“¡Presente!”

Each of the four blessings is matched with a corresponding ‘woe’[1] First, Jesus says that blessed are they who are poor, who are hungry, who weep now and whom people hate. But, unlike Matthew’s version of the beatitudes[2], Luke doesn’t stop there. Luke doesn’t let us off easily.

Lest we become too enamoured with spiritualizing virtues or escape into some pie-in-the-sky notion of faith, Luke’s version of Jesus’ sermon only sets us up for being gobsmacked upside the head. In a stunning reversal to each blessing Jesus brings a ‘woe’—to those who are rich, who are full, who laugh now and about whom people speak well.

But wait—a secure financial future, a full stomach, a light heart, and a good reputation – aren’t these all values we want and seek? Aren’t these the things around which we structure our lives to obtain? Don’t these describe to a ‘t’ our five-year, ten-year and twenty-five-year goals?

A surface reading of this scripture can leave us picking sides. Am I on the ‘blessing’ side or the ‘woe’ side of the equation. Either / Or. Will we dare go deeper?

And, at the deeper currents of our awareness — when we are honest with ourselves — don’t we already know? Don’t we already know the truth of it—that, at best, wealth, a full stomach, a light heart and a good reputation are mixed blessings? They come at a great cost to health and relational well-being. They are temporary, fleeting. They can come and they can go.

Contrary to popular belief, rather than being evidence of God’s favour, prosperity can actually endanger our relationship with God, as was the case with the rich fool and Zacchaeus—both characters unique to Luke’s Gospel.[3]

What is common to both characters? Both came to Jesus rich men with full stomachs and their reputations intact. When they came to Jesus, both the rich fool and Zacchaeus were perfectly able to take care of themselves, to say the least.

The common trait they share as prosperous men of first century Palestine, is their self-sufficiency. This state is what separates them from God. And has them trapped. they are self-sufficient.

Elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel, we read that those who lay up treasures for themselves are not—and cannot be—rich toward God[4]because when we can take perfectly good care of ourselves, it is altogether too easy for us not to trust God. So, what jeopardizes the wealthy Christian’s relationship with God is the subtle temptation to think that we can go it alone and take care of ourselves.[5]

This underlying belief applies not only to our personal lives—and what we decide to do with our wealth, our investments, our properties our material blessing— but, also to the way we do church.

Will we be a community that lives only unto ourselves, or for the sake of others? Meeting the challenges of church today, how do we move forward? What decisions will we make with the resources we have? Will we abide by the code of self-sufficiency and go it alone? Or, will we seek out effective partners, neighbours and others on the journey of faith? Will we say God is only here inside thesewalls alone? Or, will we seek God’s work out there in the world?

What with all the competing values and programs for success beating down the doors of our hearts and minds, to follow the Christ of the cross is not easy. It’s not a technique or strategy that we can simply employ. In light of the beatitudes from Luke, the way of Christ cannot be an add-on. It cannot work that way, as another activity to add to the schedule of our already busy lives.

It comes to us as a complete package. It’s a call to transformation – a whole-life make-over. I understand the hesitation. Because life in the fast lane has its perks. Maybe we don’t want to give them up. Not easily, anyway. Seeking after self-sufficiency is too much of a lucrative deal for our egos.

Therefore the message of the Gospel can really be a downer! After all, how can we ever live faithfully when immersed in our world and its values?

But, perhaps, the message of All Saints provides an antidote to the despair and the grief. And give us hope for the journey. After all, the Gospel is not just about how to get into heaven after you die, but actually more about how to live in the kingdom of heaven on earth before you die. Not just the saints of heaven. But the saints on earth.

I want to close with a brief reflection on the meaning of a couple of words. First, ‘blessing’. “Blessed” is sometimes translated as “Happy”. I prefer the translation of the first word in the Psalms[6]which incidentally is also often translated to “Happy are they …”:

The Hebrew word here is ‘ashar, which means, literally, “to find the right road.” So, in offering the beatitudes, Jesus is saying: “You are on the right road when you are poor, when you hunger, when you weep, when you let go, when you don’t hold it all to yourself.” I prefer this translation because it implies a direction rather than a moral state. It acknowledges a journey of becoming. And any path of growth and transformation will include honest struggling and striving and letting go.

It is human to struggle with these things. On one hand, we do need to learn early in life how to take care of ourselves. Learning vital skills around self-care are important. Along the journey of maturity and growth, however, we must also learn how to balance this skill towards attention to others.

