The Meditation Journeys

This text represents a draft of a talk I gave at the Essential Teachings Weekend (ETW) for the Canadian Community for Christian Meditation (wccm-canada.ca) in Alexandria, Ontario (September 21-23, 2018). This was the third of three talks, entitled “Stages of the Journey” which complemented the first talk (“The Essential Teaching”), and the second talk (“History of the Tradition”).

STAGES OF THE JOURNEY

The notion of journey, or pilgrimage, originates in the very birth of Christianity. Christ-followers came to be known as “Christian” only after Christianity became the official religion of the empire in the fourth century C.E. But until then they were known as those who followed in the “Way”, implying a path, a road, a journey to be followed.[1]

The notion of motion is integral to those who try to follow Jesus to this day. In the last several decades the pilgrimage has become very popular, especially the Camino de Santiago which attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year. Many who walk the eight-hundred-kilometre journey across the Iberian Peninsula in northern Spain will attest that the journey is a metaphor for the passage of life or traversing some interior path.

Indeed, the exterior journey, such as the Camino, mirrors the internal journey where one explores the contours of the heart and the landscape of the soul. It is a journey that takes time and is fraught with danger. And, at some level, determination, dedication and faithfulness.

Speaking of Spain, it was perhaps the great Spanish mystics of the sixteenth century – Theresa of Avila and St John of the Cross – who first in their writings exemplified the interior and often difficult journeys of faith, such as in ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’. Recently, Richard Rohr describes it best when he asserts that it is through great suffering or great love by which we move along the path towards meaningful change and growth. Crises of faith and challenging circumstances of life are invitations to go deeper into the truth of self and the presence of God.

I want to describe these two journeys to you by using several metaphors—involving water, an hourglass, a wagon wheel and the Exodus story from the Bible describing the desert wanderings of a people. These symbols and images I hope will convey effectively the meaning of these journeys.

When we commit to meditation, we are undertaking what I would summarize as two journeys, operating on a couple of levels.

1.THE FIRST JOURNEY

The first is journey that happens during the time of the meditation.

The Ottawa river at Petawawa Point: the rough & the smooth

I used to live close to Petawawa Point in the Upper Ottawa Valley. Petawawa Point was a lovely spot on the Ottawa River which broadened out into a large lake dotted by several islands. And, I loved to kayak through and around these islands and waterways.

When I first put out onto the river at the beach I was immediately into the main channel lined by the green and red marker buoys, where all the motor boats would roar through. This was the turbulent section of my paddle. I often fought the waves created in the wake of speeding, noisy boats. This part demanded my determination, resolve, and good intention to get past the hurly-burly and through the narrow passage between a couple of islands.

Once through, the water opened up into an area of the river where the large, loud motor boats avoided – only the loons, hawks and sometimes eagles. Here was the more peaceful part of my paddling experience, one that I have treasured to this day.

Meditators have often mentioned to me—and I have experienced this too—that during the first fifteen to twenty minutes they are fighting themselves, their thoughts and distractions. And then something inexplicable happens, and they finally get into some kind of peaceful rhythm with their mantra in the last five minutes! Whether it takes you fifteen minutes, or only a couple of minutes into the meditation, it’s important to keep paddling even when things settle down in your brain.

You see, the temptation once I got through the busy channel into the peaceful expanse of the river was to stop paddling altogether and just float for a while. I would gaze at the birds flying, the clouds in the sky and the distant Laurentian Hills. It was beautiful!

In meditation, this is called the “pernicious peace”, where we just float in some kind of relaxed state our mind really doing nothing and it just feels good and we don’t want to do anything else. I soon realized however I wasn’t doing what I had set out to do. I came to the river to paddle, not to float. And as soon as I dipped my paddle again in the peaceful river, I found my stride, purpose and joy.

When we begin in our meditation, we usually immediately encounter the distractions of the mind. For example, I ruminate over what I am I having for supper, what groceries I need to pick up, what errands I need to run, how will I handle a problem at work or in my family, where am I going on my vacation, the main point of my upcoming sermon, etc.

How do we respond to these distractions? Do we simply float in some sleepy, dream-world, following the course of this stream-of-consciousness? Yes, sometimes we do fall asleep during meditation. It’s good to be relaxed. Yet, we also pay attention and are alert to the experience by remaining faithful to the paddle, so to speak, to the mantra. We focus the mind.

On the underwater rock: dealing with distractions

Another water image, from Thomas Keating, may help us.[2]It is the example of sitting on a large rock on the bottom of the river. Here, deep under the water you watch far above you the boats of various sizes and shapes float by and down the river. These boats represent all our thoughts and distractions. Often, the temptation of our mind is too great, and we push ourselves off the rock—it’s so easy! —and we swim to the surface.

Sometimes, we will even climb into the boats and sail on down the river in these thoughts. In other words, we will let our minds sink into thinking about it for some time in our meditation. Of course, when we do this, we are not saying our mantra, which is the discipline and faithfulness of sitting on that rock down below.

It’s important not to be harsh with yourself on this journey. Give permission for the boats to come by your mind in this river. Then, as you return to the word, you let these distractions keep floating on down the river. Let them go. Return to the place of deep silence, stillness, on the rock deep below.

Despite the incessant distractions of the mind that come to me during my meditation, I continue to ‘return to the Lord’ and my mantra. Someone once said that it is ok to ‘catch yourself’ in a distraction during meditation. In fact, the more often you catch yourself and gently return to the mantra, the better. Why? Because each time you return to the word, it’s one more time you are loving God. Each time I bring my concentration to the saying of the word, I am offering my love to Jesus. Each time I say the word, I am saying, “I love you” to Jesus.

The journey throughout the meditation period may appear simple. We sit quietly and in stillness for twenty minutes not doing anything except saying, interiorly, the mantra. But it is not easy. We confront in this journey the imprinting of our go-go culture and a hyper-active environment upon our egos. We encounter our very humanity in this journey —

A humanity which incessantly strives to accumulate more information and judge progress according to expectations. We already go into it expecting it gets easier over time. We expect benefits to accrue, like lower blood pressure and more patience. And when nothing like this happens after meditating for a few months or years, we give up. This is a spiritual capitalism.

We encounter our very humanity which also craves stimulation and distraction. Already in 1985, Neil Postman wrote a book indicting our culture with the provocative title: “Amusing ourselves to Death”. For most of our daily lives we choose to keep busy or entertain ourselves rather than sit still and face the truth of ourselves. No wonder we are bothered by distraction during meditation.

We encounter our very humanity which finds self-worth in active productivity. We do therefore we are – the mantra of our culture. The more we produce, the more we have to show for in our day, in our vocations, the better we are. So, it just doesn’t make sense from this perspective to be so unproductive by sitting still and doing nothing with ourselves, really. What’s to show for, after twenty minutes of idleness?

And so, we may also, at deeper levels, encounter anxiety, fear and/or anger – which represent our resistance to the journey of our meditation. These normal, human feelings, given now the freedom of space, time and a loosened ego, erupt to the point of a significant disruption.

When I first started on this journey in 2004, I was beset by anxiety, to the point where I felt that I might explode during the silence and the stillness, to the point where I felt I would run screaming from the meditation room. The waves in that channel from the wake of the speeding motor boats threatened to swamp and drown me! I remember how I resisted the letting go, by asking for example that I not sit in the circle but by the wall in a corner of the room. And then, by suggesting we should sit wherever we want to, not necessarily in a circle. Anything to assert my control, even over the meditation period.

Here, depending on the nature of the deep-seeded emotional pain, you may want to encourage those who find meditation times a time of suffering to seek help to deal with whatever is being uncovered—loosened—during meditation. Some have expressed concern that when we open up our inner lives in meditation, the devil/evil will come in. Laurence Freeman, to this question, said: “It is more likely the devil will come out! Negative feelings and the forces of the shadow will get released as repression is lifted. This is quite natural although it’s important to be prepared for the inner turbulence it can create at times.”[3]

This becomes a journey, then, of healing and transformation.

2. THE SECOND JOURNEY

This journey of healing, then, links us to the second journey operating at another yet concurrent level. The second journey we undertake when we meditate connects us with our whole life, indeed life’s journey.

