Remembrance Day Centennial

One of the reasons I wear my poppy year after year leading up to Remembrance Day, is to remind myself that freedom has a cost.

And that cost is not just ‘a drop in the bucket,’ spare change for which I reach into my deep pockets that doesn’t really make any difference in my life to do without. So, I throw them at some otherwise good cause. And feel smug.

In the Greek language in which the Gospel text from Mark[1]is originally written, we read that what the widow cast in the temple treasury was her bios. Her bios — meaning, literally, her very life. This text “invites us to imagine not two copper coins going into the treasury, but the very body and soul of the widow; her bios falling into the treasury.”[2]Freedom is not cheap. Freedom demands a whole lot of giving. Whatever good we see at the end of it all calls forth our very life.

Then, the punch to the gut. If we read on into the next chapter of Mark, Jesus says that this temple in Jerusalem—to and for which all those people were making donations—will soon be destroyed.[3]Throughout the Gospels, we know the temple and its culture was corrupt. Jesus had criticized, even became angry against, what was going on inside. In a fit of rage he had upturned the money changers’ tables in the temple. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” He cried, outraged.[4] Such behaviour from Jesus incited a condemning response from temple authorities, precipitating plans to have him silenced. The conflict between Jesus and the temple was well documented. And soon, Jesus would have the last word, promising that this building will be “thrown down.”

And Jesus is not just talking spiritually, here, referring merely to his body. His word was actually fulfilled: During the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Roman armies destroyed the temple.

The juxtaposition of these texts is not without purpose, its meaning dare not be ignored. The structure of the narrative strongly suggests that the widow gives all she has to an institution that is going to be utterly destroyed.

According to Jesus, the widow gave more of her life than the rich people because she gave “out of her poverty”.[5]I think this is the key to understanding what Jesus is really getting at by drawing our attention to the widow’s gift.

She gave out of her poverty. I suspect we associate the freedom won on the battlefields with freedom to seek after material prosperity and amass financial wealth. In other words, we attribute freedom with permission in this land to become rich if we can.

The freedom of which the bible speaks, however, is not a freedom to invest, but to divest; where power and privilege divests itself in weakness which the world considers “foolish”. Remember Paul’s words from Corinthians: God made foolish the wisdom of the world.[6]

The widow gives her all, her bios, not for the temple treasury, not for the sake of the institution, not to build and maintain the stones, the bricks, the mortar, the properties, the buildings, the skyscrapers and the material wealth of church and society. Not for building an empire under the guise of ‘freedom.’ The giving of the faithful is not for these things.

Rather, the widow gives her all, her bios, for her neighbour. For the sake of relationship—relationship with the poverty within her own soul, relationship with the poverty in her neighbours, and relationship with the poverty of God: Christ crucified.

The placement of these stories in the Gospel narrative is significant, because even this story—often interpreted solely about stewardship and ironically giving money to upkeep an institution that is dying or will die—ultimately points to Jesus Christ, on the cross.

The widow, like Jesus, gives her life for that which is going down. The widow, like Jesus, gives her life for that which is imperfect and corrupt. The widow, like Jesus, gives her life for what we might regard as foolish, unproductive and a waste, to that which is undeserving.

She gives her life for us, trusting in a resurrection that will rise out of the ashes of her divestment, out of her poverty.

The cost for freedom does not happen when we go to church. We don’t do good by coming to church. The service women and men who risked it all, and as such modelled for us a self-giving that is truly remarkable, didn’t do it in church. But, rather, on the battlefield of life. We do good by going out from the doors of the church into the world, for the sake of the Gospel. And for the love of the God, in Christ, who gave all, for us—corrupted, broken, sinful, weak, sometimes useless people. Can we do in like for others, out there?

This year, 2018, is significant for the Canadian Armed Forces for several reasons, including the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. And, as such, the 100th anniversary of Remembrance Day on November 11th observed every year since.

According to Veterans’ Affairs Canada, since Confederation in 1867, approximately 2.3 million Canadians have served in uniform, and more than 118,000 have given their lives.