The second word is ‘presence’. This word doesn’t appear in the biblical texts for today, but it is implied in our ritual of All Saints. In Spanish, you hear the word said aloud: “¡Presente!”—which literally means “here” or “present”. There is a long tradition in Latin American movements for justice of invoking the memory of those who have lost their lives in the struggle.

At political gatherings their names were read out loud, one after another, not unlike we read the names of the saints earlier. After each name the crowd says together: “¡Presente!” as if to say: “You are not gone, you are here with us. You are not forgotten, and we continue the struggle in your name.”

It is human to struggle in the mission of God on earth. But we are not alone. Not only are the saints of heaven among us in spirit and in love, God is with us each step of the way. On the journey of life …

“Blessed are you who are poor – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who hunger – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who weep – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who are despised – because you are not alone!”

“¡Presente!” “¡Presente!” “¡Presente!”

 

[1]Luke 6:20-31

[2]Matthew 5:1-12

[3]Luke 12:16-21; 19:1-10; E. Elizabeth Johnson in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.239-241.

[4]Luke 12:21

[5]E. Elizabeth Johnson, ibid., p.241

[6]Psalm 1:1

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.

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.

There’s a wild-ness to God’s mercy

“Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths …

All your paths, O Lord, are steadfast, love and faithfulness

To those who hold on to your promise …”

(Psalm 25:4,10)

When I walked fifty kilometers on the sand last summer on Long Beach Peninsula on the coast of the Pacific Ocean in Washington State, I was obviously forging my own path.

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Even though the beach was not busy any time I walked it, it was also obvious to me that many had travelled this route – by foot and vehicle, since cars are allowed to drive portions on this way.

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I couldn’t trust these other paths, however, since I was by myself I had no idea how long the footprints or car tracks had been there. And with the dramatic shift of tides on the beach every twelve-or-so-hours, I could easily lose a path someone else made.

And, you might presume that my 130-kilometer hike on the Camino in Spain  a month earlier would have been harder on my feet. While I did not get one blister in Spain – no problems there whatsoever with my feet – walking on Long Beach Peninsula was brutal by comparison.

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Often, we make assumptions about our faith journeys. We presume things about following the way of Jesus that are, simply, untrue. And only experience can verify. The first myth is that this path is easy – a walk along the Rideau Canal among the tulips on a sunny, quiet Sunday in May.

I’m watching  Mark Burnett’s TV production of “The Bible” this Lent. And I was impressed by the actor playing Moses, who when he parts the Red Sea with water spraying all around in the tumult, mayhem and stress of the moment – when the Egyptian army is bearing down on the Israelites – he calls to them, “Follow Me!”

It’s like an invitation to a roller coaster ride. Or worse! A part of me wants to say, “Thank you. But, no thank you. I’ll take that walk by the canal.”

These short verses from Mark’s Gospel focus on Jesus’ personal experience of change, leading to a simple message to his listeners to follow in his way. And his way leads through disruptive changes in one’s life. True growth is a wild journey, to say the least, to follow the path of Jesus by making our own through the desert of our lives.

Jesus’ baptism by John is something which Jesus experiences by himself. Mark gives no indication whatsoever that Jesus’ baptism is some public event witnessed by many. It is intended for Jesus alone. Jesus is set apart to experience a deeply personal, largely private, and divine event in his life.

“And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”[1]

This personally divine experience is not a pleasant, comforting event for Jesus. The word “torn apart” in Greek is used only at one other time in Mark’s short Gospel – at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, when the curtain in the temple was “torn apart.”[2] When Jesus experiences the blessing and call of his life, it’s not about gentle doves cooing from heaven. God does the ripping apart in both cases.

There’s a wild-ness and a danger in God’s grace. This is a disrupting affair. This is life and death stuff. You can only wonder whether Jesus didn’t see in a moment of churning clouds his own death – the end of the journey he was about to begin.

After Jesus’ baptism, the text takes a rapid shift, as Jesus is “immediately” driven into the desert. Mark does not go into the details of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. He does not reveal what it meant for Jesus to be with the “wild beasts”. His temptations are not described in detail, only that he was tempted by Satan. And, by the end of the time in the desert, the angels waited on him.

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Mark preserves these truths about anyone’s wilderness journeys: It is wild, for sure; and, no one else can make that human journey for us.