Being a meditator is about slowly but surely learning how to meet life’s greatest moments with grace, acceptance, generosity, courage and faith. Meditating teaches us how to navigate a crisis of faith, a crisis in our relationships, in our work and in our health. It is about forming an attitude toward life in general. Meditating trains us to bea prayer rather than merely say prayers from time to time. This is contemplation: an inner attitude to all of life so that we are indeed praying always, or as Saint Paul puts it, to pray without ceasing.[4]

The dropping stone in water: deeper we go & letting it happen

James Finley talks about a dropping stone in the water, a journey characterized by a deeper simplicity, a deeper solitude and a deeper silence. He describes well this image of a descent.

“Imagine,” he writes, the stone is “falling … And the water in which the stone is falling is bottomless. So, it’s falling forever … And the water in which the stone is falling is falling along an underwater cliff. And there are little protrusions along this cliff and every so often, the stone lands on one of these protrusions; and pauses in its descent. And in the movements of the water, it rolls off and it continues on and on and on and on.

“Now imagine you are that stone; and imagine we’re all falling forever into God. And imagine you momentarily land on a little protrusion where you get to a place and where you say, ‘You know what? I think I’ll stop here and set up shop and get my bearings and settle in. After all, this is deep enough. That’s as far as I need and want to go. It’s comfortable here.’

“And then you fall in love, or your mother dies, or you have terminal cancer, or you’re utterly taken by the look in the eyes of one who suffers. And you are dislodged, by [a great love or great suffering], dislodged from the ability to live on your own terms and from the perception that the point you’ve come to is deep enough for you.

“And so, you continue on your descent, experiencing successive dislodging from anything less than the infinite union and infinite love which calls us deeper.”[5]

Meditating teaches us not to give up on this journey to a deeper contemplation. Some of the comments I have heard from parishioners who came only to one or two sessions of meditation. And then they declare as if for all time: “I don’t like it.” “It’s not for me.”

Meditation is emblematic of staying the course with what is important, of giving what is important a chance and committing to the path, the pilgrimage – even though we fall short time and time again. And as John Brierley mentions in his introduction to his popular guide for pilgrims, “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey, we are spiritual beings on a human journey.”[6]A very human journey. We will encounter and deal with all our inner and outer limitations on this journey. Sometimes we will need to stop because the human path challenges us in ways we must address. Sometimes the human path will keep us from embracing the fullness of the journey in what it offers.

The Exodus: a journey of transformation to liberation that never seems to end

The Exodus, from the bible, is a narrative of a desert wandering that takes a long time, much longer than you would think: If only the Israelites under Moses’ leadership walked a straight line from start to finish!

The journey, however, is much more than you think. After escaping the shackles, confines and suffering of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites are now a free people, or so you would think. Liberation as the goal is however a process that involves transformation. They are free to go to the Promised Land, yes. And yet, their journey in the desert, confronting the fierce landscape of their souls, is rife with resistance and conflict as they take a long and circuitous route towards their liberation.

They complain to Moses. They say they would rather return to the fleshpots of Egypt than eat the Manna from heaven given in the desert. They create distractions and build a golden calf. It’s not an easy journey for them, to get to the Promised Land. It’s not easy, to be free.

Yet, as what happens on the first journey (during a meditation period by returning to our mantra), we return to the Lord our God over and over on the journey of life. We learn over time to trust the journey and stay the course. By being committed to the journey of meditation, we cultivate the spiritual muscle of trust, despite the resistance and conflict we confront within us.

Trusting in God. Trusting in life. Trusting that the trajectory of our pilgrimage is heading in the right direction despite all the bumps in the road. As the small stone on the underwater ledge drops to a deeper level through every crisis and twist and turn of life, we learn to surrender and let go. Richard Rohr, I believe it was, said that all great spirituality is about letting go. Of course, trusting this process involves taking the risk as we ‘fall’ deeper into the mystery of life and God towards an unknown yet hopeful future.

Riverbank: dipping into something bigger

On this journey of life we remain faithful to the path, which winds its way on the banks of a great river. The river is moving. We stay connected to the river, regularly stepping into the waters to say our mantra. We step into the flow of the river. The current is strong. The River is the prayer that continues in our hearts that is Jesus’ prayer to Abba.[7]

When we so dip into the prayer of Christ, which is ongoing, we participate in the living consciousness of Jesus who continues to flow in the trinitarian dance of relationship with God. In meditation, we learn that life is not limited to myprayer or ourprayer. Dipping into the river is stepping into a larger field of consciousness. It is dipping into the very prayer of God in which we participate every time we meditate.

If this journey is not about us, we therefore look to relate to one another, especially those who suffer. We see in the other our common humanity and act in ways that are consistent with the grace that first holds us. In the end, meditation’s journeys lead us beyond ourselves, to others in love, and to God in love.

Meditation, therefore, is essentially a journey in community. It’s a pilgrimage we undertake with others and for others. It’s not a solitary journey. Thus, the importance, at least, of attending/being part of a weekly meditation group.

Contemplation, then, leads to action. The journey of life, like the journey through the time of meditation, embraces paradox. While on the surface seeming opposite and incompatible, contemplation and action are integrated into the whole. Both are essential on the Way.

In truth, following Jesus is embracing paradox. “In order to find your life you must lose it,” he says.[8]Later, Paul announces that strength is found in weakness and the weak have shamed the wise.[9]Of course, the major paradox of the faith centres on the Cross; God is defeated. And in that vulnerability and loss, Christ and Christ-followers discover new life and resurrection.[10]

To do well on the journey of contemplation, on the path of meditation and indeed life, is to accept the ambiguities, the ‘greys’ and the uncertainties of the Way. As any peregrino will tell you on the Camino de Santiago, there is no end to the daily surprises and challenges that meet the faithful pilgrim. If one’s mind is already made up about what to expect and how it should go, disappointment and premature abandonment of the journey is likely to follow.

To do well on the journey corresponds to the capacity you have to hold paradox in your heart. The solution finds itself more in the both/and of a challenge rather than an either/or. Perhaps the faithful pilgrim will have to compromise an initial expectation to walk every step of the way. And, in dealing with an unexpected injury, the pilgrim might need to take the train or bus for part of the journey. In other words, the dualistic mind is the enemy of the contemplative path.

On the spectrum between action and contemplation, where do you find yourself? If you want to become a better meditator and enrich your soul, then seek social justice. Become active in the cause of a better humanity and a better creation. Speaking to a group of social activists and community organizers, I would counsel the opposite: If you want to become a better justice-seeker and advocate, then dedicate more of your time to meditation. Both/And.

The hourglass: flow ever deeper

 The direction of the flow in an hourglass starts at the top in a basin that collects all, then moves downward into a narrowing, finally coming through into an expansive region flowing ever deeper and wider.

The top of the hourglass represents all that our mind grapples with – the squirrel brain. It represents all our efforts, desires and intentions – good and bad – of a furtive, compulsive ego to come to the expressed need for this practice. “I need some quiet in my life.” “I enjoy the silence shared with others.” “I need to slow down.” “I like being by myself.” Admittedly, many introverts are enticed by the prospect of meditation. Although these are the same people who realize, on the path, it is much more than stoking the flames of a rich imagination or escapist tendencies – all ego-driven.

On the path, then, meditation leads us deeper into the heart, at the narrows. This is the place of a pure heart, a singular, aligned heart-mind place—some have called it the still-point.

From this point, the journey then expands as we go deeper and farther into the broad, ever-expansive areas, towards the infinite depths involving others and participating actively with all creation.

The wagon wheel: towards the still point

Teachers of Christian Meditation, such as Laurence Freeman, have used the image of a wagon wheel to describe how different forms of prayer relate. These various ways of praying – body prayer, labyrinth walking, petitionary, sacramental, song, poetry, art – represent the spokes on the wheel. All of them attach to the centre.

At the centre of the wheel is the hub. And when the wheel is in motion, which it must be in order to fulfill its purpose and continue on the road, the one part of the wheel that remains still and sure is the hub. This is the place of meeting, convergence, the point, the centre: the Jesus consciousness. Always in motion yet always still. The still-point. Another paradox of prayer. Action and Contemplation.

If the hub is vibrating and not still while the wheel is in motion, then the wheel is out of balance and there is something wrong. The whole riggings may even fall apart if not attended to! For the wheel to function properly, the hub must remain still even as the wheel is rotating at high speeds.

It is here at the infinite center, time and time again, where our prayers lead. Like the labyrinth whose destination is the centre, it is on the path to this centre where we experience a taste and a foretaste of the feast to come, where we taste the freedom and joy of the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Where we can be free.

Questions for reflection

  1. Which image presented here about the journey of meditation touches you immediately and speaks to you most effectively?
  2. On the spectrum between action and contemplation, in which direction do you naturally lean? What are some ways you can improve the balance in your life?

