more hobby or extra-curricular activity to add to a well-rounded, prosperous life. It is not merely “a matter of pure passion and abandon” (2).

Followers of Jesus should count the cost, but also realize this is not just about counting the cost of a church building renovation or a church fund-raising project. The cost of discipleship, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer first coined the term, is about prioritizing our whole lives, not just our “church” or “Sunday morning” lives.

If someone told me a year ago that I would spend four days cut off from civilization, in the bush without cell-phone service, hauling all my food and everything I need to survive in a canoe that I would have to navigate through rapids and rocky, snake-infested portage routes — I would say they were dreaming … or talking about someone else.

Well, that’s precisely what I did last week, along the French River Provincial Park between North Bay and Sudbury. Fortunately I was not alone; I journeyed with a more experienced wilderness survivalist. 

We ended up taking more than we needed. We could have packed less food, and less clothing. The exercise, nevertheless, was confident-building for me in realizing I really don’t need that much stuff.

Jesus says, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

To live life well, and faithfully, is to recognize one’s place in the world, and not to over-reach, over-extend, to be someone you are not — all on the basis of wanting more and more, bigger and better. To live faithfully, we are called to examine our dependencies, count the cost of it all, focus on what is important, and then make room in our lives for what is important by letting go.

A sojourn into the wilderness may indeed by the antidote to visions of self-aggrandizement embedded in the prosperity gospel message. Try doing without, for some time, what you may have taken for granted for too long. Try doing without what you always have believed you needed in order to live. Try Letting go. Releasing. Forgiving. 

This is not about doing away with personal boundaries. Letting go is not about condoning injustice or cruelty. Kenosis/letting go is not about being blind optimists, repressing or denying or not caring, or ‘giving up’ in frustration.

Forgiveness is a good example of letting go of the misery caused by holding on to the pain of resentment or holding a grudge. This kind of letting go brings a positivity that is based in honest struggle and prayer born out of compassion and love for self, the other, and God. The end result is a freedom and peace that cannot ever be realized through a program of simply working harder or getting more.

The German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote about the contrast between the law of gravity and the rising of the trees. He writes about the gift of letting go into a place of trust: Trusting that the gift in you is enough. So that you can rise up, rooted like trees: 

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.


Each thing —

each stone, blossom, child —

is held in place.

Only we, in our arrogance,

push out beyond what we each belong to

for some empty freedom.

If we surrendered

to earth’s intelligence

we could rise up rooted, like trees


Instead we entangle ourselves

in knots of our own making

and struggle, lonely and confused.

So, like children, we begin again

to learn from the things,

because they are in God’s heart;

they have never left God.

This is what the things can teach us:

to fall,

patiently to trust our heaviness.

Even a bird has to do that

before he can fly. (3)

In the poetry of scripture, the Psalmist describes beautifully the blessing we are, created in the image of God — so “wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). God would know intimately each part of our lives only if we were valuable to God and to the rest of creation. Otherwise, why would God care?

In other words, we are and have everything we need to enjoy and live to our fullest potential. We are beautiful. We don’t have to strive and strive to become someone we are not. We don’t have to ‘add’ anything to our lives to be well. In fact, when we have the courage to risk letting go, and “fall”, as Rilke poetically expresses, trusting in our “heaviness”, we will find a freedom and peace that will be the joy of all creation, and the glory of God.

We will live our lives at the same time rooted in the earth, and rising to the sun.

(1) Translated by J. Clark & J. Skinner, “Meister Eckhart: Selected Treatises & Sermons Translated from Latin and German with an Introduction and Notes”, Faber & Faber: 1958, p.194

(2) David Schnasa Jacobsen, Commentary on Luke 14:25-33 in “WorkingPreacher.org”, 2016

(3) Rainer Maria Rilke, “Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God” translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, Riverhead Books: 1996, p.116-117; cited with permission in Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation for August 28, 2016

Dream-state

“Who are you?” the scrutinizing Levites ask John the Baptist (John 1:19-28). “Who is this man?” Because if John the Baptist is indeed preparing the way for the Messiah, he must be — according to tradition — the prophet Elijah.