As Jesus was privy to his own struggle with the wild beasts, so is it with our journeys in the wilderness. Whenever we go through challenging times and transitions in our lives, whenever we experience the severity of life’s choices and consequences of our misdeeds, whenever we receive the blunt end of life’s punches in the death of loved ones, in the loss of any security, the pain of ill health – these are intensely personal demons we struggle with.

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No one else, really, can fully presume to understand this journey of ours. They are unique to us alone. Our temptations are unique to us as spiritual individuals on a human journey. We need, as individuals, to take ownership of our own wilderness journey.

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Some of you may have been surprised in the Ash Wednesday liturgy this year when I asked you to impose the ashes on your own forehead as I said the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

For those of you who were here last Wednesday, I hope you reflected on the subtle change’s significance. If you are entering this forty-day journey, embracing the path of Jesus in some way, through the desert of your life – however you define your wilderness journey – then you need to own it yourself. No one else can do for you. At the start of this interior and life-changing journey, you will own your own ‘ash’, you will enter the desert of your own heart.

This journey is a journey of repentance. Repentance means, “a change of mind.” This is the original, basic meaning of the word – more than a renewing of the mind as Paul puts it,[3] repentance entails a radical turn around in thinking. This is largely an interior journey, in your mind and heart. “Rend not your garments,” the prophet Joel preached, “Rend your hearts.”[4] Will you go there, this Lent?

Martin Luther defined repentance as a returning to your baptismal waters. Returning to God’s grace, God’s love, God’s unconditional forgiveness and mercy upon your heart.

The Lenten journey can be taken by holding on to the promise of your baptism.  The path we make is only possible by the waters of faith. In the end, the waters of grace, of eternal presence of God, will wash away our delusions and give us sustenance for the journey. If we must forge our own path, we are not alone nonetheless. For, another has gone before us. One who loves us.

In his description of the journey of the Lenten season, American theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, “After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.”

He, then, outlines several questions for Christians to ponder during Lent. Among them:

  1. When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?
  2. If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be – in twenty-five words or less?
  3. Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo?
  4. Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
  5. If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn’t, which side would get your money and why?
  6. Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?
  7. If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?

“To hear yourself try to answer questions like these,” Buechner goes on, “is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all. But if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”[5]

[1] Mark 1:10

[2] Mark 15:38; Stanley P. Saunders in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.47.

[3] Romans 12:2

[4] Joel 2:13

[5] Frederick Buechner, “Wishful Thinking” (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

Buen Camino!

When in Sunday School decades ago we played the roles of well-known bible characters, I remember the only thing worse than being a “Judas” was to be a “doubting Thomas”.

We wanted to be Abraham, Moses, Kind David, Samson, Queen Esther, Rachel, Ruth, The Magi, Peter, Paul, John. We wanted to be Joseph or Mary, or even Jesus himself!

But Judas the Betrayer, or Thomas the Doubter? No. Indeed Thomas has been treated quite negatively in much of Christian preaching and teaching. He is often held up as a negative role model.

Let’s take a closer look at the text about Jesus’s resurrection appearance to his disciples (John 20: 19-31). Because there is no condemnation of Thomas. Recall the disciples are hiding behind locked doors in Jerusalem fearful of the authorities. Unless Jesus’ words to Thomas are inflected in an accusing way, they do not need to be read as a condemnation: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). They simply affirm that those who believe without first-hand experience of the risen Jesus are also blessed. (1)

But can we blame Thomas? Thomas only desires his own firsthand experience of the risen Jesus. He is unwilling to accept the secondhand testimony of others. And, his desire is granted: Jesus appears to him. Prayer answered!

I wonder if Thomas today doesn’t really represent so many of us who deeply yearn and seek for a first-hand experience of God, and are simply and naturally unsatisfied with hearing it ‘second-hand’. Hearing someone else’s first-hand experience of God is inspiring and instructional to be sure. We learn about someone else’s experience of God’s presence, healing, grace and wonder — whether that person is from the bible or our grandparents or the person sitting next to us in worship. But someone else’s experience of God can never be a substitute for our own.

What we may be looking for, is to be more like Thomas: Honest in our desire for a first-hand experience of the living God. Yearning to taste and feel more of the goodness of God in our own lives and in the world. Striving ourselves to make the world a better place for everyone. We may be unsatisfied with basing our commitment to a life of faith on someone else’s testimony. We may, like many people today, be seeking our own experience of God and suffer from what I would call the ‘second-hand syndrome’. Perhaps Thomas needs to be our role-model more than anyone else in the bible today!