 

 

[1]Acts 18:25; 19:9; 19:23; 22:4; 24:22

[2]Cited by Cynthia Bourgeault, transcribed from the recording of a live retreat titled, An Introduction to Centering Prayer given in Auckland, New Zealand, in October 2009 (www.contemplative.org)

[3]Fr. Laurence Freeman, A Pearl of Great Price.

[4]1 Thessalonians 5:17

[5]  Adapted from James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 6 (Center for Action and Contemplation, 2013); cited in Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, www.cac.org, April 27,2018

[6]John Brierley, A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago(Camino Guides, 2017)

[7]In the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his death, Jesus addressed God in prayer with this Aramaic word, meaning ‘Dad’.

[8]Matthew 10:39

[9]1 Corinthians 1-2

[10]All four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke & John –  conclude with lengthy passion narratives.

Geometric power: The circle church

The architecture of church buildings, despite Christianity’s institutional decline in the Western world today, continues to draw our attention. For the most part, these are beautiful buildings, appealing to the eye whose symbols etched in paint, glass and images conveyed through colour and the play of light and shadow serve as magnets to the curious and searching among us all.

In one reading assigned for this Sunday from the prophet Amos, God’s judgement on Israel is measured by a plumb line.[1]Construction workers measured the stone blocks to make sure they were squared so the walls of the temple could be built straight up. It was used to make sure the construction of buildings was done properly. The plumb line image conveys the proverbial ‘standard’ to determine how righteous God’s people are. Needless to say, Israel fails miserably, time and time again.

It seems, for folks in the bible, there is always good and bad in the mix. God’s people will never, no matter how hard they try, be pure and perfect in their doing and being. From ancient days to this day, people of faith always miss the mark. Just read Paul.[2]Our vision is often clouded, and we cannot help but make mistakes on the journey.

The stories from the bible assigned for this day reveal characters mired in the shackles of their humanity, good and bad. David rejoices in bringing the ark of the covenant into the holy place of the temple in Jerusalem while others look on with hatred, despising him.[3]Of course, King David was no angel himself, committing murder and adultery while he was king.[4]

Herod Antipas, in the Gospel reading, respected the rogue John the Baptist and liked to hear him speak yet condemned him to a gruesome death in order to protect his own reputation.[5]Wherever you read in the bible, you cannot avoid the sinfulness of even the so-called heroes of the faith.

What we build to the glory of God, the fruits of our labours and expressions of our faith, will also reflect this good/bad reality. The Dean of the now re-named Martin Luther University College [formerly Waterloo Lutheran Seminary], Rev. Dr. Mark Harris, once told me, when he visited me at my former parish at Zion Lutheran Church in Pembroke, that no matter all the changes that happen in the church today — good and bad — architecture always wins out.

What does the architecture of a place of prayer, therefore, communicate? What truths do they reveal about what we value, what is important to the church? How does the architecture ‘win out’?

Recently, I’ve visited other congregations that are housed in beautiful, old church buildings. The first is Merrickville United Church where last month I did a pulpit exchange, you might remember. The second was two months ago when I visited Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington D.C., which hosted some seminars at the Festival of Homiletics.

What is similar about the floors in these churches, keeping in mind [hint!] our discussion of the plumb line? What would Amos say about their construction using his plumb line?

Why did the original construction include a sloped floor? Perhaps its architects wanted to create an easier sight-line for the person in the pew to see clearly the primary furniture of worship located in the chancel — the font, altar and pulpit. The font, where the first sacrament of baptism — of entering the family of God; the altar, where the sacrament of the meal invites us regularly for nourishment on the journey of faith; the pulpit from where we hear God’s word in scripture and voice.

That’s the good from the construction, that we are drawn and can see clearly what is central to our faith: Word and Sacrament. That we can come easily; we don’t have to work hard to earn our way to God. I don’t know how many times in worships services and lectures during my time in and visits to these spaces, we had to stop whatever was going on to wait for a rolling water bottle to make its easy yet loud, clattering roll down to the front.

So, the good: We can pool down into the arms of God’s grace. We are drawn to the love of God’s welcome and forgiveness. And we really don’t need to work hard to be there. We just need to ride the current flowing to God. It is gift. It is grace. It is free. Neither ought we place any barriers to God’s grace being accessible to all, to come forward. To let all, including ourselves, come to God. Amen? All are welcome!

You may have noticed, however, that King David brings the ark of the covenant “up” into the city. Indeed, this is the geography and architecture of the city of David built upon a hill.[6]And the holy of holies is not down below in the valley, but up high by the altar.

The people have to exert some physical energy to get to the place of God’s presence. Even David, in all his rejoicing in bringing the ark to Jerusalem, “danced before the Lord with all his might.”[7]He was working hard! He was putting his all – heart, soul and body – into the effort.

At the unplanned end to my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage last year, I sat in the large nave of the cathedral in Bilbao, Spain, reflecting on the disappointing turn of events. It is a spectacular fifteenth century build.

IMG_5352.jpg

As I looked around me in the silent, cavernous space, for a split second I experienced vertigo, not unlike you would in the old slanted room in the Ottawa Science Centre. Something was off.

Then I realized, I’d never before been in a church building whose floor was not sloped downward toward the altar, but upward!

IMG_5355.jpg

And what goes up must come down. The floor was slanting outward and downward toward the front doors and down into the city!

The story of David’s extravagant, energy-filled entrance up into the holy city didn’t finish at the holy of holies. Going up was completed by turning around at the apex to come back down. The story ends by David distributing food and gifts to not only his family and friends in the city, but “the whole multitude of Israel.”[8]Everyone is fed!

Worship and centering in God is followed by a necessary, gracious giving and going out into the world. I quote again the prophet Amos, where we started: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”[9]

We don’t have slanted floors here. It’s more or less flat. Amos with his plumb line might be satisfied with the level of the floors. But what else could the architecture of our place of worship tell us about ourselves, our identity and God’s call for us?

IMG_6546

Could it be, sitting in room that is basically round that the obvious measure and geometric symbol is not the straight line, but the circle? And now, with larger windows surrounding us, windows which let more light in, also improve our imagination and connection with the world out there? Could it be, given the architecture of our faith here at Faith, we are now called not only to be drawn into the centre, the hub, of the circle who is Christ, but also be sent out in the centrifugal force of God’s Spirit?

In the last pages of the bible, the Book of Revelation, we read a vision of God’s magnificent future:

God’s future comes as an experience of God’s love, “flowing like a river from God’s throne, nourishing trees with leaves for the healing of the nations.”[10]This vision “pictures a world made whole, with people living in a beloved community, where no one is despised or forgotten, peace reigns, and the goodness of God’s creation is treasured and protected as a gift. Our faith is not a privatized expression of belief which keeps faith in Jesus contained in an individualized bubble and protects us from the world.

“Rather, we are on a spiritual journey in which we remain connected to the centre of the presence of God but whose love yearns to save and transform the world. We are called to be ‘in Christ’, which means we share – always imperfectly, and always in community with others – the call to be the embodiment of God’s love in the world.”[11]

In loving others by including them in the circle, we discover how much we are loved by God. We are the circle church. A porous, ever-expanding circle.

 

[1]Amos 7:7-9

[2]Romans 3:23; Romans 7:15-21

[3]2 Samuel 6:16

[4]2 Samuel 11

[5]Mark 6:14-29

[6]2 Samuel 6:12b

[7]2 Samuel 6:14

[8]2 Samuel 6:18-19

[9]Amos 5:24

[10]Revelation 22:1-2

[11]Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Friday, July 13, 2018 (www.cac.org)

One part per billion

I’m going into the Algonquin Park region this coming week. As you can see outside the church, I’ve already strapped my canoe atop the car. I’m looking forward!

And when I’m paddling, I like to follow the river or lake banks. Of course, where I’m going, there are lots of little lakes and rivers, and therefore many riverbanks and rocky shorelines I will skirt (probably still breaking the ice!).

We live in a world where borders and boundaries are important. Whether these are borders between nations, continents, cities, regions, communities, families or individuals, they mark the line between separate and distinct realities. Without honouring certain boundaries, we can fail to distinguish who we are and lose a sense of our identity and purpose.

Last summer when I travelled through Spain and Portugal, I learned that he Portuguese-Spanish border is the oldest, unchanged national border on continental Europe. This surprised me because that border did not appear natural. Not unlike the border between Canada and the United States in North America, the Spanish-Portuguese border draws a counterintuitive line across the more natural flow of the continent’s geography.