There seems to be confusion in the ranks about his identity. If he is who he claims to be, then either their beliefs need to be changed, or else John the Baptist is a liar. ‘Who he is’, is a question of great importance.

I admire John the Baptist’s self-confidence. He does not seem to care who they think he is, much less their confusion. Note his rather curt responses to their questions: “I am not the Messiah”, “I am not”, “No” — He is not inclined to make kind, polite conversation. Neither does he care to make things better for them by clarifying.

And when he does say anything positive about his identity — he uses esoteric images from the ancient scripts: He is “a voice crying out in the wilderness”, meant to “make straight the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40). This is not a clear, rational response to their very pointed questions that demand a ‘straight’ answer. What is apparent and important to John the Baptist, is that he knows who he is.

Who are you? Who are we? A glaring symptom of our confusion today, our disconnection from who we are, and our supreme fear and lack of confidence in our own identity — as people of God, as individuals and members of the Body of Christ — is the heaping layers of distraction with which we surround ourselves. Especially at this time of year!

It’s like we are walking around in a dream-state. Our dreaming disconnects us from who we truly are, and what is really important. On the first Sunday in Advent, we heard Jesus’ instruction to “Keep awake!” (Mark 13:37). On this third Sunday in Advent we sing the hymn: “Awake! Awake, and Greet the new Morn” (EvLW 242). It seems a prevalent theme in our Advent liturgy is to “wake up!”

Listen to the way Richard Rohr describes our way of life:

“It’s safe to say that there is confusion about what is needed for life and what is really important for life …. We have created a pseudo-happiness, largely based in having instead of being. We are so overstimulated that the ordinary no longer delights in us. [In our culture] … middle-class people have more comforts and securities than did kings and queens in the times when royalty flourished. We have become human doings more than human beings. And the word ‘rest’ as Jesus uses it [‘Come to me … to find rest for your souls’ (Matthew 11:28)] is largely foreign to us.”

What the Gospel says, is that simplicity “is the only place that happiness is ever to be found … Such a message is about as traditional, old-fashioned and conservative a gospel as we can possible preach, and it will always be true” (Richard Rohr, “Preparing for Christmas; Daily Meditations for Advent”, Franciscan Media, Cincinnati Ohio, 2008, p.27-28).

How do we wake up from this false, dream-state of distraction and over-stimulation? How do we wake up to our true selves? And how can we embrace a more simpler life of ‘being’?

These are the real questions I believe we need to be asking during Advent, and as we approach the Christmas season.

It’s not easy. It might take some discipline. Because we may be “Like people who have lived by the train tracks for years, we no longer hear the sound of the train. After years in church, we get used to the noise of Advent, to the message of the coming Christ, so much so that we no longer notice it. Or if we do, it has ceased to jolt us awake and has become instead a low, dull rumble …

Like the house hunter who noticed the train tracks on moving day, but later sleeps through the whistles and the engines that rush by, we can miss the thing in the season of Advent that might have been the most obvious and important at one time …” — the presence and love of Jesus coming into our lives again. (Lillian Daniel, “Feasting on the Word; Advent Companion”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.66).

And this is God’s dream, coming to us. As Christians, we carry the mantle of God’s dreamers. This is our heritage — the dreams of the prophets and those who spoke God’s restorative vision to a people in exile, a people depressed, discouraged, downcast. And, who were given a vision — a dream — of a straight path through the wilderness of their lives.

To this day and age. If God could inspire Jacob in the desert with a dream of a ladder reaching down from heaven (Genesis 28:10-17), God can dream in us. If God could give guidance to Joseph wondering what to do with Mary (Matthew 1:18-25), then God can dream in us.

