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.

Into the deep end

I’d like you to meet Harry Truman, at the end of his life.

This is not Harry Truman the 33rdpresident of the USA. This is Harry Truman, the eighty-three-year-old who, in March 1980, refused to budge from his home at the foot of Mount Saint Helens near Olympia, Washington State, where the volcano began to steam and rumble.

A former World War 1 pilot and Prohibition-era bootlegger, he’d owned his lodge on Spirit Lake for more than half a century. Five years earlier, he’d been widowed. So now it was just him and his sixteen cats on his fifty-four acres of property beneath the mountain.

Three years earlier, he’d fallen off the lodge roof shoveling snow and broken his leg. The doctor told him he was “a damn fool” to be working up there at his age.

“Damn it!” Truman shot back. “I’m eighty years old and at eighty, I have the right to make up my mind and do what I want to do.”

An eruption threatened, so the authorities told everyone living in the vicinity to clear out. But Truman wasn’t going anywhere. For more than two months, the volcano smoldered. Authorities extended the evacuation zone to ten miles around the mountain. Truman stubbornly remained.

He didn’t believe the scientists, with their uncertain and sometimes conflicting reports. He worried his lodge would be looted and vandalized, as another lodge on Spirit Lake was. And regardless, this home was his life.

“If this place is gonna go, I want to go with it,” he said. “’Cause if I lost it, it would kill me in a week anyway.” He attracted reporters with his straight-talking, curmudgeonly way, holding forth with a green John Deere cap on his head and a tall glass of bourbon and Coke in his hand. The local police thought about arresting him for his own good but decided not to, given his age and the bad publicity they’d have to endure. They offered to bring him out every chance they got.

He steadfastly refused. He told a friend, “If I die tomorrow, I’ve had a damn good life. I’ve done everything I could do, and I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do.”

The blast came at 8:40am on May 18, 1980, with the force of an atomic bomb. The entire lake disappeared under the massive lava flow, burying Truman and his cats and his home with it.

In the aftermath, he became an icon – the old man who had stayed in his house, taken his chances, and lived life on his own terms. The people of a nearby town constructed a memorial to him at the town’s entrance that still stands to this day, and there was a TV movie made based on the story.[1]

Opinions may be divided as to whether he did the right thing, by staying and dying so violently. Some herald his gritty resolve. Others shake their heads considering the effect of his decision on his loved ones, and the public resources expended on his behalf to inform and keep the community safe about the impending danger.

What would you have done?

4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’

5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
7 the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.[2]

This poetry from the prophet reads, generally, in a comforting, encouraging and promising tone. However, the second half of verse 4 feels out of place. God “will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense” and then God “will come and save you.”

It sounds like salvation will come only after an horrible, terrifying experience. Perhaps, Harry Truman’s salvation came on the heels of being drowned in the burning lava flow.

This interpretation can lead, however, to dangerous conclusions. Such as the only way to something good is create and go through untold suffering: Such as the ends justify the means; That it is ok to do something hurtful, cruel, and violent if the result of that violence is pleasing; That salvation can only come through terrible suffering.

We know life happens. We don’t need to search out and fabricate all the pain that is a natural part of life. We don’t need to choose suffering. Great suffering comes in different forms quite apart from any conscious decision to bring it on.

The better question is not whether or not we must suffer, but how do we respond and live in the midst of our suffering. That is the question of faith.

No doubt, Harry Truman had experienced some significant losses in the years leading to the eruption of Mount Saint Helens. No doubt at age eighty-three, his physical capacities were failing. He had lost his spouse. He had broken his leg. He was coming up against his very sure limitations. And, likely, grieving in his own way the passing of his event-filled and active life.

One can only have compassion on him.

The words of Isaiah are spoken to “those who are of a fearful heart.”[3]Ultimately, the war of all that divides and challenges us is waged on the battlefield of our own hearts. Any external fight on our hands is really a fight happening in our own hearts. Do you fight against a circumstance beyond your control? Are you so terrified that you can’t even speak of it?

At the centre of that odd, out-of-place verse is a word I do not like much: “vengeance” (in Hebrew, naqam), because I struggle to link this promise with Gospel good-news.

And then I came across what Biblical scholar Hendrik Peels showed about this word, naqam, in the Bible. This word refers to a retribution by a legitimate authority. And especially in this text from Isaiah, the emphasis is a retribution that brings liberation to those who are oppressed, and freedom from a situation or need. Its meaning is closer to a restoration rather than to vengeance of any kind.[4]

We tend, naturally, first to react to our fears by targeting some outside source. We blame others, when all along we hold the source of our trouble in our own hearts by refusing to examine our attachments and address our own sense of loss and fear.

It’s not easy to learn how best to let go at the endings of our lives. Most of us, unfortunately, confront these deeper questions and challenges at the end of our lives when we face a critical crisis: our health fails and all that we have been attached to in life we lose, suddenly.

We can do ourselves a favour. But it takes exercise, and some pain during the course of our lives when we are not yet at this life-ending crisis time. Learning to die before we die is the point. When we meet with common challenges of life – a physical move, a changed relationship, a job loss, a surgery, a life-changing experience, daily challenges – we can practice how to die to what has been (in the past) and welcome the feeling of terror about the unknown future. We learn how to surrender to what cannot be controlled; or, find the courage to throw off the weight of internalized oppression. This is all serious heavy-lifting.[5]

Following Jesus provides a way through, so we don’t get stuck in despair or denial. The wisdom of the inspired Word of God has something to say about this journey of heavy-lifting:

It is to turn to our neighbor and help them on their journey. It is seeing with the mind’s eye and the heart’s passion that we share a common humanity with those who suffer, who are oppressed, who are vulnerable and needy. To look, and go, beyond ourselves. And not give up.

