A spirituality of fierce landscapes

The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. (Psalm 97:1-2)

Which is mountain? And which is cloud?

Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other. When cooler air temperatures carried by strong wind collide with a warm land mass in wide open, exposed landscapes, what we see is not always clear. The lines between the two are not certain.

I am reminded of Moses meeting God in a could atop Mount Sinai in the wilderness. I imagine the dove dropping from the heavens and God’s voice booming at Jesus’ baptism. I sympathize with the disciples seeing Jesus change before their very eyes atop the Mount of Transfiguration. Biblical stories of God colliding and communicating with creation and humanity in a volatile mix of potent energies, some clashing and some joining in a mysterious dance of meaning and purpose.

And we’re not always sure what to make of it. Can we trust what we see? Is our perspective clouded? What is real?

Mountains convey a sense of certitude and stability, a rock and fortress we can count on and lean on. What are the rocks in our lives? Those things, beliefs and people that anchor us in the construct of our lives?

Clouds are ethereal. We cannot grasp the cloud. It is there and yet it isn’t. It is not solid. It is a vapour that we can see, yes, but that which we cannot contain. A cloud is free to form and reform, free to move, free to be and not to be. After all, it belongs in the sky. What are the clouds in our lives? Events, circumstances and situations that have arisen quite outside the realm of our control, good and bad?

Then, as we reflect on the journey of our lives, with all the twists, turns and unexpected happenings, which has more sway in the course of our lives? The mountain? Or, the cloud?

While the mountains of our lives give us a sense of security and well-being, comfort and confidence — all important in life — what role do the clouds play? The bible shows that God speaks through the cloud, even when our main characters find themselves on top of the mountains! Despite all the securities we afford in our lives, those things we strive for to make us feel in control, God clouds those places.

Not that God is against those things, per se. But that the only way God can get into our hearts and bring meaningful change is from the cloud. An anonymous fourteenth century spiritual writer called her work, “The Cloud of Unknowing”, to talk about a way of prayer in which God encounters us in the depths of our hearts.

It may feel, at times, like we don’t know much. It may feel, in these out-of-our-control experiences of life, that we don’t know anything. And we ask, “Why me?”, and “Why this?”

It is in the cloud of our unknowing, nevertheless, where our re-birth and renewal begins. It is here, in the cloud, where all we need to do is not turn around and go home. In the cloud of unknowing, we must not give up. It is called faith.

Faith, to know, that in the fiercest landscapes of our lives where everything seems uncertain, there is hope. We are held in a greater, larger purpose of which we cannot see the whole, big picture right now. We are held in a loving Mystery. And that’s ok.

Because the very reason we can ask the questions, struggle in the uncertainties and take the next, tentative, step on the path is because the sun gives the light for all this to be possible in the first place.

Seeing Jesus

Jesus says, “the person who sees me and believes will be raised up” (John 6:40). 

If I polled the assembly gathered here this morning and asked you to raise your hand if you ‘believed in Jesus (or God)’, my guess is I would get a decent showing.

But if I asked you to put up your hand if you recently saw Jesus, I’m not sure I’d get the same kind of response. If you did raise your hand to that question I might look at you with some degree of skepticism. I might not take your statement at face value. I would want to ask you more questions. 

Seeing Jesus sounds like a conversation for the mystics and contemplatives. If our faith is limited merely to a conversation about the historical, biblical Jesus, we will be challenged at this point of acknowledging the living, immanent Jesus who is also always more — an unfolding Presence in the course of all history.

Where do we see Jesus? This is an important question. How can we see the living, resurrected Lord in the world and in our lives today? How can we account for the presence of Jesus?

There is the problem of sight. Here, Jesus obviously is not talking about physical vision. Otherwise why would he even say, “the person who sees me …”? Of course the people to whom he originally spoke these words standing on the sandy, rocky ground in first-century Palestine saw him. Jesus is talking more about a perception of the heart, mind and soul — an internal dynamic.

If you follow any of my social media sites online, you might have noticed there recently some sunset photos over Lake Huron where my family vacationed over the past couple of weeks. Aside from the inspiring sunsets, this is not what I remember the water to look like:

  
Normally, as I recall from my childhood summers spent on these shores, Lake Huron is fairly active. More days than not you would see a lot of wave action, and white caps carving up the horizon and rolling in over the surf. You would feel the constant high winds buffeting the tree-lined shore.