Of course, the benefit of the Reformation was to teach us an important distinction in all our striving: Our motivation is important to be aware of, because if we strive to do good all in order to make ourselves right before God we will most certainly miss the mark. “We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves,” we say in our Confession. God initiates the saving relationship. God moves; we only second the motion.

And yet, our striving, our trying, our good work as response to God can help create the space and the climate in which God’s grace is made clear to us, is given to us, and in which we are most ready, then, to receive God’s forgiveness, love and mercy. Being pro-active, doing things with one another in the church, yearning and striving for God — these are antidotes to the ‘second-hand syndrome’ and a prescription for a healthy life of faith.

Last week on the first Sunday of Easter, I emphasized the words from Matthew’s account of the Resurrection of Jesus outside the empty tomb that first morning. Jesus instructs the women: “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (Matthew 28:9-10).

When resurrection happens today, as it always has beginning with that first day, there is movement forward. Not backward. As I said last week, there is no turning back once resurrection happens. The disciples are not instructed to meet Jesus in the empty tomb where the miracle happened. No. The instruction is quite clear: Get moving! Get out of here! Go to Galilee. Go to where I wait for you. In other words, don’t stay where you are! Do something!

In 2017 the Lutheran Church worldwide celebrates the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We call it Reformation 500. ‘Five hundred’ is an important number in all the dialogue surrounding this momentous occasion. The national church has even set up the Reformation Challenges for the church across Canada to meet. And each of those goals are pegged at some variant of 500:

Five hundred refugee sponsorships (which already has been exceeded), five hundred scholarships for school children in the Holy Land, five hundred thousand trees planted in Canada, and five hundred thousand dollars raised for the Lutheran World Federation endowment. You can visit elcic.ca for the most recent update on where we are at in meeting all those goals. And please consider making a personal contribution towards any one of those worthwhile causes.

I’d like to up the ante. Let me call it the ‘Reformation 800 Challenge’. Eight hundred is the new Five hundred. Not only are we celebrating 500 years of Reformation this year; we turn to the future and pray not just for 500 more years but … 800. Why not?

Let that number, eight hundred, symbolize a confidence and hope-filled trust that God has more good than we can ever imagine in store for us in the church far into the future. And this is what I propose in this year’s Reformation 800 Challenge:

Next month, I begin walking the 800 kilometres from Irun, Spain to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. The route I follow skirts the northern coast of Spain from East to West. This is my Reformation 800 Challenge.

I walk a pilgrimage route, one of the most ancient on the planet. This Camino (which means the “way”) has been an important spiritual discipline for almost a thousand years for millions of Christians.

A pilgrimage means that what happens on the outside of us in our physical reality mirrors the change and challenge that happens on the inside of us. In other words, outer and inner realities find some kind of resonance on a pilgrimage experience. It’s on a pilgrimage where many discover or re-discover their ‘walk’ with God in life, are renewed on their ‘path’ and/or are ‘re-directed’ to new ways of living.

I would like you to do this with me. Yes. I invite you to consider doing a Reformation 800 Challenge with me, in your own way, with your own resources and plan.

For example: In order to reach the goal of 800 kilometres in under two months I plan to walk at least 20 kilometres a day. So, while I’m gone would you consider a physical discipline whereby you, for 20 minutes a day, do something intentional for your own health and well-being: walking, cycling, lifting a small weight, stretching, doing yoga, etc.? It doesn’t have to be ‘extreme’; something simple even if you are confined to a chair or bed — for 20 minutes a day, do something that involves your body in ways you have not normally been accustomed. Be creative.

A piece of wisdom for pilgrims that has guided my preparation and planning is: Walk Your Way. Walk your own Camino. This is nobody else’s walk but yours. Do what you want and need to do, in your own way, according to your own pace.

You can interpret this challenge in many ways. For example, if you are very active and move about a lot in your daily life already, perhaps sitting still and quietly for twenty minutes a day in silent meditation and prayer is your way. Or, take twenty steps a day. Do twenty reps of a particular exercise or stretch. But whatever you do, the important thing is that you are challenged to attempt and remain faithful to a daily, body-involving discipline. Do it your own way.

Keep a journal or write your notes on a piece of paper that you stick to the fridge door. Write the date, and the accomplished task, so that over time, you can track your progress.

Your goal: 800 of something before the end of this year — whether eight hundred minutes, steps, kilometres. And here’s the good news. You already have a head start on me. I don’t begin until mid-May. You can start this afternoon, on your Reformation 800 Challenge! And, you have until the end of the year; I need to be finished my walk by early July.