“Compassionate Justice” is therefore one of the four vision priorities of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC).[6]Of course, making statements and standing up in the public sphere for the sake of the poor, the newcomer, the homeless, creation, the marginalized and weak can get us into trouble. Of course, we can spare ourselves a lot of trouble by shutting our eyes to the suffering.

But our closed eyes will also shut out God. The Word is spoken, indeed, to “those with fearful hearts”. To those who need to listen. And do something.

I’ve never met Harry Truman. I didn’t know him, personally. I didn’t know his family, his community, or his religious background.

But I wonder – what would have been in the last years of his life especially if someone he respected and trusted leant him an ear more than once-in-a-while.

What would it have been, if a friend offered to shovel the snow from the roof of his lodge.

What would it have been like, if family or friends showed him unconditional, loving attention despite his bravado and curmudgeonly behaviour.

I wonder if his ending could have somehow been less violent, less tragic.

Our hearts may be fearful. And yet hearts also race in expectation of something good. Something better. Hearts race in hope.

And hope never fails.

God of compassion and justice, bring justice to those who hunger for bread. And give a hunger for justice to those who have bread. Amen.

 

[1]Atul Gwande, “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” (Anchor Canada, 2017), p.66-67.

[2]Isaiah 35:4-7a, Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 16B

[3]Isaiah 35:4

[4]Hendrik G. L. Peels, The Meaning of the Root NQM and the Function of the NQM-Texts in the Context of Divine Revelation in the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 265-66.

[5]Brie Stoner, A Reflection: Into the Deep End in The Mendicant Volume 8 Number 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation, Summer 2018).

[6]http://www.elcic.ca

A meaningful religion

I like how Richard Rohr distinguishes between religion and spirituality. In his short, concise and excellent book “Dancing Standing Still” in which he relates prayer to justice, he writes that religion is for folks who fear hell, while spirituality is for those who have gone (or, are going) through hell.

Religion is for those who fear hell …. whether that be some notion of eternal damnation, financial ruin, making moral mistakes, earthly tragedy and accident … you name it. Basically, religion placates, and enables, fearful living. As if we can somehow avoid all of the above on the journey of life.

Spirituality, on the other hand, is for those who have gone, or are going through, hell. People who have experienced profound suffering — physically, mentally, socially and even religiously. Spirituality is for those who are aware of their own poverty, who have failed time and time again, who know their sin, who struggle honestly in the truth of their brokenness — materially and internally.

Just read the story from Luke 18:9-14 for a good biblical example showing the contrast between the two stances and their implications.

Where today do you find yourself are on the spectrum between religion on the one hand, and spirituality on the other? What do you like most about your religious, or spiritual, practice? What does it do for you?

How can religion (any religion) become more attentive to a growing number of people who are seeking a more meaningful spirituality despite their particular religious background?

The will of God – creation,incarnation,passion – March 25

In both Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ and, more recently, Mark Burnett’s ‘The Bible’, the devil stands by watching Jesus’ moments of agony.

Contemporary Jesuit writer, James Martin, SJ, describes three temptations facing Jesus during his Passion: The temptation of accommodation; the temptation of annihilation, and the temptation of abandonment.[1]

Jesus could have accommodated his opposition by not offending his listeners and telling them what they wanted to hear thereby avoiding his fate. When the Pharisees tested him time after time, Jesus could have appeased them.[2] But he didn’t.

Jesus could also have simply wiped out/annihilated his opponents by rallying the rebellious Jews against the Roman oppressors. Moreover, he could have called on divine power to protect him through force and violence.[3] But he didn’t.

Finally, Jesus could have left his ministry behind and the life God chose for him – abandoned it – in favor of a more conventional life. He could have settled down in the quiet sea-side town of Capernaum and taken on his earthly father’s carpentry business. But he didn’t.

Instead of doing all these things, he chose the path of surrendering to what came before him. He remained true to himself and his path.

Jesus chose the path of love and obedience. Jesus understood that the only way for God to fully embrace the human life and therefore the only way for God to love us, was the path of suffering and death. How did he come to align his will with God’s will? In the garden of Gethsemane, he prayed, “Not my will, but thy will be done.”[4] He prayed this as an affirmation that his deepest desires aligned with God’s purposes. “With you, all things are possible,” he prayed in his hour of anguish.

Indeed, what is God’s will? How do we discern God’s will for our lives? And when we are faced with the right path to follow, are we not also tempted to accommodate, to annihilate or to abandon? Early Christians, even before they were identified as such, were called, “Followers of the Way”, or “People of the Way”.[5] Jesus said, “I am the Way, the truth and the life…”[6]

This is the path of Jesus that we follow – a path that does not accommodate, annihilate nor avoid the reality of situation on the way to new life and resurrection. Life and death, light and dark, suffering and healing – the opposites are not excluded nor denied in the life of discipleship. It’s more both/and, than either/or.

March 25th is a significant date in Christian tradition, did you know? What we realize on the Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday is a liturgical convergence, an integration of meaning in the events of Holy Week, rather than a dissection and deconstruction into separate parts.

Some Christian denominations on March 25 celebrate the Annunciation – the day the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was pregnant with the Holy Spirit – nine months before Christmas Day. It is also the day ancient Christian believed Jesus was crucified. Finally, while now the calendar puts it on March 21, this time was associated with the creation of the world, on the Spring Equinox, the day when the day is divided equally between light and dark.

