From Loss to Life

“I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little … and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

 -Paul, to the Philippians 4:11-13

One of the basic truisms of pilgrimage walking is that first-timers usually pack more than they need for the journey. The general rule is ten percent of your body weight. For most people, that means no more than fifteen to twenty pounds in your backpack.

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I read in one of the Camino de Santiago guidebooks, in preparation for my walk last summer, that for most first-time pilgrims five pounds in their pack is unnecessary; these items amount to five pounds of fear: that extra sweatshirt, pajama onesie, that tub of moisturizing cream or the proverbial electric hairdryer. It is not long on the journey before at least five pounds are left behind or mailed home.

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If we use the pilgrimage as a metaphor for life, then the pilgrim on the journey of life, to be true to the journey, needs to learn how to let go.

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When I began I thought I had it down to the bare minimum. Nevertheless, I was still anxious. Those first few days I worried about where I was going to sleep that night. Not knowing how far I would walk, and not wanting to put the stress of expectation by booking ahead, I had to go with the flow and improvise in the moment. Even though I found a place every night, I was still preoccupied, distracted and fretting. Perhaps I had put too much faith in what I carried.

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Before I knew it, I lost some of my belongings those first days on the path. The first night I left behind my head lamp. The second or third night – I don’t know which – I lost my very expensive self-inflating bed roll for underneath my sleeping bag.

If the story ended there, you might say I was in an unwanted, growing state of crisis. If the story ended there you might say my pilgrimage was headed towards disaster, defeat, loss and failure. If the story ended there, you might say that everything was falling apart in my journey, collapsing into the rubble heap of destruction.

But the story didn’t end there. And it doesn’t end there.

The truth is, as Richard Rohr explains it best, that “through loss, through crisis, through stress, limitation, we move to a better place in our lives.

“Physicists today would say that loss is not real. There is only transformation. The metaphor of the liquid world is that this element simply moves from liquid to solid to vapor and back again.

“It looks like a death, a loss, in each case. But, in fact, it’s a becoming. Now we recognize that Jesus was saying this all along. In Christianity, it was called the ‘Paschal Mystery’. It was a phrase used by Saint Augustine that in fact dying leads to resurrection. Jesus became the icon, the living image, of that mystery – that his crucified body transformed into the risen Christ. That they are both the same person.

“Creativity, newness of life, has a cost. And the cost is what always looks like death. But really isn’t. The cost is loss. Which is perceived as an enemy, or affliction, which always looks like what we don’t want. Somehow to embrace loss, spiritually speaking, is to achieve eternity. Death allows us to be united with what is real. But, of course, it only looks like death from our side. Apparently from the other side – we call it heaven, or eternal life – is in fact the really real.

“The really real is already beginning now. And that’s what we need to trust. That’s what we need to allow. Fourteenth century Italian theologian Catherine of Siena once said: ‘It’s heaven all the way to heaven; and, it’s hell all the way to hell.’ And the way to heaven begins in this world, all the way to heaven.

“To avoid all loss, to avoid all letting go, is to avoid transformation into union with God. If you spend your entire life avoiding ‘dying’, Jesus would say you never get there. It’s hell all the way to hell.

“‘Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.’[i] We now know that this phrase was used in the initiation rites of Asia Minor. Perhaps one of Jesus’ most enigmatic lines is: ‘You must lose your life in order to find your life; you must lose your life in order to gain your life.’[ii] And if you don’t let it go, you will never find it.”[iii]

This is what Paul is talking about when he says he can do all things in Christ who strengthens him. That is, he can also ‘let go’. Not only does he know what it is to have plenty. He can also lose.

Philippians 4:13 is a popular well-loved verse in the New Testament: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” It is often used to bolster self-confidence in accomplishing heroic goals and aspirations. It is often quoted on posters, billboards and bumper stickers to indicate a glory, success and prosperity gospel message of human achievement more reflective of current self-help pop psychology. It is also used to undergird impressive mission goals in the church.

Moreover, the first nine verses of this chapter – the famous “Rejoice always!” text – are read on their own, as unfortunately prescribed in the Revised Common Lectionary, without including verses 10-13 for context. And the context is Paul’s suffering and need and persecution.