Twenty-five centuries after the psalmist expressed the words: “We were like those who dream…” (Psalm 126:1), Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream”. And with those words ignited a vision in the 20th century for justice towards an uncertain future. A generation later, (the first African-American) President Barak Obama, tantalized a nation, and the world, with his eloquent words of hope. Today, Malala Yousafzai inspires us to support education for women, in a dark and conflict-ridden world.

God’s dreams of a just and peaceful kingdom are born in the visions of the people of God, and in the heart of each child of God. In the end, it is not ‘my’ dream, maybe not even ‘our’ dream alone; it starts with God’s dream — when the wolf shall live with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6;65:25), and swords will be beaten into ploughshares (Isaiah 2:4).

The problem with dreaming is not the dream itself, necessarily, but whose dream it is. The problem with walking in a dream-state at this time of year, distracted by all the ueber- stimulation of our culture, is when it is our dream — my dream, alone, when I got caught up in my stuff so much that I don’t see the other; when I don’t see the other as God would.

Who are we? We are who we are meant to be when we bear witness in our very lives to the vision and dream of God. We are who we are created to be, when we let the light of God’s love that burns in our hearts, radiate out to a world shrouded in cold darkness.

And then, paraphrasing the famous words of Elliot Wolfson, God’s dream “dreams the dreamer as much as the dreamer dreams the dream.”

May God’s dream, dream in us.

Simplicity II – Holy Week

On Good Friday, we focus on the Cross — the central symbol of Christianity. And we reflect on the meaning of what God accomplished on that Cross in the person of Jesus Christ. The cross we bring today, you will notice, is bear, along with the altar and other chancel appointments. Stripped bear. In order to appreciate what it all means, we need to be called in our hearts to a greater simplicity. Indeed, throughout the forty days of Lent, this has been the spiritual call – to simplicity.

This call to simplicity perhaps first makes sense to us in “giving something up for Lent” – chocolate, coffee, snacks, desserts, TV, etc. I can say I have appreciated the opportunity during past Lenten seasons to simplify and try to shed peels off the proverbial onion of my life – not that some of those peels are bad things in and of themselves. But that those things are not the most important nor helpful for my physical, spiritual, mental health. It’s good to do from time to time: Simplify. Because when we do we begin to get at what’s essential in life.

And so, this holy week concludes a season of going where we don’t normally want to — call it downward mobility, or doing without, or looking at that part of our lives we keep hidden from others.

When Jesus was stripped of his dignity, his clothes, his honour and humiliated; when the king of kings submitted to torture and brutal death a criminal of the state, I can’t think of much else to do except approach the Cross with humble adoration. And bring the truth of our lives to the foot of the Cross as well.

Every time a sports team struggles through a losing streak, I hear the same thing from coaches when they’re interviewed and asked why their team is losing; often they say – “we have to get back to basics, doing the small things right.” Simplify. When the chips are down, when we’re at ground zero, it’s back-to-basics time.

And while at first this may seem an unfortunate development, it’s actually important to return to those basics. In the couple of days leading up to the Superbowl — the biggest championship game on earth — the coaches for both of the best two teams in the league were advised to have their players review basic skills and focus on these.

Getting back-to-basics doesn’t just mean taking things away. On the contrary, when we focus on what is essential we may need to return to something that we’ve forgotten over the years, such as intentional prayer with God.

And not that we must pray the same way. But simply, in our communion with God who connects with us in our hearts: as we listen, as we wait, as we praise, as we lift our hands and hearts, as we use words even as words aren’t always necessary, as we reach out in prayerful action in the name of Christ. Prayer – getting back to basics. Doing small but meaningful things from the heart.

The call to simplicity on Good Friday is then also a call to come to terms with our own mortality. Admittedly, this is not a popular way. The reality of death is one we naturally want to deny, to put off thinking about – because its unpleasantness and mystery can unnerve us. No wonder many Christians care not to worship on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday – and wait then to rejoin the worshipping assembly on Easter morning.