After I return from my sabbatical, I would very much be interested in having a conversation with you about our experiences on our pilgrimage. They say that for pilgrims close to reaching their destination in Santiago, many confess that by the end it was no longer them walking the Camino, but the Camino was walking them. In other words, the experience of doing it created deeper trust in the way of God, of faith and peace within them. The physical reality converged with their inner life in positive ways.

As you contemplate what your discipline will be, as you think about what you will do, as you plan your own ‘pilgrimage’ — here are some questions for your own reflection and which can provide a basis for our own conversation when I return. Ask yourself:

In Preparation

What will you do to reach ‘800’ by the end of the year? In time? Kilometres? Steps? Reps? And how will you do it on a daily basis? (for example, 20 minutes/kms/reps/steps, etc. per day)

What are your intentions for this experience? What do you hope for by the end? The first recorded words of Jesus to his disciples in John’s Gospel are: “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38). How do you know you will find it if you don’t know what you are looking for in the first place?

What do you think you will discover about yourself? Saint Augustine once said that knowing yourself is a stepping stone to knowing God.

How will you record your journey?

On the Journey

Where did God find you? What experiences along the way brought you close to God?

What was the best part of the experience so far? What has been the greatest challenge?

Who did you meet along the way? Or, describe your relationships with others during the experience.

What were you grateful for?

Nearing the end / Getting close to the goal

What does it mean ‘to arrive’?

How does it feel to be reaching a destination after great effort and clear motivation for the journey?

What sacrifices did you make in order to get this far on the journey?

How will you celebrate and honour the ending of the journey?

After the Journey

What was the most memorable part of the whole experience?

How did you deal with disappointments and/or failure during the journey?

How do you now view God?

How will you keep what you learned alive in your regular life now that the journey is over?

Has anything shifted within you as a result of the experience? If so, how would you describe this change within yourself?

How will you share your journey and what you have learned with the important people in your life?

As we soon begin our pilgrimages, may God bless us on the way. And to all we meet along the path, may we wish them, “Buen Camino!”
1 — Marcus Borg & John Crossan, “The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem” (New York: Harper One, 2006), p.202-204.

Stick-to-it-ness of love

Terrorist bombs going off in Brussels during Holy Week should get our attention. Not only and primarily because of the sudden horror and tragic, senseless loss of life.

But also because Christians this week, the world over, are reflecting and imagining the path Jesus took to his own senseless, horrific death hanging on a cross.

Death is on the mind and heart of many these days. How can we approach this reality common to us all? How can we accept the truth of our own mortality, which will be realized some day in some unique way?

In a popular book about near-death experiences, people reported on how they saw a review of their life — the cliched ‘life flashing before your eyes’.

The people who had momentarily died detailed every single encounter they had had with another human being throughout their life. They not only re-lived it, they were able to feel what the other person had felt. In that life-review they knew what others felt because of the near-dead person’s words or actions in that particular encounter. (1)

You may be able to imagine how surprised some felt to know how their behaviour and words actually affected other people. To know what impact our lives have on others. We may not think that a simple action like a smile, or a scowling face, a gracious word, or an angry outburst, could affect someone else’s day — let alone their life.

A friend recently suggested that this is what they thought Judgement Day would be for us — to understand and feel fully what influence our lives had on people around us. And how much our lives mean, in relationship.

I attended my brother-in-law’s retirement reception last week. He was retiring from the military after about twenty-five years. In his speech to the gathered friends, family and colleagues he concluded by saying something that stuck with me: “There’s lots that I’ve done over the years that I’m not proud of — as I stand here today. But, I’ve always and will always be proud of who I did it with.”

On Maundy Thursday, the main theme behind the actions of Jesus with his disciples is love. The commandment to love one another infuses the ritual of washing his disciples feet, of eating with them and instituting the Holy Supper, of instructing them and praying for them that ‘they may be one’.

The motif of loving one another is strangely underneath the surface of the high-tension, escalating conflict surrounding Jesus as he nears the cross — the ultimate place of his suffering and death. You wouldn’t think this is a love story, at first glance.

Yet, Jesus does not seek retribution for the injustice he endures. As Simon Peter did by taking a sword and cutting off the ear of one of the high priest’s servants who came to arrest Jesus (John 18:10). Instead, Jesus is about a restorative type of judgement — one that through love seeks to make right what has been divided or tarnished by sin. Judgement is ultimately always about restoring us, not avenging us for all our mis-deeds. To whom are we restored?