For example, to see it from space, the North American continent flows more north-south: The mountains run north-south on the western half of the continent, the prairie and plains in the centre of the continent, and the Great Lakes basin spilling into both the Mississippi and St Lawrence River valleys in the eastern portion of the continent. The geography suggests more natural north-south lines.

Spain and Portugal share what looks like a giant square mass of land peaking in the northwest on what is called the Iberian Peninsula. The Atlantic Ocean hugs the northern and western edges of this square. And the Mediterranean laps up against the eastern edge and into the southern Straits of Gibraltar separating Africa from Europe.

Despite what looks like it should be a unified whole, this large land mass is divided between two nations with Portugal carving its small section on the south-western shoreline.

When the kids were toddlers — and sometimes even to this day — they often lingered on the thresholds of doorways separating outdoors from indoors. Standing or sitting on the threshold meant that the door remained open. Of course, we parents were concerned about them jamming their thumbs and fingers and toes. So, we would yell at them: “In our out! Make up your mind!”

Borderlands, as we know from German history (the Berlin Wall) and between North and South Korea, can be dangerous places. We call the space in the border “no man’s land.” At best, these thresholds are ambivalent to us; at worst, they leave us uncomfortable, unsettled, fearful. We feel we can’t rest in these places.

I learned recently about what is called the ‘riparian zone’ which is the border between land and water. The riparian zone can be the lake or riverbank that is a marsh, or a rocky or sandy, thin strip of land, a hardwood forest or stand of pine on the edge of the river.

This ‘in-between’ place of the riparian zone fulfills three, vital, ecological functions: First, the riparian zone functions as a natural filter, cleaning ground water as it flows into the larger watershed. It also protects the surrounding soil from accelerated erosion by slowing down wash effect of the river. In the process, riparian zones actually create new soil and provides for new habitats.

A NASA scientist called the river and its marshy edges the ‘sine qua non’ of life; that is, where water and land touch, these edges are necessary for life on earth.[1]

So, we agree that boundaries are important. Borders, whether political, relational or ecological are vital.

But we also say that the grace of God knows no boundaries. We say that God’s love crosses and surpasses all boundaries. Jesus says, “Abide in my love.”[2]Paul wrote that “nothing can separate us from the love of God.”[3]God’s love expands and grows and overcomes all obstacles.

How does this happen? How can we, on the one hand, honour the boundaries in our lives and, on the other hand, live into the boundary-busting, wall-breaking, division-crossing, far-reaching, limitless, boundless reality of God’s love? How can God’s love abide in us when we are separated from God and each other by sin?

We are human, after all.

Imagine you are at the ocean, and you’re standing in the ocean ankle-deep. It’s true, you are only ankle deep. But it’s also true you are in the ocean. It’s also true that if you keep going, it will get plenty deep soon enough. If not in the ocean you are standing in, certainly at the deepest point on earth — the Marianas Trench — because all oceans on earth are connected anyway.

What if the infinite depth of the ocean gives the totality of its depths to your ankle-deep degree of realization of it?[4]

During the Easter season, and because of the resurrection of Jesus, the church says God is everywhere. But then, we also say God is really in your soul. And God is really, really in the church. You have to go in the church to save your soul. And, in the church, God is really, really, really in the Holy Communion. And, then, God is really, really, really, really in heaven. And, here at Faith Lutheran in Ottawa, it’s like one part per billion!

But, Jesus is alive. Therefore, God is really, really, really, really, really, everywhere.

The truth is, when you’re connected to a little bit of it, you’re connected to the whole of it, the fullness of it.

Speaking of the Holy Communion, when we receive one grain, it belongs to the one bread; one grape, one cup. Many parts, one body. When you receive only one small part of the Communion, you receive the whole of Christ.

“Every piece of bread and sip of wine is precisely the same one: there is one bread, and that is Christ. We receive all of Christ in communion, not just a piece of him. If we break the loaf into a thousand pieces, there’s still only one Christ – and each of us receives all of him.”[5]

This logic extends on several levels. Our lives, for one, belong to God’s story. “We need to sense that all aspects of our history, of our experience, are part of the same story, even the bits that don’t make any sense or the meaningless parts …”[6]There is no part of us that does not, somehow, belong to the great story of God and God’s people. Every part of us — our history, our experiences — is valuable to God and to us, and to each other.

We are who we are. No part of us is wasted space, wasted DNA. No part of us is lost, no memory is gone. All parts of us and each one of us belong.

 

[1]Diana Butler Bass, “Grounded: Finding God in the World; A Spiritual Revolution” (New York: Harper One, 2015), p.68.

[2]John 15:9-17 speaks of the mutuality of divine love’s presence: We abide in Christ as he abides in us.

[3]Romans 8:38

[4]James Finley, Centre for Action and Contemplation, 28 April 2018 (audio, http://www.cac.org).

[5]Br. Mark Brown, Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE), Brother, Give us a Word, 28 April 2018

[6]Laurence Freeman, Daily Wisdom (Word Community for Christian Meditation, Meditatio), 1 May 2018.

Love got down and dirty

I am not a pet person. In the sense that we don’t own a pet and we don’t have any animals currently living in our home.

However, we do enjoy visiting with the pets of others. And, if we did have a dog at home, I would probably consider a terrier. The word, terrier, is derived from the Latin word terra, meaning, earth.

And, I’ve heard, a terrier will eat dirt. And dig holes in the dirt. It is a solid dog with short legs. It is scruffy and tough. A terrier is, indeed, an ‘earth dog’, living very close to the ground.

Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent. This long season of the church year, some forty days’ pilgrimage, leads us somewhere. It is not an aimless wandering. Though it may sometimes feel like it.

The forty days is largely symbolic, let’s be honest. Though the Lenten season is an ancient Christian tradition going back in its variations to at least the fourth century after Christ, our observance of it today is slight, for the most part.

How can we re-discover its meaning?

At the beginning of any journey – I prefer to see the progress of life and faith as a journey – I want to see in my mind’s eye at least, the destination – the finish line so to speak.

Before I set out on the Camino pilgrimage in Spain last Spring – some 800 kilometres long – I needed to know my destination, which was the city of Santiago. Not only did knowing the destination help me navigate the trail, it motivated me on the way.

What is the finish line of the Lenten journey? Easter, of course.

I said the observance of the faith journey is marked by symbol or ritual. These rituals in the church take the form of sacraments, such as baptism and Holy Communion. At Easter – the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection – we not only receive the promise of our ongoing transformation and new life in Christ, we have arrived at the destination of the Lenten journey of our healing, our forgiveness, our change.

Because of Easter, we can do Lent. The disciplines of Lent would be groundless without the Easter promise guiding our way. The joy of Easter is the destination – the very point – of the long Lenten discipline.

That is why baptisms and confirmations happen during Easter. This so-called first sacrament of the church, baptism, involves using water to make the sign of the cross on baptized forehead.  In some churches, the congregation gathers literally by the river to participate in a baptismal celebration.

Diana Butler Bass grew up as an evangelical Christian. She remembers that more often than not, “The water would be murky, seemingly impure rather than sanctified … The pastor would dunk the newcomer anyway, a drenching testimony of sin washed away and new birth in Christ.” But she wondered “how one could be washed of sin when the water itself was not safe to drink.”[1]

It seems, we cannot avoid getting dirty on the road to Easter and new life. In truth, is there not something good about dirt?

Some years ago, Diana Butler Bass spent the forty days of Lent focusing her discipline on priming her vegetable and flower garden in Spring. Obviously, she lived farther south than where we are. During Lent, she readied the garden, worked the soil, coaxed dirt to life. And, she concluded,

“Dirt was not dirty – it was beautiful. God made it. I was tending it. Caring for soil is hard work. The last thing I wanted to imagine was it being washed away. I was fighting for the dirt. I wanted more dirt, better dirt, richer dirt. I was adding stuff to it to make it mealier. I wanted dirtier dirt.”[2]

Yet, I would agree with Butler Bass, the symbols of the church have become sterile over the centuries. We have become germ-a-phobic, averse to dirt. And this, to our spiritual peril.

“In many dictionaries, the definition of ‘soil’ as a noun is typically scientific” – a particular kind of earth, a portion of the earth’s surface, the ground, etc.”