Creation, Incarnation (Christmas) and Passion (Crucifixion) – all collapse and converge on this day in Christian tradition.[7] The larger purpose of God come together to offer significant meaning on this one day: We recall the separation of day and night in Genesis during creation; the entering of God into the world in the person of Jesus; and, finally, the passion of Jesus brings to concrete and vivid reality the cross as the way to resurrection.

We live as we worship, and worship as we live.

Amidst the collisions of light and dark, hope and despair, love and suffering in our own lives, how do we discern God’s will for our lives? What are we supposed to do? Often when we ask these questions we assume that we have to figure it out. As if God’s will exists somewhere out there, detached or opposed to us, like clues we have to solve and decipher – a problem or mystery.

And yet, Christians have for centuries believed that God’s will was discerned within their  very own lives. Our own desires help reveal God’s desires for us. We look for signs of those desires in our own lives.[8] From ancient days, the Psalmist prayed: “May God grant you your heart’s desire and fulfill your plans.”[9]

Here are some pointers:

  1. Sometimes an obligation is an obligation, and you need to do it in order to be a good and moral person. But be careful your life is not simply one in which you only respond to shoulds or pushes that may not be coming from God. “When you feel pushed to do something – I should do this, I should do that – out of a sense of crushing and lifeless obligation or a desire to please everyone, it may not be coming from God.”[10] God’s ‘pulls’ are gentle invitations that beckon in love – that do not accommodate, annihilate nor abandon the reality you face.
  2. The desires of our heart are not the surface pushes and pulls of wishes and wants, neither are they tied to our compulsive, impulsive selves. The desires of our hearts are discovered deep within us. When getting water from the lake or river into a jar, we need to let all the sediment – twigs, leaves, sand – settle to the bottom. We can’t examine or use it right away. Even just waiting for a few minutes is really not good enough. We have to wait a good day, leaving it alone, still. Then, the water is at its best. Truly, it is the best of ourselves that will reveal our truest and deepest desires.
  3. Finally, the desires of our hearts as the way to discerning God’s will for us, are realized in the most ordinary tasks of the day. What God wills for us is presented in the problems, situations, people and events of our daily lives. God’s will for us is not found in any abstract principle disconnected from the reality of our simple, ordinary lives. If you want to find God’s will and God’s path for your life, start with the realities of your day-to-day, and discover the path of love and attention within the specifics of every moment you face.

Pray for what you desire, as the way of discovering God’s will for your life. Your will and God’s will may very well be closer than you imagined. When we follow in the Way of Christ, we discover that God is Immanuel – God is with us.

 

[1] James Martin, SJ, “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything; A Spirituality for Real Life” (New York: HarperCollins, 2010) p.299.

[2] Matthew 22:15-22; John 2:13-22

[3] John 18:36; Luke 23:39

[4] Mark 14:36

[5] Acts 24:14.

[6] John 14:6

[7] Beth Bevis in Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe, eds., “God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter” (Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2015), p.155-157.

[8] James Martin, SJ, ibid., p.279-283.

[9] Psalms 20:4

[10] James Martin SJ, ibid., p.329.

The Passion of Christ – a Good Friday sermon

The heaviness of it all weighs on our souls. Good Friday is a sombre day. The tormented images of the torture and death of anyone, let alone Jesus Son of God, flash across our minds-eye in the hearing of the texts describing the Passion of Christ.

We hear the lament from Isaiah’s poetry known as the Suffering Servant poems. If we let it, Good Friday pierces our denial of suffering and death. And we face squarely the reality of the situation. The very word, “Passion”, is from the Latin, one meaning of which is suffering.

If you, like me, have watched some contemporary video portrayals of Jesus’ Passion, probably the foremost image is the bloodiness of it all. Not only do we see the violence of the Jewish rebellion heating up during the Passover in Jerusalem, but we are intimately involved in the trial and torture of Jesus – beginning with the bloody cutting off of the servant’s ear in the Garden, to the whipping, flaying, kicking, slapping and piercing in Jesus’ torture while being held in Roman custody.

If that is not enough, we shiver at the pounding of the nails into his hands and feet, see the blood and water gush out of his side when the sword strikes him. Watch as blood trickles over his bruised face from the crown of thorns. Blood all over.

Blood all over. The blood of Christ given for you.

Suffering, Passion, is a great letting go. And acceptance of Christ suffering, even for us, is a great letting go. We cannot possess the gift of life. We cannot own or control this gift for us.

“For three days, the child bled profusely from the nose. She was six years old, and doctors had no idea what was causing the bleeding. What’s more, they understood that if the bleeding didn’t stop, her life was in grave danger.

“The year was 1913. The doctors knew little about transfusion, but they understood the importance of somehow getting good new blood back into the little girl’s system, so they asked her father, a preacher, to give his daughter some of his. He did, one of the first blood transfusions in the state of Michigan.

“The yellowed newspaper story is titled ‘Minister Saves the Life of Daughter By Giving Blood’, and ends by explaining how the father ‘was considerably improved and was able to dress.’ Then it adds, ‘The child was also considerably better and hopes are entertained for her recovery.’

“Two weeks later she was dead. Little Agnes Gertrude … succumbed once the hemorrhaging returned. For a time her father’s blood had brightened her face and her possibilities, but his gift – as unusual and strange to the newspaper readers as it must have been to him – wasn’t enough to save her life.