Our religion is not one of individual moral performance and accomplishment for our glory alone. The judgement we individually meet at the end is not considered in a vacuum. Our religion is constituted in a community. Our religion, more to the point, is practised and validated in the context of human relationship. Christianity is a social religion. You can’t do Christianity apart from others.

On Maundy Thursday, the focus is on the disciples meeting together for the last time with Jesus. And they do so around a Meal. This is the context, the meal and the companionship, however flawed and fragile. Sharing food, here, is not an individual indulgence as it is a communal sharing.

For many, in our culture today, to simply sit and eat and talk and to remain together until the end of the meal seems a quaint custom, perhaps incomprehensible, even an empty game: There’s always something else to do in my room — download something, fix something, watch something, communicate in some other media. The community of the table seems far less interesting once you have eaten your fill.

Yet eating with others is what prayer is all about. It is the time — like meditating with others or celebrating a ritual as we do this evening at the Sacrament of the Table — when we are fed and nourished by the One who is the food itself. We need to stay and wait and allow ourselves to be waited upon. (2)

And so, we need to practice doing things together. Practice. Not perfectly. Not always the right way. And not just when all is smiles and joy. Sometimes, in practising our faith together we end up hurting others, and being hurt ourselves. This is nevertheless the nature of practice. 

Like in any endeavour, physical exercise, any discipline, anything that is of value to us. It sometimes hurts. We need to challenge ourselves. We need what coach Dave Cameron of the Ottawa Senators said once in an interview explaining what his team needs in order to be successful in the NHL: ‘stick-to-it-ness’. 

‘Stick-to-it-ness’ is the quality of staying with the game plan, playing with the team; not, individual heroics as they and we are want to do. Stick-to-it-ness, even in the face of adversity or failure, or disappointment. Not running out the back door when things get tough or uneasy or uncomfortable. Not giving up on others or on yourself, even when they disappoint you. Staying with the game plan. Being persistent. Even when things are less-than-perfect or ideal in your life, and life with others.

‘Stick-to-it-ness’ is a quality sadly lacking in Christian culture today. We are so individually-minded that we delude ourselves into thinking we can go it alone. That we don’t need others. That we can live our Christian lives without being faithful to the community — the hassle or complication of others who will only disappoint and annoy — 

That we can leave a group of people and join another church. That religion is like a smorgasbord; and “I” am the centre of the universe, determining my destiny, choosing what I want and leaving behind what I don’t want. And being in total control.

In the acclaimed film, “The Way”, starring Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez, father and son together experience a walking pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. They begin their journey in conflict, estranged from one another. The son tells the father a truth that he learns by the end of the movie: “You don’t choose a life, you live a life.”

Practising our faith is not something we do by ourselves. Practising our faith is not motivated by trying to earn favour from God by all our good deeds. Practising our faith is not creating for ourselves the life we want. 

Practising our faith is first and foremost something we do together, for the sake of the other, and for love of the other. Even in the face of death.

We follow Jesus, who walked the way of life and death as we know it. We worship Jesus, these holy days, who showed us the motivation and stick-to-it-ness of love, of grace, of leading with a heart of mercy. For the sake of the other.

I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call upon the name of the Lord.

I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the Lord,

in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the Lord!

(Psalm 116:17-19)
(1) Raymond A. Moody, “Life After Life”, HarperCollins, New York, 2000, p.55-65

(2) Laurence Freeman, “Sensing God”, Novalis Press, Toronto, 2015, p.110

The Cross: Not only for us, but involves us

What Jesus did on the cross involves us.

One great temptation of being a Christian today is to delude ourselves into believing that the cross of Christ must be reserved exclusively to the annals of history. What Jesus did on the cross is a historical curiosity, we may think, which has little if nothing to do with our day-to-day lives. As a result, Christianity is basically a theoretical exchange of ideas, and whose energy and passion revolve around whose ideas are more persuasive.

One thing we need to continually challenge ourselves is in the practice of our faith, so that we are not only saying the right kinds of things but doing them as well. The Gospel text for today (Matthew 16:21-28) reminds us again that what Jesus did on the cross involves us today, in our experience of faith. When Jesus instructed his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me” he was displacing the cross for standing merely as an historical idea and fact, and placing the cross directly onto the lives, hearts, and experience of his followers at that time, and for all time to come — including us!