For the fourteen days we lived by the shore last month, however, the Lake was mostly calm. The water was placid, where there would be no more than a ripple on the surface and a splash on the shore line. In fact I would be hard pressed to say there was more than two days of wave action that came close to my childhood recollections. Needless to say, the quiet, peaceful waters made for much stress-free sea-kayaking and swimming along the coast.

  
At sunset most evenings we sat around the fire pit a stone’s throw from the shore, enjoying the very soft breezes and the relatively flat surface of the water.

And, if you watched the water, once in awhile you would see a large white fish breach the surface and flap it’s broad tail. The slapping sound often caught my attention if I wasn’t looking at the exact spot on the water. 

This sudden sound, amidst the relative quiet of the expansive scene of resting water, air and land before us, also caught the attention of the other members of my family (I would add, they were preoccupied by their hand held devices, swatting the bugs, and chatting incessantly with one another!). 

“What was that?” they looked up.

“Oh, a fish, jumping out of the water,” I responded.

“Cool! Where? Where? I wanna see!”

“Well, you need to be watching the water. Keep scanning the water up and down the shore line close to the edge.”

“I don’t see anything!”, one says, scratching another mosquito bite.

“You need to keep watching the water. There,” I point over the water toward the island, “there was another one!”

“Where?”

“Were you watching the water?”

“Uh, no.”

And on and on it went. I had a restful holiday. No, I did. Really!

The problem is not so much an incapacity to see. It is first to confess how distracted we are as a people in a culture that is impatient, anxious, that does not want to slow down, that keeps us from seeing what is already there. Perhaps Jesus is there for us to see. And we, like the Pharisees with whom Jesus often sparred, are “blind” to this truth. Jesus gives us precisely what we need to live, fully (Matthew 23; John 10:10). Do we not see it?

Before the cross became the central symbol of Christianity, the sign of the fish identified the early Christian movement. In fact, the cross was for centuries rejected by Christian who naturally recoiled at the thought of having an instrument of torture and capital punishment the central symbol of the faith. 

The fish was a symbol for Jesus Christ. Food. Like bread, fish gave faithful people ongoing strength, sustenance and nourishment for life. No wonder the miracle of multiplication of bread and fish became a popular Gospel story about Jesus feeding the multitude on a hillside in Galilee (Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, John 6).

The new logo of the Eastern Synod reflects this original, early Christian identification with fish:

  
In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John especially, Jesus compares himself to bread — bread that sustains us and feeds us everything we need. Everything. Not more. Not less. In the Old Testament, it was manna that God provided to the people in their desert wanderings. 

The desert was the place where the people had to learn to give up control, which is mostly what ‘making plans’ is all about. “Like us, the Hebrews weren’t initially too excited about all this vague mystery. The people didn’t just complain that they were out of food, they also began to romanticize about the good old days back in Egypt where they ate their fill of bread …

“God responded to the people’s anxiety about food in a very tangible way. He provided the daily blessing of bread from heaven called manna. It was a fine, flaky substance which appeared every morning. And it came with some instructions (Exodus 16:1-8). Every family had to gather their own. You couldn’t store it up or hoard it, or the worms would eat it. So you had to gather it every day, except on the sixth day of the week when you could gather an extra portion for the Sabbath. It wasn’t much — just enough to keep you going on the journey.

“All of these descriptions [like bread and fish] are wonderful metaphors for how God cares for us along the way in the desert journey: daily, tangibly, personally, and sufficiently, although never enough to remove our anxiety about tomorrow. We have to trust there will be more manna when we need it [emphasis mine].

“This is what Jesus had in mind in teaching us to pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. To pray those words is as if to say, ‘No matter how hard I try to secure my life with money, exercise, relationships, or work, I know that only you can give it to me. And you will do it one day at a time.