As people of faith, not only do we this day thank our brave men and women who have served Canada at home and abroad, we also express our thanks to and support efforts to walk with and help our veterans after they complete their service.

We may not be aware of the plight of many veterans, trying to live, trying to survive, in this very city of Ottawa. In the attached video link, see and hear what Multifaith Housing Initiative Ottawa is doing to provide affordable and safe housing for dozens of homeless veterans. The new project, planned for the grounds on the old Rockcliffe Airforce Base, is called, “Veteran’s House.” The desire, here, is to serve those who have served us.

The task is ours to practise the gift first given to us in Christ, the gift of grace and mercy that is the way of freedom.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=H4DFg9_hhig&feature=share

 

[1]Mark 12:38-44

[2]Professor Allen Jorgenson, Martin Luther University College in Waterloo, writes in his bible study on this text given at the 2018 Eastern Synod Assembly, Mississauga.

[3]Mark 13:1-2

[4]John 2:16

[5]Mark 12:44

[6]1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Surrender, to be free indeed: a sermon for Reformation Sunday

I am grateful that by some coincidence the choir sang today a piece whose title was, “I surrender to Jesus”. And, indeed, the thread that runs through the whole song is the act of of surrendering. This theme might, on the surface, appear incongruent and disconnected with Reformation Sunday.

As a child, I remember Reformation Sundays in the Lutheran Church were indeed ‘celebrations.’ As if we were remembering and celebrating a victory on the battlefield of religious truth. Against our opponents in the religious marketplace.

When we retold the stories of Martin Luther who five hundred years ago stood up to communicate his theological emphasis — that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone according to scripture alone — the upshot was that those who didn’t believe this were lost, even despised. Worthy of our judgement. Illumination translated into pressure to conform, need to compete and become embroiled in violent conflict.

Indeed the history of the Reformation in the decades and centuries following Martin Luther’s assertions reflects violence. Wars, based more on political and economical divisions, were fought in the name of Protestant or Catholic truth. Blood was shed. Common folk lost their livelihoods even their lives in the upheavals of the so-called religious wars across Europe. Marching into battle to defend truth became the vision and basis for ‘celebrating’ the Reformation.

Martin Luther’s unfortunate anti-semitism whose words the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada repudiated became grounds for hatred against Jewish people to this day, such as in Pittsburgh yesterday. Indeed hatred and violence are as much a legacy of the Reformation as anything else.

Surrendering is indeed counterpoint to the flavour of victory. The cross always stands in contrast to the wiles of glory-seeking fanatics. It is not an easy path: Waving a white flag in the wind may feel like we are ‘giving up’ on who we are, or not caring anymore, or losing our identity. And, here, it doesn’t matter whether we surrender spiritually to Jesus or surrender to anyone on earth. It is the act of surrender that offends our sense of being. And scares us.

That is why, perhaps, we react to this notion that surrender is a good thing. And so, we keep fighting, defending, being all self-righteous. And violent against others, in word and deed. When all along, the truth of it and the real problem is: We find it difficult to admit that in some things we were, and are, wrong.

Martin Luther didn’t want to create a new church. If he knew today that his actions resulted not only in the proliferation of some 30,000 Christian denominations and a plethora of Protestant churches across the globe, but that there was even a church named after him—he would be rolling around in his grave. And yet we trust that despite Luther’s good intentions to merely reform the Roman Catholic Church of which he wanted to remain a member, what has happened is part of something much larger than Luther himself.

The truth is, when we take the risk to do what we are called to do, we fall into a larger reality, a larger good, that is beyond our control. Do we do good, or even pray, in order to control the outcome? Do we do good, and pray, so that what we want to happen will turn out? And if it doesn’t, there’s something wrong with the prayer, or God? Is the religious life about an escape plan from this world into heaven? Because following Jesus is not management-by-objective. We don’t pray and do good to get an insurance policy for heaven.

Rather, we do what we must do because we are stepping into the flow of a greater good in which we participate. We move into active response to God’s love and grace because whatever we do is not for our sake alone. When we do good and pray, for example, it is not my prayer or our prayer. Following Jesus is like walking along a path on the banks of a fast-flowing river and frequently stepping into the water.