The theme of suffering percolates in the Gospel text. How do we Christians deal with suffering in our lives? In Martin Luther’s German translation of the Beatitudes of Jesus in the New Testament, he conveys the sense of: “Blessed are those who bear their suffering …” It is not a question of whether or not we suffer, or whether or not we can deny or avoid the challenging, difficult work that will come to us all in doing God’s work on earth. After all, Jesus himself said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live …” (John 11:25-26). All of us will die. All of us will suffer. Whether we are Christian or not. Life will bring that to each one of us in a unique way.

So, the question of faith is: HOW will we bear that suffering? How will we appreciate the experience of life’s failures, losses, pain, grief, death?
The second reading for today from Paul’s letter to the Romans (12:9-21) suggests a way forward through our suffering: “Let your love be genuine,” he writes. How we bear our suffering depends on the quality of love in our lives. How is love genuine?

It has something to do, I believe, with letting go of the need to control someone’s else experience of ourselves, our gifts, our hospitality; letting go of our need to impose on another what we think should be for them. This is most difficult to do. But it is true love when we love, unconditionally, with no strings attached.

In my travels over the summer, I’ve met people in Newfoundland on the east coast as well as in the urban jungle of California on the west coast. As I reflect on my encounters with various people on that journey, the most meaningful ones were almost always around a meal time in a B&B or coffee break at a conference. It was listening to our B&B hostess at breakfast near Gros Morne Park, talking with our servers at the Duke of Edinburgh pub in St John’s, chatting with American tourists at breakfast in L’Anse aux Meadows, or with students at the next table in a Thai restaurant in San Francisco — these are memories that come quickly to mind and leave a lasting impression. Around a meal, with others. And never an outcome that I could have planned, expected or managed if I were in control. My experience over a meal with others was totally a gift.

In this Meal we ritually share every week as a people of God, we become vulnerable to one another as equals before God. We bring all our “stuff” to the Communion railing — good and bad. It can be nerve-wracking to be pulled out of our comfortable pew, so to speak, and come forward and lay it bear before God and one another.

But it is here, in all our honesty and true humility, that we are made aware of Jesus’ faithfulness to us. Jesus is truly present around the table. Holy Communion is a regular reminder that Jesus is with us, especially in the disruptive events of our lives. And it is here that we receive the hope and promise that all will be well through the suffering of our lives.

What Jesus did on the cross, after all, does not only involve us, it was for us.

In all that we must bear, we are not alone. When the twin brothers from Quebec were eliminated last week from the Amazing Race Canada Reality TV show, I could relate to something said in the brief interview on the mat after hearing that they were “the last team to arrive.” The twin who had done poorly in one of the challenges and was the reason they had been eliminated said with tears in his eyes, “It’s amazing being a twin because even at the worst of times you are never alone.” Twins or no twins, as Christians we are never alone.

Because of what Jesus did on the cross, God now understands and relates to our suffering in an intimate way. God’s love is shown most powerfully in what Jesus did for us. Whenever we suffer and take up our own cross, Jesus suffers along side of us, bears with us, and endures with us — all for our sake.

Something Peter and the disciples seem to have missed in reacting to the way of the cross, is the promise of resurrection. They stumble at the “undergo great suffering” and being “killed” parts of Jesus’ speech. But did they hear: “…and on the third day be raised”? (Matthew 16:21)

The way with Jesus, that must go through the cross and suffering, leads to new life and fresh, new beginnings. The way with Jesus, that must go through the cross and endure suffering, is a way of great hope of a holy transformation of our lives that starts now and lasts through eternity.

On the way

For years now, amid the changing realities facing our lives in the church, I have found comfort and hope in a prayer — popular among Lutherans — from Evening Prayer in the old, ‘green book’ (The Lutheran Book of Worship). It goes goes like this:

Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

It is a beloved prayer. The risen, living Jesus indeed goes with us.

But do we go “by paths as yet untrodden”? Yes, in the sense that each of us experiences the journey uniquely; and yes, we can’t know exactly how we will experience that journey. And yes, frankly, that’s how it sometimes feels — like we’re all alone on this journey.

I think in North America especially, the journey of life here carries with it a “frontier” mentality. We are, after all, pioneers — this is part of our history: clearing bush from the land, forging paths never trodden through the wilderness.

And more often than not we are blazing this new path on our own. It’s up to us. This vision, I believe, has captured our imagination and plays a large role in motivating our work and our identity in the church, even.