He is rejoicing and expressing his confidence in living precisely because he has travelled through the valley of the shadow of death. Precisely because he has learned to let go. You can’t have resurrection without death. You can’t experience the joy of transformation without first feeling the pain of loss. You can’t do mission unless you have let go, done without, lost — in some fundamental, real way.

Later this month on Reformation Sunday when all ELCIC Lutherans in Ottawa will gather to worship together, we will sing together Martin Luther’s well-known hymn: “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” Frederick Hedge’s English translation is closer to the original German when in the last verse we sing: “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also.”[iv]

Here, we get a peek into an under-emphasized aspect of Luther’s theology which included the practice of letting go. Not only is salvation realized at the moment of our mortal death, it is something that begins in the midst of living. That is, during our life we the practice the art of dying – of letting go, of losing – as an essential experience in the way of salvation, of transformation.

When I realized I had lost my head lamp and bed roll several days later, a couple of things were happening within me:

First, it took a while for me to notice these losses. I didn’t notice my loss right away perhaps because I really didn’t need those things. Second, and maybe more significantly, I was less stressed the farther I journeyed along the Camino. I was relaxing more into the pilgrimage, even without what I had deemed essential kit when I began.

Some Christians in the West today make the mistake, I believe, of confusing loss of privilege with persecution. Wealthy, financially advantaged Christians say they are being persecuted by a politically correct movement to recognize other religions and different people in a growing multi-cultural and pluralistic society, something Luther could never have envisioned in his day.[v]

We are not being persecuted. Rather, we are being confronted with the prospect of losing our privileged place in society, a status that we have admittedly enjoyed for centuries in our country. What the real issue is, is whether we will resist and avoid this loss, or whether we will accept it.

What is ending in your life? What are you facing that deep down you know is a loss? What are the failures and defeats and suffering in your life? Where is there suffering in the lives of the vulnerable, the underprivileged, the poor?

Pay attention, and wake up. These may, in truth, be invitations. Invitations to enter the gate of loss and letting go. Invitations to let go and trust that through dying, it is heaven all the way to heaven.

 

[i] John 12:24

[ii] Matthew 16:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, John 12:25

[iii] Richard Rohr, “The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis” (Boulder Colorado: Sounds True Audio CD Learning Course, 2010), Session Three.

[iv] Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress 2006), Hymn 505

[v] The Rev. Dr. Gordon Jensen, “Luther’s Legacy” in Canada Lutheran (Volume 32, Number 6, September 2017), p.10-14

Grace precedes

Everyone was excited, but not sure what it was all about. In the centre of the room was a big box of balloons that had not been blown up yet.

The team leader asked each person to pick a balloon, blow it up and write their name on it. About 30 team members were able to get their name on a balloon without it popping. Those 30 were asked to leave their balloons and exit the room. They were told they had qualified for the second round.

Five minutes later the leader brought the team back into the room and announced that their next challenge was to find the balloon they had left behind with their name on it, among the hundreds of other balloons scattered in the large cafeteria. She warned them however to be very careful and not to pop any of the balloons. If they did, they would be disqualified.

While being very careful, but also trying to go as quickly as they could, each team member looked for the balloon with their name. After 15 minutes not one single person was able to find their balloon. 

They were not able to do it, because they were stuck looking only after their own interests as individuals. They couldn’t think collectively. They presumed they needed to do it all on their own, according to their interpretation of the rules of ‘the game’.

To me, the first two rounds of this game can be seen as a snap shot of the values of our culture and society. After all, there are ‘rules’ in our society. There are accepted ways of behaviour. There are the social norms and laws that bring at least a sense of order to our lives. One such norm, is the belief that we have to make it all on our own in this world.

We tell ourselves that competition and individualism are healthy and good, especially in the youth of our lives.

I grew up competing with my twin brother, David. Throughout our lives whether we were playing games, musical instruments and sports, doing our homework, achieving success at school, writing exams, making life choices — underlying our relationship was this competition. Always comparing and contrasting. While motivating and stimulating, ultimately it has become not always helpful, even a burden — as a foundation for our relationship.