“Doctors knew very little, back then, about blood-typing. Her father … was as good as choice as the doctors could have made, but what coursed in his veins was not a match. Agnes Gertrude … died two weeks after that strange new procedure the doctors called ‘a transfusion.’

“Her father, a man of God, lay face down on the rug of the living room for almost a week after Agnes’ death, unable to move. Who could blame him – for an entire afternoon, he lay there beside his little girl, his blood flowing into her veins. He was lost in profound grief, was lethargic, depressed, his whole countenance darkened by the death of his child.

“Nothing changed … until he accepted a call to another congregation, a small country church up north. He and his family rode in a horse-drawn wagon up to that country church, their possessions packed up behind them. And there being greeted by the entire congregation there on the lawn, all of them waiting for the new preacher and his family.”[1]

The blood of Christ shed for you. Still, a mystery. Source of life. Beyond comprehension. The blood of Christ shed for you.

We hear these words during the Eucharist, Holy Communion. The word, Eucharist, from Greek, means “Thanksgiving”. Martin Luther, the great reformer, insisted that this sacrament is centrally about the gift of God, in Christ Jesus. The Holy Communion is God’s gift in Christ to us.

This, in contrast, to his contemporaries many of whom insisted that the sacrament of the table was more about what we humans must do to make sacrifice in order to appease God. Instead of making Holy Communion about what we must do for God, Luther preached that the Eucharist was what God does for us. It is a gift.

And a gift we cannot control, manipulate, engineer, manage. Only receive in thanksgiving.

On Good Friday, significantly, we abstain from the Holy Communion. It is one of the only days in the church year that calls for us to withhold collectively this gift. It, in our tradition, is the climax of the Lenten fast, the discipline to ‘do without’ and ‘let go’ and ‘surrender’ our claim on the gift. After all, we do not control God. God is free. And God gives what God will. When God wills. We are not in the driver’s seat of life and death.

Part of our lament, and suffering prayer, is to recognize that we are finite human beings, that we cannot do it alone. And can’t ever get it right. On this heavy day, the low point you might say of the Lenten journey, we put our ultimate trust and hope in God’s promise. As Jesus trusted his Father to the bitter end, we follow in his way, trusting that death has not the last word.

The blood of Christ shed for you.

Christ bled in his suffering, death and burial for three days. But God has other plans. The other meaning of the word “Passion” of course is love. Great suffering and great love. The Passion of Christ is ultimately about God’s great love for Jesus and for us. That is why God gives the gift of life to us. Love.

We will once again feast on the gift of life in Christ’s blood coursing through our veins. We will be transfused again with the life-giving spirit of God. It will be a perfect match! And our lament can become a song of praise and hope, bringing us home at last, as to a lawn on a bright day full of smiling people who open their loving arms.

 

[1] James Schaap, in Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe, eds., “God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter” (Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2015), p.119-121.

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.

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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.

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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.

The hide-and-seek God

There is enough in the world today and in our own lives to seriously doubt the presence of a God, let alone a God who cares about what happens on earth.

“Where is God?” is a question that is emerging in our understanding of God in the modern era. It is a question, Diana Butler Bass asserts, that is growing in sad frequency in recent years:

“’Where is God?’” she writes, “arose from the rubble of the World Trade Center; from the inundated villages of tsunami-ravaged Thailand and Indonesia; from New Orleans, as the levees breaking swept all that was familiar out to sea; from African hamlets where the dead mount from Ebola; from the hidden, abused, and lost victims of human trafficking and slavery; from killing fields in any number of nations where war seems endless; and from native peoples watching their homelands sink into the earth or ocean due to melting tundra or rising seas.

“‘Where is God?’ has echoed from every corner of the planet in recent years… ‘Where is God’ is one of the most consequential questions of our times.”[1]

“The Jewish tradition tells a story of a rabbi whose young son once came running to him, crying inconsolably. Between huge sobs, he managed to say, ‘Father, I’ve been playing hide-and-seek with the other children. It came my turn to hide, but after I found a good place, I sat there in the woods for hours waiting for the others to find me. No one ever yelled into the woods to tell me to come out. They just left me there alone.’

“His father put his arms around the child and held him close, rocking him back and forth. ‘Ah, my son,’ he said, ‘that’s how it is with God, too. God is always hiding, hoping that people will come to look for him. But no one wants to play. He’s always left alone, wanting to be found, hoping someone will come. But crying because no one seeks him out.’”[2]

The very first words of God recorded in the Bible to human beings are: “Where are you?”[3] Adam and Eve seem to be looking for God in the wrong places in the Garden of Eden. I hear a tone of exasperated grief in God’s call to Adam and Eve: “Where are you?”

Why does God appear to disappear from our vision, when the going gets tough? Theologians have described God through the centuries as a God who hides.[4] Why is God a hidden God? Not to mention, a God who cries because no one is out looking for this God?

Such a vulnerable vision of God disturbs us to the core. We would rather have a powerful, mighty, superman vision of God. We want a God who will win on the battlefield, stand victorious over all enemies of the faith, triumph over all our adversaries, and solve all our problems in life. Indeed, when we meet with suffering, disappointment and despair in life – as we most surely do and will – our prayer to God resonates with Isaiah’s:

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”[5]

And so, when the Israelites return from exile in Babylon in 586 B.C.E. to a ravaged and desolate Jerusalem, they are at a loss. Ruins and devastation lie where once a mighty temple stood.