The current is strong. It is moving in one direction. We immerse ourselves into presence, the presence of Christ. It enlivens us with refreshment and purpose. We fall into the river of prayer that continues, the prayer of the living, resurrected Jesus, whose destination is the ocean of complete, loving union with God.

We can also learn from the example of Jesus. In the Gospel text for Reformation Day (John 8:31-36) , those who oppose Jesus try to draw him into an argument. Jesus suggests they are not free. They are slaves to sin. His opponents reply by saying they are descendants of Abraham and therefore have never been slaves to anyone.

They are blind to their own inner captivity. They can’t see how enslaved they actually are. Indeed they are not free to grow, in Christ. Because they are right. And everyone else is wrong. They are their own worst enemy.

When Jesus hangs on the cross, and prays to God, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” (Luke 23:46) he expresses a profound and deep surrender, a letting go, into the immeasurable vastness that is God. From his moment of ‘forsakenness’ (Mark 15:34) that we all must one day experience we learn that faith is not about belief at all. It is about trust and love.

This is a surrendering that does not compromise in any way who we are. Letting go is not ‘giving up’, as if we don’t care anymore about whatever it is we’ve been so inclined to manage and control.

Surrendering to God is releasing our managerial faculties. It is like forgiveness, when we let go of the resentment that keeps us trapped in wanting revenge and retribution. Surrendering to God is an expression of complete trust in that which is wonderfully greater than anything we can imagine let alone accomplish on our own.

Over twenty years ago, Carl Sagan’s book, Contact, was made into a movie. This is basically a story of aliens who send the makings of an interstellar vehicle to earth. Engineers and scientists figure out how to complete this egg-shaped pod that would transport one person through gateways and wormholes to other worlds in the universe.

It is during the inaugural flight that the character played by Jodie Foster discovers a solution to a serious problem. She discovers that what humans think is a sensible, reasonable thing to do actually is the problem.

You see, in this orb that would be Jodie Foster’s mode of travel, there was at first no chair, or anything to keep her in place. And how could someone travel at untold speeds to unimaginable, unknown places without some way to secure her body? Otherwise she could seriously hurt herself tumbling about inside.

So the engineers and scientists construct an elaborate chair which they fasten to the inside of the capsule.

As expected, during the initial flight, Jodie Foster’s character experiences an excruciating degree of turbulence and vibration, to the point where she might expire from the stress of it.

At the height of the extreme shaking, a pendant that had been around her neck comes loose. And floats in front of her eyes. Surprisingly it isn’t subjected to the violent turbulence. It isn’t moving at all. Just floating, suspended in space. It is still. Peaceful.

An idea comes to her in a flash. Without hesitating she unbuckles her chest strap, and releases her body from the chair. From that moment on, her body is finally free from being confined to the chair. She could then fully appreciate, enjoy and embrace the wonder of her interstellar experience.

She understands now that the aliens knew what they were doing in sending a chair-less vessel to earth. They had indeed done their homework before coming to make contact with humans. In unbinding herself, she discovers she can trust them, the experience, and the greater good of what was happening to her.

Had she fixated on remaining bound in the chair, she would not have been able to discover the wonders of the universe to its fullest. Worse, she could have died.

She had to let go. She had to surrender any notion of security to survive. She had to take the risk to unbind herself. She had to trust, and have faith, that in the letting go, she would find peace. And be free.

We don’t have to be right. Only faithful. That when we surrender to Jesus we express in our praying and in our work a trust that we, and the whole universe, are held in the loving embrace of God.

From the scrap heap of metal, we find two pieces. These pieces are ready to be disposed of. The bare bones. The raw material. Broken pieces. These pieces represent our broken, common humanity.

We can do something with these pieces, to be sure. These scraps of metal can be used to brace structures of our own doing—reinforce supporting walls, strengthen sides in a piece of furniture, cover holes and be painted over in appealing colours.

But when these scraps are left alone, God makes something out of nothing. From the ‘scrap’ consciousness. You see, it is no good when these pieces are already made into something by our own hands. But in our dissembled lives, when either the world only sees just scraps and/or we only see the broken dissembled pieces of our lives.