But the second definition, as a verb, turns sinister: ‘to soil: to make unclean, dirty or filthy; to smirch, smudge, or stain; to sully or tarnish, as with disgrace; defile morally. Its synonyms are ‘blacken, taint, debase, pollute.’ The term ‘dirt’ is perhaps even worse than ‘soil’. ‘Dirt’ comes from Middle English … meaning ‘mud, dung, or excrement’; or related ‘smutty or morally unclean.”

It’s easy to understand the theological leap from dirt and soil to sin and evil.[3] This is why we need Ash Wednesday in our faith journey. We need to feel the dirt on our foreheads in the sign of the cross as much as we make the sign of the cross with baptismal water, impure as it sometimes is.

This may seem like “a tempest in a linguistic teapot”[4] except for the fact that the bible points in another direction:

“Biblical creation stories abound with praise for the soil: God creates the ground and calls it good. Then the land brings forth life, and God calls it good. Humankind is made from the dust; God breathes life into the soil and Adam is born, this ‘soil creature’, and God sees that as very good.[5]

Humans beings are, literally, made from the humus, the ground. We are, simply, animated dirt.

In the famous Gospel story of the sower and the seed – where some seed falls on rocky ground, other seed on fertile, deep soil, other seed on the path, and other seed on shallow soil – Jesus explains that the seed is God’s love and the soil is us. The moral of the story?

“We are not soil-y enough! Spiritually, we would be better off more soiled rather than less. Being soiled is actually the point. You could say: ‘God loves dirt more than plants, soil more than what it yields. God is a dirt farmer, not a vegetable gardener.’ Soil is not sin. Soil is sacred, holy, and good. When we care for it, we are doing God’s work. Soil is life. And it is time for us — Ash Wednesday is a good time, symbolically at least — to reclaim the dirt.”[6] Why?

God became humus. God’s love got down and dirty. In the person of Jesus, God’s love was shown – in a human being. God is, according to Paul Tillich, not apart from us “but who is the very core and ground of all that is.”[7]

God is part of us, because of Christ Jesus and the incarnation. I read that every day more than sixty tons of cosmic dust fall to the earth. These are microscopic elements we can’t see, travelling in space from the farthest reaches of the universe. This cosmic dust enters our atmosphere where it mixes with existing soil on earth and enters the food chain.

Imagine, this cosmic dust is a source of ongoing creation. We eat and breathe it. Quite literally, human beings are made and being made of ‘stardust’. As the biblical story reflects: the divine and the soil, the Creator and created, are part of the same, theological ecosystem.

The Easter baptismal celebration is the end goal. We see it now, from the perspective of the starting line: Ash Wednesday. Tonight, we also make the sign of the cross on our foreheads, not with water – pure or murky. But with ash. We start by embracing the soil in and of our own lives.

Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust. The traditional words spoken at the start of Lent, and significantly, when our bodies return to the ground. A reminder, viscerally by the imposition of ash on our foreheads, that we are not only mortal, but that we belong to the earth. A reminder of our own need for repentance and new life.

At very least, we have to say it starts with dirt. We are dirt. Really. We therefore have to care for the dirt that is us, and in the earth, on this journey.

“We are not tourists here,” writes philosopher Mary Midgly, “We are at home in the world, because we were made for it,”[8] a world God so loved.

[1] Diana Butler Bass, “Grounded: Finding God in the World; A Spiritual Revolution” (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015), p.53.

[2] Ibid., p.53-54.

[3] Ibid., p.54.

[4] Ibid., p.54.

[5] Ibid., p.57.

[6] Ibid., p.58.

[7] Cited in ibid., p.31

[8] Cited in ibid., p.64

Lifting up

Imagine the path slick with rainfall and mud. I took this photo at the end of a beautiful, clear day, on the Camino de Santiago (del Norte). But just as often as there were dry, sunny days on the way, I encountered trails that were treacherous in rain.

IMG_5303

It was at the end of my longest hiking day in northern Spain that I met with such a descent – almost a full kilometre straight down on uneven cobblestone into the coastal town of Deba. The rain had started moments before. And I had just walked thirty-three kilometres in the hilly Basque country, all the way from Orio, near Zarautz.

I was exhausted. My mind was obsessed with getting to the pilgrims’ hostel as soon as possible. I was ready to collapse in a heap on my bed. Negotiating a tricky, slippery path was the last thing on my mind.

I had read and heard from fellow pilgrims these horror stories of unsuspecting pilgrims breaking their ankles on these kinds of descents. It was all too easy to cut short a pilgrimage after such an unfortunate accident. The practiced and seasoned hikers would know that one had to be very mindful of each step made. Even when they were tired. Even when being mindful of placing one foot in front of the other was the last thing they wanted to do.

On the last couple of Sundays we’ve encountered stories from the Gospel of Mark about Jesus’ healing ministry.[1] Indeed, during Ordinary (“green”) time in the church – both during the relatively shorter season after Epiphany in January and early February, and during the longer summer months in the season after Pentecost – the Gospel focus is the ministry of Jesus which includes healing.

In Lutheran circles we tend to look only at his proclamation; that is, we focus on what he said and taught the disciples about the kingdom of God. From this, we emphasize that Christian ministry is primarily about the proclamation of the good news. Mission, then, becomes more about ‘telling’ others about God, thus spreading the Word.

We miss an essential aspect of work-in-the-name-of-Christ with this limited vision of mission. Because, as elsewhere in the Gospels, we find that healing has equal prominence in Jesus’ ministry. Not only do we read about the miracles of Jesus curing disease, but more an inner healing for people battling their demons, so to speak. Healing has just as much to do about a renewed mind, a refreshed heart, a changed spirit. A reconstituted identity.

Healing is emphasized in the Gospel story today. Not just through words. But changed lives. Jesus came not only so that we might ‘believe’ with our minds in the good news, but that we might be healed in our earthen bodies and spirits.

How does this happen? What does Jesus do? From the text given to us today, Jesus’ took the hand of Simon’s mother-in-law, and “lifted her up.”[2] Jesus touches the person, physically. Taking someone by their hand is a sign of accompaniment. God is not remote from our human struggles. God is with us, Emanuel, in the person of Jesus. God takes our hand, and then lifts us up.

Faith can be described as movement. Last week we looked at the movement of ‘leaning into’ what we are afraid of, as a step in the direction of our healing – and finding Jesus is there. This week, the focus on the movement of ‘lifting up’, being ‘lifted up’, by God. As Jesus took the woman by the hand and lifted her up to be healed.

The Psalmist knew intimately this uplifting aspect of faith. “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”[3] Many of the Psalm writer’s verses are called “psalms of ascent” because they were sung on the way ‘up’ to Jerusalem. The ancient pilgrim faithful needed to ‘look up’ as they made their way up the mount to the gates of the holy city. You know the hymn: “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.”

Faith is a ‘look beyond and upwards’ movement. In other words, the life of faith is not characterized by remaining stuck in the valley of our own suffering and misery. A faithful life, of course, does not deny our suffering nor is it pretending or distracting ourselves away from accepting its harsh reality.

Despite life’s imperfections, and struggles, however, to be faithful is to remain focused on others, on the promise of God, and on the hope we have. God takes our hand and is with us, and God sees it all. As Paul wrote, “we only see dimly now”.[4] Because we cannot understand all of life’s complexities, we need to trust in life, trust in good, trust in God’s time, in God’s way, that “all things work together for good for those who love and trust in God.”[5]

We are not just lifted up for our sake alone. We are called to lift others up, especially the downtrodden. Ours is the calling to lift others up – physically, emotionally, spiritually and materially.

We all know people who are ‘the lifters’. In their presence you feel lighter, lifted up. Whether it be their life story, their non-judgemental presence, their desire to show mercy and compassion, their interest in listening to you – they are an inspiration to us. They inspire us by their discipline, their focus in life.

The Gospel message is: We don’t need to be continually burdened by our suffering and narrow focus. We can be lifted up and transformed to be a reflection of God’s light to the world. In being truly ourselves, we can be ‘lifters’ too.

Remember: Resurrection is the end game of our faith. I mean not only of Jesus’ resurrection over two thousand years ago. I mean not only of our resurrection after we die our physical, earthly death. Because of Jesus’ healing ministry, we know that God also wants us to experience ‘resurrections’ in our own lives – on our earthly pilgrimage of living.

We can change, yes. It won’t be easy. It will take work. It will challenge us. We will need to move outside of our comfort zones. We will need to endure our momentary afflictions. On this journey of transformation, it will get harder before it gets easier. The truth will set us free, but it will first make us miserable. This is Christian truth. There is a cost. It is first the Cross of Christ; it is then the empty tomb of Easter.