When considering the doctrine of grace, based in the biblical witness of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we often skim over and even neglect the original social context of Paul’s writing. We get excited debating the doctrine of Justification by Grace posited here — especially as Lutherans. Yet to do so without first examining what was going on in the early Christian community, we can miss its original meaning:

At the time of writing Galatians (2:15-21), Paul and Peter were in a bit of a conflict. They represented two, competing views of how the mission of Jesus should be carried out.

For Peter, the disciple chosen by Jesus to be “the rock” upon which the church would be built (Matthew 16:18), he was influenced by some Jewish-Christians in Jerusalem who insisted that true converts to Christianity should first follow all the rules of the Jewish tradition — since the first disciples and Jesus himself were Jews.

When Paul and Peter met in a town called Antioch in those early decades of the first century, they confronted each other on this point. Because, for Paul, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was on the line. He argued that Gentiles, who weren’t Jews, didn’t have first to be Jewish before becoming a follower of Jesus. If Christianity followed Peter’s bent, Gentiles could barely attain the status of second class citizens.

Later, Paul won the argument. Paul was a multi-culturalist far ahead of his time. Paul saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the long arc of God’s love and God’s inclusion, an arc bent toward making Gentiles full members of the family without preconditions. (1) Inclusion. Unconditional love. These words are signposts for the theology of grace, in Paul’s view, reflecting the way Jesus related to others.

If we begin with faith and grace, we can inhabit our traditions and rules more lightly. But it starts with God’s grace, for all people.

When I was in Clinical Pastoral Training at the Ottawa Hospital as part of my preparation for ordained ministry back in my seminary days, I was reminded of the truth of Christ’s presence and grace, which precedes mine.

I was advised, before entering the room of a patient, to stop for a moment. And bring to mind and heart this truth: Jesus is already in the room before I enter it. Jesus is already there, waiting for me. I do not bring Jesus with my charisma, eloquent words, magnetic personality, comforting presence. All these things may help, and may be true to some extent! 

But I don’t create Jesus. Jesus creates me. The patient I visit, along with me, are already in the presence of Christ. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” Paul writes in his letter (2:20). Grace precedes everything I am and do.

When Jesus accepts the woman’s extravagant and outrageous offering of foot-washing with the gifts she has been given (her hair, her love, her touch, her tears), he is being inclusive and loving unconditionally. 

Jesus is not making the woman first follow a bunch of religious rules or follow accepted social norms before letting her come near and even touch him. (Luke 7:36 -8:3) Jesus is not requiring her to provide a government-issued I.D., proof of baptism certificate or a list of all the good deeds she accomplished and the churches she has attended.

The only requirement Jesus seems to accept is that she is honest, vulnerable and open about her sinfulness. Because only honest sinners can appreciate the gift of grace, it seems. The one who is forgiven the greater debt, shows the greater love (Luke 7:47).

What will we do when we see a homeless person, notice the addict, rub shoulders against a divorced person, or sense the struggling and pain in another? Will we ignore the other, suggesting “it’s none of my business”? (that statment reflects a major social norm in today’s society, you know!). 

Or, will we approach the person, confident that Jesus is already there? Will we approach the person, take a risk, and ask a question motivated by love and trust in God? Will we approach the person, aware and honest of our own sinfulness? Aware of the forgiveness we have been given?

We are not alone. We all stand on the same, level playing field in God’s kingdom. That is why we have the church. That is why we gather each week to feed at the Lord’s Table of grace and Divine Presence. We are not alone. We have each other, in the Body of Christ.

After the team who couldn’t find their balloons in the cafeteria was told that the second round of the game was over, they moved on to the third and final round:

In this last round the leader told the team members to find any balloon in the room with a name on it and give it to the person whose name was on it. Within a couple of minutes every member of the team had their balloon with their own name on it.

The team leader made the following point: “We are much more effective when we are willing to share with each other. And we are better problem solvers when we work together, helping each other.” We are able to do what we are called to do in Christ, when we work together for the sake of each other, in God’s mission on earth.

Because Jesus’ love, grace and presence await us in the room, at the table, in the world, beckoning us to come.
Amen.

(1) – Gregory H. Ledbetter, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2010, p.137