It is only when we let go and let be ‘just as we are’ that God does something with us through the cross. We then become part of the greater flow of love running forever towards God.

Pilgrims rising

Don was a husband and father who one day was commuting home after work in a bad thunder storm, when the car he was driving was struck by lightning. Don was okay, and he managed to get home. Sitting down with his teenaged children, he relayed to them his harrowing experience.

Expecting at least a small degree of sympathy from them, Don was perplexed when his eldest interrupted: “Quick, let’s go buy a lottery ticket because they say the chances of being struck by lightning are like the chances of winning the lottery.”

The disconnect we feel in how Jesus’ disciples often responded to him is not dissimilar. He tells them he must die a horrible death. And they respond by demanding seats of power, authority and glory beside Jesus. His disciples continually seem out of sync with their leader’s meaning.

The Gospel for today[1]must be read in the larger context of Mark’s writing here. In Mark, we see that this is the third time Jesus announces his death, the third time the disciples respond in perplexing ways, and the third time Jesus responds to them by giving them a commentary on true discipleship.[2]

By looking at the what comes immediately before this text, we also discover that the disciples who followed Jesus were afraid.[3]It’s fair to presume, then, their desire and request to secure positions of glory once Jesus took his rightful throne on earth and/or in heaven was born out of fear.

The connection between fear and striving for security is common in all of us, to this day.

We are afraid. We fear the changing realities which make new demands on our time, energy and resources in the church. We fear the outcome of our health concerns. We fear the effects of an uncertain future, in our nation, our world and in our personal lives. In the fear of the unknown, it is a natural knee-jerk to secure anything down. Do something, anything, to give yourself the illusion of control. An insurance policy.

Let’s give the disciples the benefit of the doubt, to suggest perhaps they were aware that Jesus’ path was going to lead to his arrest, torture and death. And they knew that likely they, too, would be caught in the crossfire. They were probably aware that Jesus was causing an uncomfortable stir among the powers that be, religiously and politically, in Jerusalem. They saw the writing-on-the-wall.

And in the midst of this fear, the Sons of Zebedee tried to insure some benefit for all the sacrifices they were already making and would likely continue to make. Perhaps if they didn’t understand something, it was they couldn’t yet grasp the depths of the sacrifices they would make as a community of faith.

What Jesus stands for is a different way altogether from the way of the world. The disciples are caught up in the power plays of the world. They have in mind a hierarchy, a pecking order, of who’s on top. There is this Machiavellian feel to the debate amongst themselves, as if relationships of power must only be a win/lose scenario, a zero-sum game where in order to get ahead some people have to be left behind.

The way of Jesus, in contrast, is the way of the Cross. Jesus exposes the false way of the world by surrendering to it and dying by it. The way of the cross exposes our folly and calls us to a deeper more inclusive way.

Martin Luther first coined the phrase in his Heidelberg Disputation written in 1518. He called it, “A theology of the cross.” It is a way of understanding and imagining God. That is, God was, and is, being revealed to us in all truth most clearly and unequivocally in suffering. In the vulnerability and pain of death on the cross, Jesus revealed—and continues to reveal—the God who suffers alongside us wherever there is pain and suffering in the world.

Luther thus criticized a “theology of glory” which presumes God validates faith, and is only validated by, success, measures of progress and triumphal conquering over any weakness or adversary. This theology dominates not only in our society, but sadly also in the church.

A theology of glory reflects an unbridled, Pollyanna optimism that avoids and resists places of defeat, failure, vulnerability and weakness as having anything to do with divine identity or purpose. A theology of glory undermines real people and a God who is known in the darkest times and places of life. It despises our common humanity and the losses we all endure.

The way of Jesus is for all people, not just for those who make it to the top. The way of Jesus is for all people, because we all have our crosses to bear. We can share in our common suffering. And grow together. It is therefore in community, the Body of Christ, the body ‘broken for all’ we say in the Communion, where Christ is revealed and where our true purpose is born.