Isaiah reflects the mood of the people in his lament to God, a prayer that echoes on our lips today: Why, O God, are you now not visibly nor powerfully present as you once were long ago? Why, O God, do you refuse to act powerfully and dramatically to rescue us from our distress? How can we reconcile the ancient, miraculous stories of your powerful presence with our current experience of your absence?

God hides, so to speak, in order to deconstruct a distorted set of beliefs about who God is. When God enters our humanity as a vulnerable, dependent baby born to teenage parents in a backwater town served by the likes of the low-class shepherds, God declares who God is. The hiddenness of God is not a cloak of humility temporarily covering an awesome powerful glory – a kind of Clark Kent/Superman act.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed more than his wit last month on Parliament Hill when he unbuttoned his shirt in front of reporters exposing his Halloween costume underneath. He suggested a powerful image reflective of our belief and image of God.

So God hides to reveal the true, divine character. God is determined to relate to the world not as a superhero through domination and force. Instead, God is determined, even in our experience of God’s hiddenness, to demonstrate God’s way of non-coercive love and suffering service.

Listen to this rendition of hide-and-seek told reflectively by Belden Lane:

“When my daughter was very young, one of her favorite tricks in playing hide-and-seek was to pretend that she had run away to hide, and then to come sneaking back beside me while I was still counting – my eyes shut tight. She breathed as silently as she could, standing inches away, hoping I couldn’t hear. Then she’d take the greatest delight in reaching out to touch home base as soon as I opened my eyes and began to search for someone who’d never even left.

“She was cheating, of course, and though I don’t know why, I always let her get away with it. Was it because I longed so much for those few moments when we stood close together, pretending not to hear or be heard, caught up in a game that for an instant dissolved the distance between parent and child, that set us free to touch and seek and find each other? It was a simple, almost negligible act of grace, my not letting on that I knew she was there. Yet I suspect that in that one act my child may have mirrored God for me better than in any other way I’ve known.

Still to this day, it seems, God is for me a seven-year-old daughter, slipping back across the grass, holding her breath in check, wanting once again to surprise me with a presence closer than I ever expected. “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself,” the prophet Isaiah declared.[6] A playfulness as well as a dark mystery lies richly intertwined in that grand and complex truth.[7]

“Where is God?” Maybe God is right beside us. And if we can’t see, feel, or hear God’s presence, may this Advent Season of preparation and waiting and watching be dedicated to keep looking for God in our lives, who may very well be standing inches away.

“Keep calm, and keep looking” should be on a t-shirt worn by Christians in Advent. Because hidden amidst the décor, bustle and busyness of this season, you will find Jesus. This season of preparation is best served by slowing down, breathing and paying attention. Do you see? Do you perceive God?

Antoine de Saint-Exupery writes of waiting one night for a late flight to depart from a remote landing field in the Sahara desert. Feeling vaguely uneasy as he walked out into the desert air, he heard dragonflies striking their wings against an oil lamp nearby.

Back home in France, the flight of moths around a candle flame at night would have been perfectly common. No big deal. But in the desert the sudden presence of insects meant something entirely different. Swept hundreds of miles from their inland oases, the presence of dragonflies were clear signs of impending danger: A savage sandstorm was on its way, sweeping every living things before it.

Saint-Exupery was grateful for the warning that had come. But he was moved even more by the powerful experience of having been attentive: “What filled me with a barbaric joy was that I had understood a murmured monosyllabic of this secret language, had sniffed the air and known what was coming … it was that I had been able to read the anger of the desert in the beating of a dragonfly.”[8]

“Keep awake!” are Jesus’ words to his disciples, and the call sign for Advent. Keep calm and pay attention. Keep looking for the God who may not be hidden in our expectations of grandeur and spectacle. But in the beating of a bird’s wings.

God’s refusal to replicate a mighty Red Sea –dividing deliverance when Isaiah laments centuries later does not mean God has abandoned Israel, nor us. God’s mode of action looks more like that of an artist or parent than that of the superhero. Both the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah use the image of God as the potter and we the clay.[9]

God, hidden in human form, comes not to inaugurate an apocalyptic cleansing of spectacular proportions. But God comes to reveal the power of the powerless in Jesus of the manger and Jesus on the cross. In so doing, Christ reveals the will of God, who is eternally and patiently molding and shaping the clay of creation into the New Jerusalem.

[1] Diana Butler Bass, “Finding God in the World: A Spiritual Revolution” (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2017), p.7-8

[2] Belden C. Lane – “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality” (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.180 – cites Jerome R. Mintz in “Legends of Hassidim (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), p.344

[3] Genesis 3:9

[4] Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer both describe God as ‘hidden’. See Scott Bader-Saye in “Feasting on the Word”, ibid., p.2-6; and, “Luther’s Works” edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1964) Volume 4: Lectures on Genesis, chaps 21-25, p.115-122

[5] Isaiah 64:1-2

[6] Isaiah 45:15, KJV

[7] Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.181

[8] Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “Wind, Sand and Stars” (Toronto: Penguin Books, 2000), p.52-53; cited in Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.190

[9] Isaiah 64:8; Jeremiah 18

Surprise ending

The Arnprior Rapids were destined to lose. If you asked me, midseason, to write the history of the 2017 Fall season of the Lanark-Renfrew Highschool Football League, it would sound completely different than it actually turned out in the end.

After playing five games, the Rapid’s opponent, the Almonte Thunderbolts, was undefeated. What is more, in all their games they did not have one single point scored against them. They were that good. By all counts, they were destined to be the League’s champion.