“The best reason for seeing the manna as a blessing [of Jesus’ presence, I might add] comes from its name. The literal translation of manna is ‘What is it?’ This means that every morning the people would go out and gather the ‘What is it?’ The mothers would prepare it as creatively as they could, which was tough because there was no ‘What is it?’ -helper. The family would sit at the table to eat. The kids would ask, ‘What is it?’ The mother would sigh and say, ‘Yes.’ They’d bow their heads and pray, ‘Thank you God for What is it?'” (Craig Barnes, Insights from the Desert, “Nurtured in Mystery” Shadyside Presbyterian Church, 2010)

What if we lived out of gratitude for what God has already given us? What if we made decisions — even small ones, each and every day — based on trust in Jesus being there for us, just beneath the surface of our lives? There for the watching. There for the catching and gathering. Grace and Gift, available to us. Before we even lift a finger.

Sunset twin

A reflection catches my eye.
Only through the lens of self awareness do I see what a horizon line differentiates and clarifies:
that both/and form the whole.
I am complete in the tension between opposing forces of good and bad within.
Not by extreme exclusion of one part of me
nor in pretentious loyalty to the good nor abject attachment to the bad.
But by embracing all that is me.
Both sides of the same coin.
Light in the shadow.
Setting and rising.

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End of day, hope of new

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Okay, it goes without saying — I love sunsets.

This one was taken at Andrew Haydon Park in Ottawa one day last week.

And here’s the question for contemplation: What ‘sacred cow’ in your own life (a belief, point of view, opinion, stance, habit, spiritual practice) needs to shift, or even go down with the setting sun?

Because we know that the only way we get to see the sun of the new, coming day happens when the sun of the old disappears from our view.

I’ve found Isaiah 43:18-19 a particularly challenging and comforting text on which to reflect while watching the setting sun.

Sunset and Sunrise of the Church

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Today I took this photo during sunset at Andrew Haydon Park, Ottawa.
I guess you can’t tell from the photo whether it’s a sunset or sunrise. Unless you know the spot personally.
A sunset and sunrise stand as good metaphors for the institutional church. For many reasons. The image is full of meaning.
I reflect on the need for the people of God to surrender and let go of the good old days; the need to open our hands and release all the sentiments associated with those glory, golden decades of the church during the 20th century. It is a dying of sorts because the new thing can’t happen until we lay all that was on altar.
That lament is what stirs in my soul as I watch yet another sunset.
But there is beauty and hope in the experience, too. Not only do I witness and surrender the passing of a wonderful day. As I walk to the parking lot in near darkness, my back to the darkening sky behind me and the ball of flaming red long gone, I know the sun will rise again in the dawning light in a few hours.
Sunset. Sunrise. The promise of the new awaits as I sneak a glance towards the eastern sky. A smile on my lips.
But first I will sleep, and let the Lord, God of heaven and earth work the miracle of new life, resurrection, while I rest in grace and in peace.

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I snapped this photo during a glorious sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in July 2011. The start of a new day, full of promise.
Behold, the light of the world has come, and darkness has not overcome it.

Is it the end of the church as we know it?

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I took this photo today looking west over the Madawaska River in Arnprior, Ontario. The steeple above the tree line belongs to Saint John Chrysostom Catholic Parish.

After spending several days at a Lutheran (ELCIC) church-wide meeting, I’m beginning to wonder if the sun is indeed setting on the institutional structures of the church as we have known it.

And I ponder this question: What kind of leadership will be needed to see the church into the new thing God is doing in the world today?

A Vague Spirituality? Lent 3-4B

At this time of year I often daydream about standing on a beach by the ocean or Great Lake. I can feel the warm sand squish in-between my toes as the waves lap onto the shore and rush up around my ankles. I take a deep breath of the breeze coming off the water, relishing the aquatic smell. I see the wide open sky and marvel at the brilliant colour display on God’s pallet of wispy clouds and wind-scapes high above me: the dark blue hues gently transforming into bright red, orange, yellow. All this wonder surrounds the giant orb of flaming majesty relenting and finally sinking beneath the pulsing horizon.

I take it all in. I feel full and vibrant with God’s presence. Are you with me? Isn’t that worship? I often feel God in those situations: Out in nature, out in the open, and often away from people and their noise.

And yet, despite the beautiful connection with God I feel watching a sunset, something is missing. Something about God and God’s purposes are lacking here. Is this the ultimate place for Christian worship?

My feeling of wonder, yet incompleteness, in my experience of God watching a sunset alone on a beach reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode from a couple of decades ago.

