Better together

The story is told of a wide-eyed enthusiast who visited Mother Theresa in Calcutta. Over the last century, Mother Theresa has been admired by Christians worldwide for her dedicated, self-giving work for the poorest of the poor in India.

The young man approached Mother Theresa and said, “You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to do what you do.”

Mother Theresa, not missing a beat, replied, “You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to do what I do either. I do this because I was made to do it.”

When we speak about the Holy Spirit in this season after Pentecost, we speak about the breath of God breathing in us. The Greek word for “spirit” is pneuma, which means “breath.” 

Breathing is one of those automatic, biological responses that we don’t even have to think about. It is natural and does not really take any effort at all. We are seldom aware of our breathing. And yet, it is vital to our health. Breathing is critical to our very life and purpose.

You could say, we are made to breath.

And yet, though breathing is integral to our life we may forget the gift that is in us: The gift of the Holy Spirit. We forget that living in the Spirit is as natural as breathing.

The Spirit of God is like our breath. “God’s spirit is more intimate to us that we are to ourselves,” writes Henri Nouwen. “We might not often be aware of it, but without it we cannot live a spiritual life. It is the Holy Spirit of God who prays in us, who offers us the gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace, and joy.” (1) 

Breathing is so essential for life that we only think about it when something is wrong with it. When disease, shock or accident leaves us without breath. When breathing becomes laboured. When oxygen levels are critically low in our bodies. When something we have taken for granted for so long no longer works, then what?

The way to arrive and remain in the Holy Spirit of God is both very simple and very hard: We have to remain in love. Breathing the Spirit of God’s love nips negativity, hatred and violence in the bud. It begins by retraining our initial thoughts.

We can’t risk walking around with a negative, or resentful, or gossipy, or critical mind. Because if we let the mind operate in a paranoid, angry, and resentful way, we aren’t going to breathe the Spirit of God. We won’t be breathing. We can’t be God’s usable instrument. 

That’s why Jesus commanded us to to love. It’s that crucial for life. Like breathing. That love can begin in the mind. As Eleanor Roosevelt apparently said: “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.” (2)     

In Jewish tradition only the consonants for Yahweh were printed in the Hebrew text – YHWH. As such, this most holy name for God was unspeakable. Interestingly, even the Hebrew consonants used in YHWH do not allow you to close your lips when you try to speak them.

We cannot confine God in one place as much as we cannot contain breath. We cannot point to one specific place and say, “God is there!”, turn around, point in the opposite direction and say, “And God isn’t there!” We can’t dare try to close our lips over breathing and pretend we have God all figured out! Identifying with God since ancient times was simply the intake and exhalation of breath. The great “I AM” was the breath itself.

It is the great mystery we enter into when we follow Jesus. Someone said, “life is a mystery to embrace, not a problem to be solved.” God is always beyond us but totally around us, within us and outside of us. And we all share in that same air and that same breath. It is the first thing we did coming out of our mother’s womb, and there will come that moment when we will do it for the last time.

But in between, we continue to take in the breath of God and exhale the breath of God – the totally accessible One, the totally given One, who like breath just waits to be received. Waits to be engaged. In bold acts fuelled by love for the other.

The late Swedish Lutheran bishop, New Testament scholar, and pioneer in Lutheran-Jewish relations, Krister Stendahl, gave helpful advice in this regard. How is it we can love others who are so different from us, so unlike us? Because it is easy to ignore, write off, dismiss and be critical of them.

To Christians living in a diverse and multi-religious environment, Stendahl encourages us to cultivate an attitude of ‘holy envy’ (3) towards the other. That is, we first recognize the gifts, the positives, that the other offers by their life. Rather than thinking first we need to persuade them that ‘they are wrong’, we first seek understanding based on admiring a gift they have. What does the other offer that I/We do not have? Because others have gifts I/We do not have. So, what is it the other has, that is good?

In such a way we begin to see the image of God reflected in creation — in others who are different. We begin to practice seeing Christ in the other. We begin to see the unity we share in the purpose of God, the mission of God. It takes us working together, each with their gifts, to make it happen.

This mysterious God we worship chooses to self-reveal as the Trinity — three persons in one. In other words, this one God we worship is a holy relationship. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit must function together by nature.

So, too, we must learn, practice, be intentional, about being in relationship with one another: working together, breathing in together and breathing out together the love and purpose of God on earth.

Once there was a Washer-man (a man who washes others’ clothes for hire) who was raising two donkeys. One he called Donkey-A and the other Donkey-B.

Donkey-A felt he was more energetic and could do better than the other donkey. He always tried to get the Washer-man’s attention by taking more of the load and walking as fast as he could in front of him.

Donkey-B was just a normal donkey. He tried as hard as he could, but he couldn’t carry as much as Donkey-A or impress the Washer-man by walking in front of him.

One day Donkey-B was crying and asking Donkey-A to help. He said, “Dear friend, it is only the two of us. Why do we compete against each other? If we worked together we could carry an equal load at a normal speed.”

Donkey-A became even more competitive after that. The next day he boasted to the Washer-man that he could carry more and run faster than Donkey-B, and he did.

Under the pressure Donkey-B collapsed in great fatigue and quietly passed away. As a result of the collapse, Donkey-A felt like he was on top of the world, having proved his superior skills and abilities. 

But now he also had to carry Donkey-B’s load.

For a short time Donkey-A was able to carry both loads, but he eventually became fatigued and weak. Finally the day came when the Washer-man was tired of this fatigued and no good donkey. He put him to pasture, and went searching for some other pack donkeys to get his work done.

The moral of this story is, you can’t do it alone. If we are made to breathe the Spirit of the triune God, we are by nature ‘relational’. It is important to learn how to work well together.