When a couple of weeks ago Almonte faced its arch rival and 2nd place Arnprior Rapids in the final championship game, many – even the players themselves deep down – felt this was a pointless exercise. Why bother even playing the game? Because the last time these two teams clashed Almonte thrashed Arnprior 40-0. And the time before that, 24-0.

So, you tell me. What will the history books have said about the outcome?

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These kids are learning an important life skill. Because as is often the case throughout life when things happen, it is easy to focus on what is wrong, what seems impossible, what appears a waste of time and energy. And give up.

Over the past several weeks, we have been reading some parables of Jesus recorded in the latter chapters of the Gospel of Matthew.[1]

These apocalyptic[2] parables sound somewhat harsh towards the human project: It seems human beings cannot help but eventually get it all wrong, whether it be the wicked tenants, the foolish bridesmaids or, as in today’s parable, the fearful investor.[3]

What is more, you get the feeling that the line between doing the right thing and the wrong thing is awfully thin. Even those that do get it right in Jesus’ telling are not that much different from those who get it all wrong – those who are doomed to the hell fires “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”[4] In short, there is a heavy, dark pall of negativity hanging over these stories.

It’s hard to remain enthusiastic about a life of faith when presented with these doom-and-gloom scenarios. It’s easier to become more fearful than hopeful.

When reading from this section in Matthew, I think we need to be mindful of the context of Jesus’ storytelling. We need to remember that Jesus told these stories while he was heading right into the middle of his own personal, high-risk venture, which led to arrest, torture, suffering and horrible death.

That is, he had decided to leave the relative safety of rural Galilee and head to Jerusalem, the capital city, where the authorities would regard Jesus as “a threat to the status quo and their own power.” The Romans would regard him as a “disturber of the peace” and condemn him to capital punishment on the Cross.[5]

We have the benefit of hindsight to help us better interpret these challenging parables. That is, because of the new life given to Jesus on Easter morning, we can now believe in resurrection, which is the end game of all of history. The benefit of Christ-faith is the hope and promise we discover on the other side of risk-taking, of losing, of failing and of taking responsibility. All the things that make us human.

Despite what may look impossible, a sure failure, a likely defeat and a waste of time and energy, this parable today encourages us to take heart and simply put our gifts, our talents on the line.

The sin described here is the sin of not risking anything, of not caring, not investing, of playing it safe and being overly cautious with what we have been given.

Whatever we have, “each according to their ability”[6], even if it’s only one, measly, tiny “talent” – when we risk giving it away to the world, allowing it to engage the world with positive intent, only then can good things happen. There are no guarantees good things will happen. But then again, we wouldn’t know unless we try. And take the risk.

But it’s well worth it! Because one talent is neither measly, neither is it tiny. One talent, according to some interpreters, was worth fifteen years wages or $1.25 million in today’s valuation. Just imagine the wealth of the entire property of the master who was placing it all in the care of his stewards.

Let’s take that to be God and us. When we can first appreciate all that wealth and riches that God has given us, and can begin to acknowledge the great faithfulness of God to entrust all that is God’s to us … now that’s something special about the God we worship. What a great joy! What a great responsibility!

In the end, this parable is not about money, essentially. Because even if the first two stewards who invested the little that was given them lost all that they invested on the market, Jesus would still have applauded them for trying. The attitude of risk-taking and putting it all on the line is the important thing, not the results of their monetary investment.

And then, when you try despite the odds stacked against you, you never know. How resurrection happens, and when, in the context of our own lives, will be a surprise.

When the Arnprior Rapids faced off against their arch rivals, the Almonte Thunderbolts in the Lanark-Renfrew Highschool Football League championship game, it was truly a David and Goliath show-down. The end looked bleak for Arnprior.

By all counts, Almonte should have won that game.

But, life is full of surprises. God is full of surprises. We can never know for sure what unexpected things await us when we put ourselves out there and invest our gifts on the playing field of life.

Not only did Arnprior score two touchdowns in the game – thus breaking Almonte’s bid for a clean sheet season – Arnprior did not allow a single point scored against them.

History is being written anew.

[1] Matthew 25:1-13, Matthew 22:1-14, Matthew 21:33-46; a parable is simply a fictional story Jesus tells to reflect some truth

[2] when the ‘end time’ promises of God are fulfilled

[3] Matthew 25:14-30

[4] Matthew 25:30

[5] John M. Buchanan in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 4” (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.308

[6] Matthew 25:15

God-talk

Last week in the Canadian Football League (CFL), Ottawa RedBlacks receiver Diontae Spencer set a CFL record in a game against the Hamilton Ticats for most overall yardage gained — just under 500 — in one game. His incredible feat was truly remarkable in a game where his team didn’t score any points in the first quarter.

When asked afterwards about his record-setting accomplishment, Spencer mentioned God several times. He emphasized that the praise was ultimately for God. He couldn’t have succeeded along with his team in that game without God. God was the reason and source of his victory.

Such a witness gets a lot of mileage, especially on national TV covering a professional sports league in Canada. It is true: the public, general impression of Christians is their often-exuberant witness to an all-powerful, almighty God who authors and reflects anything and everything that is glorious, successful, impressive and spectacular. This is the dominant belief and main flavour of the kind of God-talk in the public arena when it comes to Christian witness.

Years ago, a parishioner in a former parish declined my invitation to her to give a testimony of faith during a mid-week Lenten program. I knew she was struggling with some personal challenges at the time. When I asked her why she said no, especially as I recognized in her the strong gift of faith, she said she wanted to wait until things were going better in her life before sharing her faith.