No wonder we fell so isolated and alone when things change in our lives. No wonder we are so afraid.

The first Christians in the time after Jesus rose from the dead were not called “Christian”. In fact, they were called “Followers of the Way” — the way of Jesus. It wasn’t until in Antioch years later that those who identified with the way of Jesus were labelled, “Christians” (Acts 11:26). Those first disciples — like Cleopas and his friend, that we read about in today’s Gospel (Luke 24:13-35) — were associated with a faith that was predominantly about a journey.

I like how the King James Version of this text concludes: “And they told what things were done in the way …” (v.35). The presence of Jesus is experienced together on the journey of life, following in the way of Jesus.

What if we re-claimed our original identity as “followers of the way”? What if we re-considered our image for this journey of faith we are on? What if this way was not so much about “blazing a new path, not so much a “pioneering/frontier” mentality where we create the path?

What if the journey we are on is more of a caravan route, where we follow where another has already trod?

A man dies and goes to heaven. Of course, St Peter meets him at the pearly gates.
St Peter says, “Here’s how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in.”

“Okay,” the man said, “I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart.”
“That’s wonderful,” says St Peter, “that’s worth three points!”

“Three points?” he says. “Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithe and service.”
“Terrific!” says St Peter, “that’s certainly worth a point.”

“One point?” Golly. How about this: I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans.”
“Fantastic, that’s good for two more points,” he says.

“TWO POINTS!!” the man cries. “At this rate the only way I get into heaven is by the grace of God!”

“Come on in!”

For a caravan journey to work, it is by the grace of God. It is a pathway through the wilderness, to be sure. As one plods along its winding route, we nevertheless follow the tracks of the carts and wagons and footprints etched on the roadway and left by others who have gone before us.

Jesus beckons us forward, to follow along the path he has made. Jesus is the main focus on the caravan route.

Let’s not forgot who joins the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Let’s not forget who does most of the talking — the teaching — on the road. Let’s not forget who is the host at the evening meal, and who initiates for the disciples their recognizing the living Lord when Jesus breaks bread. It’s not about us. It’s about Jesus.

There are some characteristics of this caravan journey, of note; to summarize:

First it is not a journey undertaken alone. In fact, on the caravan route it is folly to travel alone. One would do well to travel together with others for mutual support, consolation and protection along the way.

The caravan route is not a journey of isolation, but of ever-expanding community. From these post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples, the church moves out into the world. From the disciples’ faith emerges a mission “to all nations” (Luke 24:47). It is not a caravan that goes in circles around Jerusalem; rather, the route winds itself around the world. The Greek word for church is “ekklesia” which literally translates — “a people called OUT”. Yes, the momentum of Christianity is centrifugal — the journey is an ever-expanding mission towards the places where Jesus will be.

When asked about his success, Wayne Gretzky once said, “I skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been.” He explains why: Imagine the fast-paced ebb and flow of the hockey game; Gretzky says, “Skating toward where the puck IS will always guarantee your arrival at a place where the puck HAS BEEN” — and that’s no good.

By following the caravan route, it is possible to discover where the risen Jesus is going in our world and not just keep going back to the empty tomb. As a popular American preacher once wrote, “Vision is not about looking in tombs for a risen Jesus. It is about listening to where he says he is going to meet us and striking out for it.”

Second, the journey’s value does not depend on our doing all the right things. For the seven mile journey to Emmaus, the disciples didn’t even know it was Jesus walking with them. Whether we know it or not, whether we are aware of it or not, even in our sadness or fear, and even when all around us everything points to the contrary of what we believe “should be”, Jesus is with us and walking with us, and talking to us. Are we listening? Are we following?

All the disciples do is practice some basic hospitality and welcome this intriguing stranger into their home. It is our job only to trust in the presence of Jesus when we gather to hear the word of God, listen to it, and break the bread at Holy Communion — and leave the rest to God.

It is our job sometimes to pay attention to however our “hearts burn”, because just maybe, it is of God.

Here is a variation of a blessing you may have heard. It is also popular among Followers of the Way today, sometimes requested at wedding ceremonies when two people embark on the journey of married life:

“The Lord go before you, to show you the way. The Lord go beside you, to hold you and protect you. The Lord go behind you, to keep you safe from all harm. The Lord go beneath you, to catch you when you fall, and show you the way up. The Lord be within you, to comfort you when you’re sad. The Lord be above you to give you grace.”