But without Good Friday there can be no Easter. This Friday is “Good” because without the Cross stripped bear there would be no salvation. Winning teams are always committed to doing the basics, the fundamentals, of their game well.

That’s the starting point: You can’t have Easter without, first, Good Friday. We must not deny the suffering, dying Christ – nor our own. We must first accept it.

Archbishop Desmund Tutu, fighting prostate cancer, gave an interview a few years ago right before Easter. In it he spoke of the redemptive side of suffering, the good that can come out of embracing, owning and accepting your own pain and suffering. He said, “When you have a potentially terminal disease, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. It gives a new intensity to life. You discover how many things you have taken for granted: the love of your spouse, the Beethoven symphony, the dew on the rose, the laughter on the face of your grandchild.”

Often we think of times of suffering in our lives as the “dark” times. We often associate darkness with suffering and death – and therefore bad. Christian writer Joyce Rupp admits that it is difficult to believe that darkness could be a source of growth and new life. She writes:

“Darkness to a child, as well as to many adults, can be a scary, fearsome place where wild creatures wait to pounce and prey. But, in actuality, some kinds of darkness are truly our friends. The world of our mother’s womb had no light: It is where we grew wonderfully and filled out our tiny limbs of life. Our earth would be quite lifeless, too, if we did not plant seeds deep within the lonely darkness of the soil so they could germinate and bring forth green shoots. I know, too,” she continues, “that we would soon die of an overheated planet if nightfall did not come to soothe the sun-filled land. Darkness is very essential for some aspects of growth and protection.” (p.3-4 The Star in My Heart).

When we come to terms with our own suffering by answering the call to simplicity, good things come out of it. Betty Ford, former first lady in the United States, talked openly about her cancer. She changed the culture of the time – which in the 1970s was very guarded, embarrassed, and hidden when it came to talk of breast cancer. As a woman, those secrets were at best whispered in the privacy of the home; as a woman you just didn’t talk openly about it.

But thanks be to God for Betty Ford – that she took the risk of vulnerability, for her not being ashamed or fearful. As a result, her public witness is estimated to have saved millions of women’s lives in subsequent decades – because now women could speak legitimately about their problem openly, own it, accept as their own – and therefore receive needed, life-saving medical attention.

So, finally, the call to simplicity means having an attitude of gratitude. Being thankful for simple things doesn’t begin by noticing other people’s suffering and then saying – “Well, I’m better off.” It doesn’t begin by comparing ourselves to others worse off. The kind of gratitude I speak of begins deep in the heart of our own suffering. Because we know – given what Jesus did for us on the Cross – we know that God won’t let our suffering be the end of us.

On this Good Friday, let us be thankful for the small mercies and the moments of grace that surround us and come to us, even in our suffering and death. Above all, let us give thanks to the Lord for his love for us, a love that led him to make that incomprehensible sacrifice, for us. Thanks be to God!

Simplicity I – Holy Week

Lent is a call to simplicity. We are called in this season to simplify our lives. In the Gospels, Matthew and Luke, the first beatitude is: “Blessed are the poor (in spirit)”.

On Maundy Thursday, the altar is stripped of all its vestments and vessels to remind us of Jesus’ suffering and humiliation at the hands of the soldiers upon his arrest. This ‘stripping away’ was a negative –

Indeed, don’t we look upon “poverty” as something bad? In our remembrance of Jesus’ passion haven’t we come to look with suspicion on anything in our lives of faith that smacks of this kind of ‘stripping away’ in our lives?

Because poverty means we are in a state of doing without something we feel we need. We may even equate a poverty of spirit with self-rejection, self-abasement, self-denial.

Therefore we have quite naturally focused our efforts on righting the wrong. We pursue social justice and serving the needs of the poor.

Yet, for me, something remains unattended, inadequate, in our doing more.