Worrying more about individual performance, taking all the credit and trying to do more than you are capable of doing eventually comes back and bites us one way or another. Christians, at their best, are team players.

Donkey B may not have been the strongest nor the fastest, but he was consistent. Everyone brings something valuable to the table. And so do you. Just because you may be different from others, doesn’t qualify you or them to be in competition nor be shunned.

Stronger together. Better together. This is what we were made for.


(1) Henri Nouwen, “Bread for the Journey; A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith”, HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, May 18

(2) cited in “Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation” Centre for Action and Contemplation, May 19

(3) cited in Kristin Johnston Largen, “Interreligious Learning and Teaching: A Christian Rationale for a Transformative Praxis” Fortress Press, 2014,page 4

Engage the 4-wheel drive!

Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20).

What do Lutherans and Jalapeño peppers have in common? When just two peppers are ‘gathered’ in a dish, they enhance the taste with just a bit of a kick. But a whole plateful brings tears to the eyes!

“Yes, Jesus, where two or three are gathered, we can handle…. but not a whole room full, please!” We joke about the challenge of trying to be and work together. And because of the difficulty, we may take the easy road and just avoid getting too involved. After all, nobody wants to step on anyone’s toes.

In a way, this Gospel reads similarly to the injunction in the book of Hebrews encouraging the coming together of people as necessary in a life of faith. “… let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together …” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

But this is not easy! For where two or three are gathered we have two or three different opinions, and hence the hard work begins! If we took Jesus’ words literally, churches would have only two or three people in them! Maybe in some small churches it’s starting to look like that anyway! The more people, the more conflict, after all. The context of the Gospel text is how to deal, in an orderly fashion, with conflict. Conflict will happen whenever people get together. This is normal even if for many in the church, undesirable.

I’ve never been a fan of Football. I’ve always had this prejudice that the sport is just all about testosterone-induced aggression. Every play, it seemed to me, ended up looking like a flock of vultures diving into each other with bodies lying in heaps on the ground.

However, after attending several practices, now that my son plays, I’ve watched the coaches interact with the kids in the various drills and reps they do. And what struck me is how, essentially, being successful as a team is about first being aware of what to do in each and every contingency: whether the ball is carried in a running game, turned over; when the ball is kicked; or, in running some kind of coverage; or, in completing passes; or, creating a wedge wall, etc.

More to the point, it’s not about individually knowing what is going on, but critically it’s about the whole line — defensive and offensive — being aware and employing a certain tactic together. They may look like a flock of vultures, yes, but they have to fly in formation, together, in order to be successful. This takes practice. The team has to gel.

How we deal with our differences, between one another, that is the real question. We, in our families, in our workplaces, on the sports field, driving in traffic, in the church — we need to practice working together. We are not individuals doing our own thing, in our own individualistic worlds, even in our prayer life; I can tell certain drivers on the road when, even though hundreds of cars are in the mix, they behave as if they are the only ones on the road.

Speaking of driving, I like to think God has given each one of us a special gift. This gift is like God created each one of us to be a 4×4 Jeep to drive on the road of life. You know what four-wheel-drive on a car is: Basically, if you have four-wheel-drive, you have the option when you need it to engage all four wheels in the power-train instead of just the two front wheels. Four-wheel-drive comes in handy especially in snowy, icy winter conditions, or when you drive off-road in mud, over rocks and in fields.

Now, I believe most of us who have this four-wheel-drive option don’t really need it for 99% of the time we drive, even in winter.

For most of our lives, things may go reasonably well for many of us. Life is good. We get by. We may even enjoy many of the blessings of a good life. And let’s face it: We were not born in Iraq and we are not being persecuted and murdered and displaced from our homes because of our faith. Let’s face it, we were not born in Africa where drought and ebola threaten our very lives and the lives of our children. Let’s face it, most of us here are not homeless or hungry, or part of any disadvantaged minority in our society. We have it good: We have schools to go to. We have caring communities and friends we can lean on. We have disposable income, most of us, to give us leisure, pleasure and a comfortable life.

But there will still be times in our lives when we will suffer. There will be times in our lives when our health will fail and we come face to face with our limitations. We will suffer loss and even tragedy. We will suffer the pressures and stresses of family and work and the conflicts of being in a community.

And when we do, we will need the four-wheel-drive option that is built right into our make-up. We do, so God created each of us, have the capability to engage the off-road bumps and potholes. We do, so God created each of us, have the capability to engage those slippery, icy, even dangerous road conditions.

Yes, using four-wheel-drive burns more gas. It’s not the most fuel-efficient way of driving. We use up more energy. It will be difficult, trying, even exhausting. Following Jesus pushes us past our comfort zones, to be sure. But we do have the capability, this gift, and we should use it.

And here’s the wonder of it: When we must engage the four-wheel-drive option and drive down that unknown, sometimes scary, road, being jostled about on the uneven, narrow way, we discover that God sits right beside us in the car.

You see, the engine won’t ever fail, because the capability for off-roading is the quality of God’s love. Love is the fuel, the energy, the power behind this effort. And this love is shown to us by God. God loves us, even when we make mistakes, when we falter, even when crash, even when we will have an accident. God is with us. And God’s love and unfailing presence sustains us.

Saint Paul writes, “Salvation is nearer to us now, than when we became believers” (Romans 13:11). This verse from the second reading today is both astounding, and comforting. When we first became aware of the love of God for us, and accepted this love as the fuel for our lives — that was great! This may have been our baptism, or some significant turning point in our lives of faith when the beauty, joy, peace and glory of life radiated all around us.

But the point is, now that may be off-roading, now that we may be using that 4×4 capability on the rough patches of the road of life, God is even closer to us. Now that we may be suffering and enduring in faith with one another, God is even closer to us, “… and will not forsake his people; God will not abandon the work of his hands” (Psalm 94:14).