While I understood her reasoning, and was mindful of the delicate situation in her life, I wondered to myself if her attitude didn’t reflect a more general disposition among Christians today. As if you could only give public testimony of faith when you could talk about how good your life was. As if you could only give public testimony of faith when you could point to external circumstances that were favourable, impressive, even enviable.

After all, how could you get up in front of people and talk about God when all was not well in your life? How could you talk about God if you had nothing impressive to show for it? More to the point, would you be giving faithful testimony to God if everything in your life was broken, damaged, failed?

Is God only mentioned when humans achieve something great? Is God only a God who wins contests on the football field and battlefield of life? Can God be talked about only among folks who have succeeded and are healthy and rich? Only when things are going super well?

Or, could God also be present and real to us when we fail, when we are down, when we lose our earthly battles? It seems to me Christians call themselves Christian because we follow the way of Christ. And so, don’t we believe in the God of the Cross? God, by all human standards, failed — being branded public enemy number one and condemned to death. Jesus’ broken body is the iconic symbol for Christians. It is precisely in the suffering of life where God finds us.

On this All Saints Sunday, we understandably focus on what human beings have accomplished: the saints on earth and the saints in heaven. Blessed are those who demonstrate the qualities we read in the Beatitudes[1] — the Gospel text for this festival in the church calendar.

“Blessed” is not the word we might associate with being poor, persecuted peacemakers especially if we use the often-translated English word, “Happy”. I prefer the translation of the first word in the Psalms[2] also often translated to “Happy are they …”:

The Hebrew word here is ‘ashar, which means, literally, “to find the right road.” So, in providing the first beatitude, Jesus is saying: “You are on the right road when you are poor in spirit.”[3] I prefer this translation because it implies a direction rather than a moral state.

Should we take these beatitudes as moral rules for living, as with the Law, we can never fulfill it perfectly. And therefore, we can easily despair and give up. Being on the way, however, gives the long view and big picture. It implies the need for trusting that we are headed in the right direction even if the present circumstances in our lives suggest otherwise.

What is more, as much as we want to make the Beatitudes into the Ten (or rather, Nine) Commandments of the New Testament, this speech from Jesus — given at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel — is not primarily about ‘rules for moral behaviour’ as it is facts about God. These Beatitudes really and fundamentally describe God.

Matthew’s narrative builds towards this awareness, if you can appreciate the classic reversal that Matthew sets up in the first five chapters of his Gospel:

In the first chapter, Matthew’ genealogy firmly plants Jesus “the Messiah” in the lineage of the great Israelite King David. In the second chapter, exotic magi from the East come to pay homage to the newborn king. In the third chapter, King Herod takes seriously this threat to his power and tries to eliminate a contestant to his throne by killing innocent, Hebrew two-year-old boys in Bethlehem. Then, John the Baptist comes on the scene, announcing that he was making way for one who was greater than he. Finally, Matthew has Jesus ascend a mountain where he, like his predecessor Moses, would dispense the Word of God and give his inaugural address.[4]

You can see the build-up, I hope, of an expectation that Jesus would come to bring justice to the wicked and set things right. He, the Messiah, would turn back Roman oppression and occupation of Palestine. But, these words from Jesus’ mouth announcing who is “blessed” pull the rug from under our expectations of who God is. “The one who was supposed to lead revolutionary armies or bring down heavenly fire shows up in Galilee building hospitals and telling people not to hit back.”[5]

Can you imagine the surprise and shock among his disciples! Even the imprisoned John the Baptist does a double-take on his faith and later questions Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we keep looking?”[6] It is no wonder, then, that Peter later rebukes Jesus when he talks of his impending death: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”[7]

These beatitudes must have seriously disappointed his listeners and most ardent followers who had such ‘high’ expectations of their would-be Messiah King. How could they now continue following this man?

Is the reason why we may have trouble conforming our lives to the way described in the beatitudes is that we really don’t believe in these words as giving an accurate and trustworthy understanding of God? This is, after all, Jesus, who we know was persecuted and reviled as the prophets were before him.[8]

Do we believe in a God who chooses to be revealed in human flesh, born a vulnerable baby to a teenage couple? Do we believe in a God who chooses to be revealed dying a grotesque and brutal death on a cross showing the world a bruised, beaten, broken and bloody body?

If we did, perhaps we would hear more from the losers in our society. Perhaps TSN would hear the faithful witness of locker room players talking of a God who knows how it is to lose a big game and still keep faith. Perhaps we would hear more from street people, addicts and the impoverished, vulnerable people talk of their simple yet honest faith in a God who walks with them. Perhaps we would hear more from children declare their love of a playful God who carries our burdens for us, freeing us to be who and how we are without judgement and punishment.

Perhaps we would listen more to the murmurs of our own hearts whisper the love of God for us especially when we suffer the turmoil of life. Then, I gather, the world will open its eyes to the God of grace and love.

Because they will see people who live in hope. They will see people who know they have found the right road where they find God most present in helping people who suffer loss and pain, a road on which Jesus has walked himself, a road upon which God will always first find us.

 

[1] Matthew 5:1-12, NRSV

[2] Psalm 1:1, NRSV

[3] Earl F. Palmer in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A, Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.238

[4] Allen Hilton in ibid., p.239

[5] ibid., p.239

[6] Matthew 11:3

[7] Matthew 16:22

[8] Matthew 5:11-12

To see beyond, and go deep

“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)

We had a problem. In this perfectly finished renovation, something was not right. The microphone jack, on the floor in front of the pulpit here, was not working.