In this Lenten call to simplicity, am I not also called to ‘strip away’ all that which distracts me from being truly present? Will I truly pay attention to whatever circumstance of life in which I find myself – rich or poor? Am I not also called, alongside others – rich and poor – to return to an awareness and appreciation of what is essential?

I have appreciated the opportunity during past Lenten seasons to simplify and try to shed peels off the proverbial onion of my life – peels that represent inordinate desires, stuff and lifestyle choices that are really not that important, especially for my physical, spiritual, mental health. It’s good from time to time simply to pay attention to what I normally do without thinking – my routines and regular decisions in life, my automatic emotional responses to certain situations, the stuff I purchase without thinking.

Can the way of poverty, then, also be a positive force? Especially, too, as we hear the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, declare that what he wants is a “poor church serving the needs of the poor.” Surely he doesn’t mean a poverty that is self-denigrating, self-rejecting – but rather a kind of poverty that strips away all that is really unnecessary and frankly only reflects our ego compulsions, our desires, our obsessive behavior.

And perhaps there isn’t a better time to reflect on the question of spiritual poverty than when things aren’t going all that well in life? When taking a step back and assessing where our lives are going is warranted. Maybe you find yourself in a particular bind, or facing a challenging situation with someone, a difficulty that has presented itself now. Before going on the attack and blaming others — even God — what may God be calling you to “let go of”?

Every time a sports team begins to lose games, over and over again, I hear the same thing from coaches when they’re interviewed and asked why their team is losing; often they say – “we have to get back to basics, doing the small things right.” Simplify.

And, it’s also about getting back to basics in our prayer with God. I can’t think of a better way to acknowledge among very diverse Christians our bond of unity, than to affirm the role of prayer in our common practice of faith.

And not that we must pray the same way. But simply in our communion with God who connects with us in our hearts: as we listen, as we wait, as we praise, as we lift our hands and hearts, as we use words even as words aren’t always necessary, as we reach out in prayerful action in the name of Christ. Prayer – getting back to basics. Doing small but meaningful things from the heart. Modern day contemplatives say that the best way to prepare yourself for prayer is by small acts of kindness.

Which doesn’t necessarily always have to be expressed in great deeds of social action. The action can be a small, unselfish act by a young child. Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like a little child you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Macrina Wiederkehr in the book, “A Tree Full of Angels” beautifully illustrates this truth and our need for simplicity, simple prayer, simple action; in short, child-likeness; She wrote:

“One special moment of beauty that stands out in my mind I experienced in a bus station …. I witnessed a little girl helping her brother get a drink at the water fountain. Attempting to lift him to the proper height turned out to be impossible. I was just at the point of giving them some assistance when quick as lightening she darted over to a shoe-shine man, pointed to a footstool he wasn’t using, dragged it to the water fountain, and very gently lifted up her thirsty brother. It all happened so fast and it was so simple, yet it turned out to be a moment of beauty that became a prayer for me. So much to be learned from such a little moment. Perhaps what touched me most [she concluded] was her readiness to seek out a way to take care of the need without waiting to be rescued. It was a moment of beauty: a small child with a single, simple heart.”

Lent culminates in this Holy Week as we hear the stories again of Jesus’ arrest, suffering, torture and brutal death on the cross. The reality of death is one we naturally want to deny, to put off thinking about – because its unpleasantness and mystery can unnerve us. No wonder not even many Christians care to worship on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday – and wait then to rejoin the worshipping assembly on the joyous exuberance of Easter morning.

And yet, it is through the unpopular way of simplicity and this most simple reality of our mortal dependence on God that we can now know and experience the glory, love and eternal victory of God in Jesus. Without Good Friday there can be no Easter. May our Holy Week observance be a blessing for us in the simplicity of our prayer and being. May the difficult yet simple journey to the Cross and through the Cross open the way for us to eternal life, and make us aware of what is truly important. May the example of Jesus give us the courage to let go when we need to. And receive the forgiveness freely given.

For our health. For our well-being. For the sake of Jesus. And those in need.