There’s a woman from Tennessee whose name is Margaret Stevenson. She was in her nineties when I first read about her passion for hiking. You see, Margaret Stevenson used to hike ten or fifteen miles every day. She was a legend in the Smoky Mountains. She knew every trail and every plant and tree by its Latin and colloquial name.

Bill was much younger than Margaret when he hiked with her one day up Mt. LeConte. Now, Mt. LeConte is the third highest mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park peaking at just over 6500 feet.

pexels-photo-414171.jpeg

Bill’s first trip up Mt. LeConte was Margaret’s seventy-fifth. When she finally stopped hiking she had climbed Mt. LeConte more than 700 times. Her husband rarely went, even before he got cancer.

When Bill and Margaret set out, they came upon what Margaret described as the most unrelenting two-mile ridge in the whole area – two miles up with no break. And this after a hard six miles on a very hot day.

Bill liked to hike in spurts, so he said, “See you later, Margaret,” and took off in his usual fashion and got way ahead of her. At some point, he found himself lying flat on his back in half delirium. A blurred Margaret passed him by at her steady pace. Bill can still hear the click-click of her cane and with no pity at all in her voice, she said, “One more mile to go, Bill. I’ll see you at the top!” And so, she did, arriving well ahead of Bill without stopping once.

Not long after that, Margaret’s husband finally died of cancer. But because of her daily walk with God, their last few hours were spent not in sadness or remorse, but in joy and celebration. For when Margaret says, “I’ll see you at the top!” she means it. For her face is fixed on Christ. Her step is steady and sure. And she knows the meaning of Isaiah’s words:

Even youth’s will faint and be weary,

And the young will fall exhausted;

But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

They shall mount up with wings as eagles,

They shall run and not be weary,

They shall walk and not faint.[6]

[1] Mark 1:21-28, Mark 1:29-39

[2] Mark 1:31

[3] Psalm 121:1-2, NRSV

[4] 1 Corinthians 13:12

[5] Romans 8:28

[6] William J. Carl III in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B, Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.318-319.

Traveling stones: a pilgrimage lesson in letting go

In the sixth century Saint Benedict said, “A monk should have death always before his eyes.”[1] ‘Death’ doesn’t need to refer only to our physical demise at the end of life but to any loss experienced in life. There are many deaths we experience in life: the death of a cherished pet, the loss of friendship, the loss of a job, divorce, death of a loved one, moving into another home. Any significant change, even positive ones, involve something lost.

In the second reading for today written in the first century, Saint Paul admonishes the Corinthians to live in this world “as though not.”[2] He is advocating a certain disengagement from the attachments and claims of our lives, including some of our most cherished relationships. The likes of Paul and Benedict reflect, as well, the wisdom of the prophets and poets of ancient Israel: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of God stands forever.”[3]

Our earth-bound attachments come under scrutiny here, no doubt. The question remains for each of us on our own journeys of faith and life – what are those things of which we need to let go in order to move on? After all, in the Lord’s Prayer the words, “Thy Kingdom come”, mean little unless we can also say: “My kingdom go.”[4]

Following Jesus means leaving things behind — as the first disciples did, in our Gospel reading for today (Mark 1:14:20).

You heard about the man who was hiking in the mountains when he slipped, and started to slide over the edge. Just as he was about to fall into the abyss, he grabbed a tree branch growing out of the rock ledge. He hung on perilously dangling in the air.

He didn’t know what to do. It was impossible to pull himself up since the branch stem was slippery and wet. He swung in the silence of the breeze contemplating his fate with growing terror. Finally he looked up to the sky and prayed: “If there is a God anywhere up there, I could do with some help, please.”

To his surprise and shock, he heard God’s voice respond instantly: “I will help you. But you first have to let go.”

The man was silent for a minute. He dared not look down. It was a long way to the jagged rocks of the canyon below. Again he looked up to the sky, and said: “Is there anyone else up there?”

A long-standing tradition in doing a pilgrimage is to bring a stone from home and lay it somewhere along the path. This home-stone represents a part of myself that I lose, and leave behind, where I have walked.

Last Spring when I walked a part of the Camino de Santiago, I wanted to leave my stone in the waters off the western coast of Spain, either in Fisterra or Muxia – both coastal towns are some one hundred kilometres west of Santiago.

I imagined this place a fitting resting place for my stone since I love walking by water and coastlines. Once, long ago, people believed the coastal town of Fisterra (French, for ‘the end of the earth’) was the physical limit of land – the farthest one could go. In my imagination, I saw myself facing the setting sun, having completed the 800-kilometer, two-month trek, looking west to the horizon line beyond which lies the land of my home in North America.

I imagined feeling satisfied at the end of a long journey, having reached my goal, grateful for the challenge and all the things the Camino taught me. In that moment of gratitude and joy, I would toss my stone as far as I could into the spume and depths of the Atlantic Ocean. That was the vision, anyway.

I found the perfect sized stone while wandering around my house one afternoon a week before leaving for Spain. Because I was running about making the last-minute preparations for the journey, I placed it temporarily on the landing railing in the garage, certain I would soon tuck it away in my backpack.

Two weeks later I was scrambling up a steep incline outside the town of Irun on the first day of my pilgrimage. As I expected that first day was incredibly tough going. The temperatures soared to above 25 degrees C and the sun shone brightly. Sweat pouring down my neck and back I struggled up that cliff wondering why on earth I chose to do this on my sabbatical. I dug my walking poles into the hard-caked sandy ground to make the next ledge and wondered sarcastically if I should have rather taken rappelling lessons in preparation for coming to Spain.

In that moment of physical and growing mental exhaustion, I realized I had forgotten to pack my stone. It was still sitting on the railing in the garage back home! I stopped in my tracks and exhaled deeply.

“What’s the matter?” my Dutch pilgrim friend asked me, huffing and puffing as I was.

“I forgot to bring my stone,” I confessed my failure.

“Don’t despair,” my co-pilgrim wanted to advise. “The Camino will give you an answer.”

IMG_5248

Several days later two significant things happened. The first was while I was walking down a slope towards the northern Basque town of Guernica, I thought I should take with me a couple stones from this path, as a keepsake from walking the Camino. So, I selected two small pebbles from under my feet where I stood beholding the town and valley below.

IMG_5299

That same day, my knee seized up, and I walked the remainder of my Camino in pain. Three days later, coughing and feeling very sick, I was on a plane homebound. Diagnosed with pneumonia back in Ottawa, I had to come to terms with my failure of not having reached my goal.

Not only had I not reached Santiago and Fisterra, I had done nothing with my stone which I had forgotten anyway. By forgetting the stone, had I already destined myself not to finish the pilgrimage? These dark thoughts swirled in my mind.

After having recovered a few weeks later, my wife and I flew to Lisbon for a week of vacation to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Originally, the plan had been for her to join me at the end of my pilgrimage, where I would meet her in Lisbon. Nevertheless, this time, I did bring my stone from home, renamed my ‘glory’ stone.

My glory stone represented all my aspirations, desires, longings which I knew deep down the Camino had taught me to let go of. I had to surrender even my human yearning and goals to God.

IMG_5853

And so, at Cabo Da Roca near Lisbon, Portugal – the farthest most western point of land on continental Europe – I threw my glory stone into the Atlantic Ocean facing the setting sun. I had to practice letting glory go.

IMG_5812

It seems I was still bound to finish some kind of pilgrimage during my sabbatical. I didn’t have enough time to go back to Spain and finish the Camino de Santiago. But I did have enough time to walk the entire length of the longest contiguous sand beach in North America – fifty kilometres on Long Beach Peninsula in Washington State. There, my journey of letting go continued.

IMG_6200

There, on “Cape Disappointment” – fittingly named – I brought the two pebbles that I picked up in Spain on the last day I walked on the Camino. One glorious afternoon, I scrambled down into Dead Man’s Cove – also fittingly named – on Cape Disappointment. After reflecting on my disappointments of late, I realized on my journey of life not only did I need to yield all my dreams but also all my regrets and suffering. And so, I threw those stones of disappointment into the Pacific Ocean. I let these go.

 

I realized life is not lived well when we obsessively hold on to all those things that cause us grief. I had to offer these to God as well. Later, while I sat on a park bench near the lighthouse on Cape Disappointment looking over the Pacific, I met a couple of Americans visiting from Portland. In our conversation, we were able to affirm that “all great spirituality is about learning to let go.”[5]

IMG_6217

But I didn’t leave my pilgrimage empty handed. When I climbed out of Dead Man’s Cove that day, I picked up from the sand a smooth, round stone. Now, any rocks on the Peninsula are rare. Most of the fifty-kilometre stretch is sand, land created from the outflow of the mighty Columbia River as it spills into the Pacific Ocean. Most rocks you see on the Peninsula have been trucked in. So, I was delighted to take with me back home, a rare thing.