2_Power

How could this be? Everything was designed and installed as it should be. And yet, something had gone awry. The prognosis was not good. How could it be fixed, without tearing up the carpet, pulling off the baseboard and cutting into the drywall to find out exactly where the wire was shorting out?

For this problem to present months and years from now would be one thing. But to discover this problem in the first week or so back into our ‘new’ space. Uh-oh.

And yet, as you can see and hopefully hear today, it is working. And, as you can see, the carpet has not been ripped and there are no pieces of drywall cut and patched up. How was this problem solved? How were we saved from doom and destruction?

I will say this: For Brian who discovered the problem, it caused him some serious stress, at first. ‘Despair’ might be a word that comes close to describing his feeling, for someone who had already spent hours and hours of his time and energy and resources in the entire renovation project over the last several months.

All that you can see now is a tiny hole on the baseboard no larger than the size of a dime, just above the carpet line on the other side of the chancel. That’s all. A tiny hole, that doesn’t really reveal the depth and breadth of how the problem was solved.

4_TheCulprit

Apparently, a finishing nail had been shot into the wire from outside during the renovation. Unbeknownst to the worker strapping on the the siding, one of the nails embedded into the wire, thus shorting it out. It was, for Brian, a question of finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.

He employed the material resources at his disposal and years of experience in engineering and computer sciences. He brought in an oscilloscope to measure the current, and his infra-red camera, which he ran along the presumed route of the hidden wire. These instruments disclosed an abnormal, irregular heat signature which spiked at the spot of the short-out. From there, it was merely the task to go in with surgical precision, and remove the offending nail. And voila! The microphone now works!

This is definitely a feel-good story with a good ending. Especially because at first, it didn’t look good. It would have been easy to give up, to remain in despair and not do anything about it. And live with, and remain stuck in, some unhappy, dysfunctional space.

The Gospel story about Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:5-42) has a feel-good ending, at least from the point of view of the woman. She starts by being defensive and confrontational — not seeing nor recognizing Jesus for who this man truly is. She leaves the encounter with Jesus, joyous, liberated, un-inhibited, free.

The story reveals God’s character in Jesus. To emphasize the point the Gospel writer John wishes to make about God’s character, John places this story immediately after Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in the previous chapter. Let’s compare briefly the two encounters:

For one thing, Nicodemus has a name. The woman is nameless. Nicodemus is a Pharisee and as such has status, authority and privilege in the social-religious culture of the day. The woman is a Samaritan with whom the Jewish authorities were in conflict. Nicodemus lived in a male-dominated society. The nameless, Samaritan woman is a nobody.

Jesus takes the initiative to cross the boundaries of geography, culture and prejudice to speak with the woman. And not only that, to draw from her the truth, and then empower her to be a missionary for the kingdom of God. The encounter with Jesus transforms her from a nobody to a somebody.

As the dialogue at the well comes to a close, the woman is filled with joy. She is so energized with passion and hope that she “left her water jar and went back into the city” (v.28). We now can see what is not immediately apparent. We can complete the sentence when the Samaritan woman exclaims: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done” … and loved me anyway! She does not say these last four words at the end of verse 29, but they are implicit in her action and in the joy with which she runs.

“Everything she ever did” is a long list of sins. It is always before her, in the judgemental expressions of her neighbours and in her mind for the rest of her life; she has had many husbands, and the one she is living with now is not. For Jesus to have intimate knowledge of that list and for him to know her past, and still love and forgive her — well that’s unbelievably new and fresh as anything she has ever heard. The man who told her everything she ever did … and loved her anyway … is what saves her life. (1)

A caution: Her sin is not the main point in the story. (2) While Jesus’ offer of forgiveness is implied in the dialogue, the text itself says nothing of any sin she has committed (as we see elsewhere in the Gospel, for example, John 8:1-11); nor does Jesus ever actually say words of forgiveness to her.

The focus here is not sin. It is rather in the character of God, and the liberating result of a gracious, truth telling encounter with Jesus. In that moment, the woman sees God. She receives Christ — and leaps up to tell.

Would you? When Paul talks about suffering in his letter to the Romans (cited above) he is encouraging the faithful to see beyond their present, often difficult circumstances to the hope we have in Christ. Indeed our society’s values can make us feel, and keep us trapped in believing, we are nothing:

If we don’t have significant financial resources stored away in investments, bank accounts and property; if we don’t have that ‘perfect’ life, secure in our fortress worlds of private privilege and comfort; if we don’t have the perfect-looking body, the disease-free physiology, the magnetic, people-pleasing personality; if we don’t have the high-paying job, the investment-rich retirement plan; if we don’t measure up … the list goes on. The values of society make us feel like nobody.

And yet, Christ comes to remind us that we have everything we need to get through it, and more! We just need to see beyond what is immediately apparent. Jesus breaks all those boundaries of division and exclusion, casting aside our pretence and our cloudy vision. Jesus doesn’t pay attention to what society says is valuable or not valuable. Jesus comes to each and every one of us and says: “Look deeper. I know everything there is about you, and I love you anyway!”

So, what do you have to lose? Take the risk, and do something to make things better in your life, and those around you. Make the hole in that spot you may not be sure about because it’s not visible on the surface of things. And then trust what God has given to you already — the resources at your disposal, the unique gift of your very life, your talents, treasures and time — is worthy of using! And go for it!

Because God will love you anyway.

 

1 — Anna Carter Florence in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds, “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year A Volume 2 (Lousville Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.97

2 — Karoline M. Lewis in ibid., p.95