The story was about a man who loved to read, and believed himself superior to his fellow human beings. He rebuffed others’ attempts to get to know him and to get him to share his rather considerable knowledge. Then one day there was a nuclear war, and this man was the last human being left alive on the earth.

Rather than being devastated about this development, he was elated, and he hurried to the nearest library. There he found the building in ruins and thousands of books scattered on the ground. In great joy, he bent over to look at the first heap of them, and dropped his glasses in the rubble. The lenses shattered. 1.

Whatever meaning you derive from the disquieting ending, one thing is obvious: This man needed someone to fix his glasses. In a moment of horror he finally realizes that he cannot indulge in his gift, his passion, without the support of others.

The Twilight Zone episode highlights the delusion of independence and self-reliance. Because no matter how hard we try to dis-engage from others, we ultimately find ourselves wanting for meaningful community.

When we talk about a community, place is significant. The Lenten journey is about being somewhere, and sometimes even moving from one place to another. The physical location of our worship is important. Where do we find ourselves in Lent? On a beach? Watching a sunset? In a room by ourselves? Isolated from one another? Do we approach our weaknesses, our losses, our pain and suffering secluded?

Solitude, silence and stillness are certainly part of the spiritual journey, necessary for our health – spiritual, physical and emotional. But ultimately, the destination of our walk with God leads us beyond the self.

For Jesus, Jerusalem was the destination. For it was in Jerusalem where he found God’s purposes for him in his Passion and death on the Cross. As we approach Holy Week with Jesus, we’re headed to “Jerusalem”. And what do we find in Jerusalem? What physical structure stands at the centre of the social, religious and even economic activity of that great city?

From the middle of John chapter 2 (v.13) to the middle of chapter 3 (v.21), the action takes place in Jerusalem. And not just anywhere in Jerusalem, but in the temple: Jesus cleanses the temple; Jesus meets Nicodemus; Jesus preaches on the steps of the temple about the love of God for the whole world.

And in the midst of that speech, Jesus describes the temple of his body. In doing so, Jesus identifies himself with a concrete, physical reality. He offers his being as a gift to those of us who long for a sense of God’s presence.

But notice here: Not in a vague, amorphous, disembodied experience. Not in a “meeting-God-in-nature” sort of way, disconnected from the real, concrete structures of human social organization.

The Christian faith is a concrete, real, social religion. In the ancient world, the temple gave a real sense of community to a people who didn’t all live in the same place, scattered around the city, and countryside of Palestine.

In the poetry of the Hebrew Scriptures we often find this image of God drawing diverse peoples from the corners of the world. In the Psalm for Lent 4B, the Lord “gathered [people] in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Psalm 107:3; see also Isaiah 43:5-9). It is God’s work to draw people in to be together.

A vague, “meeting-God-in-nature” sort of spirituality doesn’t lead us into community. True Christian worship aims to overcome a sense of human fragmentation and isolation. We are not about a disembodied spirituality.

We are about the real, concrete presence of Jesus in bread and wine. We are about the real, concrete words of forgiveness spoken and heard in confession of sins and absolution.

As we are brought into relationship with God, we are brought into relationship with others. You can’t have one without the other. And that’s what I miss on the beach: While I indulge in moments of self-glory in the midst of God’s beautiful creation I miss something crucial to my faith – that wonderful experience means nothing if I don’t share it with someone, and if it doesn’t ultimately lead me back into my church community – to real flesh and blood.

It’s to this community where God’s Spirit draws me, where the steadfast love of God is offered and received, where God’s compassion is reflected in the lives of those who gather.

I soon leave this church community at Zion Pembroke to begin a new call serving Faith Lutheran Church in Ottawa. While the separation and distance will be real, there is also another reality we will continue to share: we still belong to the same God, and gratefully, the same church – the Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Every time we participate in the Sacrament — you, here and I, there — we will be connected in faith.

We will be in communion with one another not in a vague way, claiming some invisible, abstract unity in Christ. But I can say we belong to the same church because our congregations, in reality, are essentially the same: we share the same language, the same worship book, a similar understanding of sacramental practice and theological orientation, etc. In real, concrete ways, we still belong to the same body – the body of Christ – which is the church on earth.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

  1. The Twilight Zone episode, as recounted by Robert Moore & Douglas Gillette in King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991, p.114