And hope is a rare commodity in this world of pessimism, denial, and despair. This is my “stone of hope”, that I hold forever, amidst all the human aspirations swirling in my life and all the disappointments and failures which I regularly need to practice letting go of.

IMG_6752

We hold not only that which we need to let go of, but we also hold hope throughout our lives. “We do not simply resign ourselves to the give-ness of the world, for we have planted within us a great hope that God’s kingdom will come on earth, as in heaven. This means we are a people who look to the future with trust and hope, confident that God is working God’s purposes out and that God’s realm is even now breaking into our world.”[6]

At this point in your journey of life, which stones are you holding — of dreams, of disappointments, of hope? Which ones do you need to let go of? Which do you need to hold on to? I suspect it is true when the likes of Saint Paul, and all the wise teachers over the ages, writes: “Hope does not disappoint us.” [7]

[1] cited in Ruthanna B. Hooke in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 1” (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.280

[2] 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

[3] Isaiah 40:8

[4] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Thursday, January 18, 2018.

[5] Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation, cac.org

[6] Ruthanna B. Hooke, ibid.

7 – Romans 5:5

Love: The Body speaks

I jumped out of bed Labour Day Monday ready for action: I had my traditional ‘to do’ list around the house, tasks reserved only for that most auspicious of holidays: Labour Day. Neatly positioned at the beginning of a new school year, Labour Day promises the beginning of a new season of programs, commitments, work, setting goals, ideals and visions of our aspiring.

I only did certain jobs on this day of the year. You know, like Spring cleaning, these were things that needed to be done once in a while, but aren’t really activities that are particularly pleasurable, to say the least. So, I put it off to Labour Day. I need that annual calendar day to help me stay disciplined. And that is good.

One of those jobs was cleaning the HRV – the Heat Recovery Ventilator. This is the contraption attached to the furnace that recycles the air in your house. On the sticker inside the ventilator, it suggests that the filter should be cleaned once every three months. Yeah, right. Who has time for that?

So, on Labour Day every year, I dutifully remove the heavy box containing the filter, and hose it down. I wash the spongy fabric and hang to dry. I meticulously wipe out the interior of the ventilator with a damp cloth. I vacuum out all the cobwebs, dead wasps, flies and dust mites. I use pipe cleaners to clean the plastic, transparent drain tubes. And when everything is done I put it all back together. Usually it takes me a couple of hours. And then it’s on to the next item on my Labour Day ‘to do’ list. You get the idea.

I knew I had a full day’s agenda of those odds and sods sort of jobs.  Jess and I had just pulled the stove away from the wall to clean the floor underneath (yuck!) when all-of-a-sudden the doorbell rang.

With beads of sweat trickling from my forehead stinking of sweat in dirty clothes, I looked up with ‘surprise’ at who was smiling and waving through the front door pane: my parents-in-law! They were inviting us out for lunch at the local truck stop.

With herculean effort to switch gears and rush into ‘receive-and-respond-to-guest’ mode, I quietly complained to Jess in the bathroom as we quickly washed up that I didn’t appreciate this interruption to the day’s agenda of hard work. Likely all the work wouldn’t get done. And how long were they going to stay at our place after lunch? Throughout the lunch hour I fought the impulse to be resentful and angry at this unplanned, unwelcomed intrusion to the important Labour Day work.

Nevertheless, have to say I enjoyed lunch out. It was a treat. And the conversation helped take my mind off other pressing matters. After only about an hour, we came home, and my parents were off to complete errands. I was surprised by how just one hour of gift, of grace, of unscheduled act of love actually gave me the energy to finish all my Labour Day tasks in a shorter amount of time than I had originally anticipated.

Love has a way of doing that. Love does not steer clear of the structures, agendas, immediacies of our lives. Love does not exist on some surreal, other-worldly plane, dis-associated from ordinary life. Love is not a fantasy trip. Love operates right in the middle of the messy, honest reality of our lives.

We call it other things, which leave us empty:

Whenever we project our wants onto something or someone we don’t have. We delude ourselves in believing we will experience love when we yield to this mirage of desire. This is the ego’s impulse. But if we are honest, getting what we want only sets the ground for wanting more and more. This strategy for life is a prescription for perpetual unhappiness bereft of true joy, because pursuing this frantic desiring is predicated on the assumption that it is never good enough. We are always wanting what we don’t have. Wanting and desiring do not fulfill love.

Neither does the law. We skim the surface of love when we try to please God by merely following the rigor of the law. This is the ego’s attempt to prove one’s self-worth by measuring it up against some ideal. But if we are honest, this effort at loving God and others is really self-centred and only exposes our failure to live up to that ideal. This strategy for life can lead to a stifling legalism, judgmental attitudes towards others and self-hate. Our success at following all the rules is not love. Paying attention to another person is. “Love is the fulfilling of the law,” Paul writes.[1]

Love is free. It is not bound by our ability to control outcomes. Love happens when we are not in charge. Love is a gift, given and received freely. There is no guarantee, from our human perspective, that all our good efforts and good works will make things right. Author and teacher Belden Lane writes: “We love and are loved by God in the act of relinquishing every guarantee of love.”[2] In truth, when we stop our striving if only for a moment, when we release our need to be in control, then we are in the position to experience God’s grace and love. Through others. In ourselves. And from the least expected of places and people. Indeed, as C.S. Lewis expressed, we are surprised by joy.[3]

The ego doesn’t like this because the ego wants to get in the way.  But, love is expressed to another without preconceived expectations of what the other person needs. Love is expressed without giving what we imagine to be best in the situation for them. True love is not striving for what particular results we want to engineer in a relationship. True love, as Belden Lane describes so well, is “a love finally purged of the ego’s calculating desires, a love without strings.”[4] We simply be with the other, and listen to them. And go from there.

Love starts here. It is hard work to love. It is a labour of love – for self, others, creation and God. And it is a work in progress – a journey – that can last a life-time and beyond.

Paul continues in the Epistle text for today, that we are to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”[5] Here, it is helpful to substitute the word, ‘ego’ for flesh. Christianity is an incarnational religion. God is, for Christians, a human being in Christ. The divine entered humanity. God knows the human body intimately. We do our faith a dis-service when we neglect, shame or deny our physical bodies as well as the human dignity of others. Our flesh is not bad. Your physical body is, according to Paul, “a temple of the Holy Spirit.”[6]

We exercise the love of God by paying attention and listening to our own bodies and paying attention and listening to the suffering of humanity all around us. “The glory of God,” Saint Irenaeus said in the 2nd century, “is the human being fully alive.” We celebrate human beauty and strength, yes, but also not ignore its pains.

I sat alone in the Bilbao hotel room looking at my body. On the surface, everything looked fine. Even great. In eight days I had walked one hundred and thirty kilometres through the Basque hills along the coast of the Bay of Biscay in northern Spain. I had even lost several pounds and buffed up a bit.

My feet were fine. So many pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago develop serious problems with blisters and tendonitis. Not I. Now, I did give regular attention to my feet: I made periodic breaks during my hiking, taking my shoes and socks off and gently, lovingly, applying moisturizing cream around my toes, under the ball of my foot and around the heels. They say foot care is paramount to the successful completion of any Camino pilgrimage. I was the poster boy for that piece of advice.

Yet, these superficial indicators did not reveal the truth of the matter. You see, even before I had left Canada to fly to Barcelona, I was coughing.

Besides the cough, I was feeling fine when I headed out of Irun at the start of the Camino del Norte, near the French-Spanish border. But eight days later, a few kilometres outside of Guernica, my right knee blew out. And, in that moment, I realized that I was in trouble. The systematic repetition of hefting my 200-pound body weight and additional 20 pound pack, leading with my right knee finally screamed protest. At first, my pilgrim friends suggested what I was thinking: A few rest days in Bilbao would renew me enough to continue my pilgrimage across northern Spain.

But after three days of rest in Bilbao, I was feeling worse. Not only did I continue to cough, all my muscles were aching not just my knee. I didn’t even feel like travelling to visit with my extended family in Germany.

My body hath spoken. And I was going to listen to it. When I saw my doctor in Ottawa a few days later, she ordered an x-ray and ultrasound which confirmed the diagnosis of pneumonia. I had, literally, ‘walking’ pneumonia on the Camino. All the medical staff, my family and friends complemented me in being able to ‘listen to my body’. And even though I didn’t realize and know how sick I really was at the time, I didn’t push it for the sake of some higher, abstract goals or principles. I came home to heal. My body was telling me something I needed listening to: Stop. Stop the frantic desiring. Stop the restless striving. Just stop. And be still, for a while.

They say the body never lies. We can deceive ourselves in our heads, play all kinds of mind games with ourselves, providing ceaseless self-justifications and employing conniving self-defense mechanisms that would confound any therapist. But what the body presents – the physical manifestation of who we are – is the truth indicator. What the body proclaims is truer than what anyone says.

Any journey towards health and love begins by paying attention to what your body is saying. And go from there. We may slow down. We may pray. We may embark on a journey to search out meaning in our lives, to explore the multi-layered regions of our hearts and souls. We may seek medical help, and rely on the gifts of medical science. We may even make major changes in our lives. In other words, we learn the truth about ourselves. Beginning with what the body says.

Someone asked me what I learned about myself during the sabbatical. You could say, I had the chance to just be myself. I experienced my humanity without the usual trappings of roles, titles and responsibilities. I met with and explored myself as a human being. I am human. Not just a talking head. I don’t just live out of my head. I live out of my body, too.

And, to be honest, I didn’t always like everything I saw, there, in my human nature. Yet, I will confess that in that mess of my humanity I re-discovered Jesus. It wasn’t so much in the usual places but in those other pilgrims I met, the help I received along the way, and in my own, ordinary self – stripped away from all the usual distractions, comforts and busy-ness of life – that grounded me in a love that endures.

Out of this awareness has grown a deep thankfulness for all the gifts of life. Gifts over which I don’t have ultimate control in having received: The gift of physical health and ability; The gift of this sabbatical – about which I express heartfelt thanks to the congregation; The gift of colleagues who take up the torch so to speak — thank you to Pastors Diane and Ted and musician, David: The gift of capable lay leaders who show remarkable abilities administratively and creatively when given a chance – Beth, Julia and Megan, especially; The gift of lay preachers who in their diverse expression reflect something beautiful about God and God’s ways – Jessica, Beth, Christa and Jann; The gift of a spouse and children who model the love of God by ‘letting me go’ for a while.

In Christianity, the word, ‘body’, takes on a broader meaning: The Body of Christ is the church, the community, the network of relationships. I am ever so grateful and encouraged. I learned another thing out of this sabbatical experience: There is love in the Body of Christ, to be sure.

 

[1] Romans 13:10

[2] Belden C. Lane, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality”, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, p.201.

[3] C.S. Lewis, “Surprised By Joy”, New York: Harper Collins, 1966

[4] Belden C. Lane, ibid.

[5] Romans 13:14

[6] 1 Corinthians 6:19

There’s no place on earth

People of faith, since the beginning, have been on the move. Even when they settled down for a while, they created ways of practising the journey — of moving from Point A to Point B.

Rome, central to the story and expansion of early Christianity, is full of famous steps. The most famous of these are the 135 Spanish steps which visitors traverse daily en masse.

Millions of Christians have walked the Camino el Santiago which spans almost 800 kms from the foothills of the Pyrenees in France all the way to Galicia on the northwest coast of Spain.

The trails to the castle at Lindisfarne in the United Kingdom attract Christians worldwide every Holy Week to walk nearly 200 kilometres.

People of faith have valued movement as integral to their spiritual growth. Because we are not the same at the end of a journey than we were when we started. This innate desire to be better, to change, to grow and mature — is part and parcel of the life of faith.

The culture of Journeying, so important to the Lenten season we now begin, has its roots in the original pilgrimages to Holy Lands. For centuries, Christians sought a deeper connection with Jesus who walked and lived and died in and around Jerusalem and the Judean wilderness. 

When the Crusades prevented pilgrims from traveling to the Holy Lands, Christians ‘back home’ developed prayer walks in Labyrinths — the most famous and oldest in the Chartres Cathedral in France — which symbolized the long journey to meet Jesus.

Indeed, settlers to this country moved here, many of them to exercise and practice their faith in freedom. Mobility, migration, pilgrimage — this is our story, as people of faith.

How we journey is the question. The journey is not only physical, it also describes our understanding of the way things work.

Over the last month, the Ottawa Senators (NHL hockey team) were looking to score more goals. They had lost more games than won. Their star players were not producing. 

One of their younger players, Curtis Lazar, decided to give $50 to a homeless person after dining out one evening. The next night, he scored two goals in a routing of the Toronto Maple Leafs — the Senators won that game 6-1. The following game, the Senators won again, 5-1, against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In an interview afterwards, Lazar confessed that perhaps there was “karma” working here. Meaning, because he had done a good deed, there was a ‘return’ on his righteous investment and he was rewarded with those goals and wins.

I like Lazar and I appreciate his hockey skills and character. At the same time, he reflects a dominant way of thinking. It is really what some have a called a mechanical type of spirituality, with inputs (from us) and outputs (from God). The sequence goes something like:

1. We sin

2. We are punished

3. We confess our sins

4. We change our lives, and do something good

5. Then, we receive forgiveness and grace

Such is the description of a journey towards goodness that hinges entirely on us, and our doing, our initiative. This spiritual journey then cycles back to the beginning and round and round it goes. Essentially, we force God’s hand. Karma is not a belief alien even to Christians, it seems!

The problem with karma is that because it ultimately relies on our good works, we will never achieve the goal. After winning two lop-sided games, the Senators have now lost three in a row. Where does that leave Lazar? Does he have to give $100 next time to poor people he meets?

In recalling the great acts of God in bringing the Israelites to the Promised Land, Moses confesses it is God’s mighty arm that started the ball rolling towards freedom; verses 8-9 of Deuteronomy 26:

8The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Like the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years, Jesus walks with us in a completely opposite direction from karma. His is not the spirituality of addition, but of subtraction. He goes into the desert.

Try to imagine Jesus’ first moments, entering into the wilderness he would occupy for forty days: The sound of any footsteps is absorbed by sand and rock, lost in the wind or in silence. It is in this barren place that Jesus chooses to retreat, far from what he knows.

Christ chose to retrace the path of his ancestors — in the desert: Abraham. Moses. Ruth. Some of them were responding to God’s call. Some were fleeing persecution. Some were simply looking for a place to call home.

There may very well be value, to our growth as Christians, in embarking on spiritual journeys and earth-bound pilgrimages with some expectations at the destination in mind.

At the same time, we can be assured that Jesus not only waits for us at the ‘end of the line’. Jesus is right there with us, each step of the way. His journey into the desert of testing and suffering shows that there is no place of suffering, pain and loss on earth, to which Jesus is unaccustomed. No place of want that Jesus doesn’t know, intimately. This is more the point.

I like one of the sayings, attributed to Albert Camus, on a Valentine’s Day card I saw: It’s a message of love from one to another: “Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow; don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Just walk beside me, and be my friend.”

The message of Christianity is that God is not out there, or back there. God is ‘in our skin’, with us. And goes where we go in our journeys of faith and life, through the good and the bad. Jesus is not only the God of our eternal salvation, Jesus is our friend for life, and no matter what.

Jesus resides in the deepest places of our heart and activates our truest most authentic selves no matter where we are at.

Long before Jesus came, the Psalmist knew this gracious truth in his heart: There is no place on earth where God’s presence of grace, love and mercy cannot reach. In Psalm 139 —

7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? 
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 
9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. 

Contrary to karma, this journey of faith begins with God’s grace and forgiveness, as it always does. It is in the desert of our lives where we experience this grace because life happens regardless of how hard we try. And because we are already forgiven, already blessed, we can live confident, transformed lives, even in the desert of our lives. As we live out of our freedom in Christ, we can then confess, “Jesus is Lord!”

As God is with us in our deepest darkness and light, we look to those on the move today. Refugees. Migrants. More than the places of the journey, it is the people we must engage. 

While the desert wilderness was a time of solitary retreat for Jesus, migrants and refugees live in communities: their solace is in the comfort of companionship and common history and identity with those whom they live alongside. In the Lenten days to come, in our own solitary places, let us pray for those for whom solitude is a luxury. And welcome them into our hearts and minds. (1)

(1) Lutherans Connect, “Welcoming the Stranger” blogpost Lenten devotions, Day 1 (lc2016lentdevotional.blogspot.ca)