#OttawaRising is the hashtag used, announced and displayed on Ottawa Senators Hockey club promotional material. The vision is of the team rising out of the ashes of disappointment from last season. That was the season from hell, when they finished second-to-last place in the league standings, suffered through a broken, conflicted locker room and as a result had to trade away star players.

But it is only standing in the ashes that you can claim the vision of ‘rising’ again. The Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals wouldn’t declare resurrection as their identity, this season. It only makes sense to proclaim the resurrection in the midst of the defeat of the cross.

The Gospel abounds with a promise. The disciples may not hear it as such. But Jesus has great compassion on them. He does not rebuke them for being out of sync with him. He affirms that they will indeed drink the cup that he must drink and be baptized with the baptism that he must endure.

Jesus will continue to offer this promise and hope to us, that we will not always need to act and respond out of our fear. That what we do as a community does not need to be knee-jerk platitudes that only keep us stuck in cycles of fear, self-preservation and defensiveness. Jesus will continue to call us into deeper expressions of serving others and of paying attention to the needs of others not just our own.

If there was anything the disciples should have known with any amount of certainty, is that Jesus’ promise is secure and very sure. Because by being in last place, and losing it all, those first disciples would one day rise.

And so will we.

[1]Mark 10:35-45

[2]C. Clifton Black in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common LectionaryYear B Volume 4 (Louisville Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.189.

[3]Mark 10:32

The great un-doing

This past week I heard from someone how they overcame their addiction to smoking. A middle-aged man, he said he had been a smoker for many years until he started feeling the ill-effects of the habit. He had tried many gimmicks and treatments to quit, to no avail.

It wasn’t until he let go of his need to control the outcome of his efforts, that he succeeded. In other words, when he was able to tell himself: “I can’t do this on my own,” he finally found the capacity within himself to quit. He was able to stop smoking only when he accepted his own limitations, when he released the false notion that he was the master of his own destiny. Even to do something healthy, good.

He didn’t need to accomplish this on his own. What he wanted (to quit smoking), he needed to let go of. What he sought, he needed to release control over.

Whatever you want, you first need to let go of. Counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Usually when you want something, you go for it. And you don’t let up until you have it, eh?

So, what’s going on here?

What did the rich young man in the Gospel story want (Mark 10:17-31)? He wanted to prove that he was a righteous, good man. He wanted to show Jesus and others that he had fulfilled all the rules of his religion and therefore he was worth his religious beans. And who could compare?

The rich man approached Jesus thinking he had it in the bag. His question—”What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)—sounds disingenuous, inauthentic. In a manipulative, self-congratulatory way, he thus approached Jesus, even kneeling before him.

He had self-righteously fooled himself into believing he already knew the answer. The gospel writer doesn’t even assign the rich man a name, underscoring the fake, artificial nature of the man’s attitude.

But Jesus cuts through the crap, skims the fat off the top, and goes to the jugular! Indeed, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). Jesus sees through the rich man’s pretense, and uncovers the real, authentic person beneath the surface. There he finds an enslaved heart, and brings to light the truth:

In order for the man to be liberated and set free, he has to surrender what owns him, what captivates and grips his soul: For him — it’s material possessions. For someone else, it might be different. But he has to learn, if he wants to grow, to let go and not hold on to those things that keep him stuck in false beliefs about himself, God, and the world around him.

What he wasn’t expecting, was an answer from Jesus that undid him. The one thing that he wanted to get—an unscrupulous, beyond reproach reputation as a religious superman—he would now have to let go of. He would have to let go of everything that made him, that put him in a position of power and wealth in his community and that gave him the grounds to boast.

He would now have to sell his reputation, literally, and become poor. And what do the poor have to show for their religious prowess? Wasn’t (and isn’t) being impoverished a sign of God’s dis-favour?[1]

All the texts assigned for today reflect the nature of relationship with God. Relationship with God is at the root of our spirituality, our church lives, our purpose in life and the meaning of our lives. Relationship. Relationship. Relationship.

And what the lectionary offerings are inviting us to consider today, is the nature of our relationship with God. They ask us to be honest, first, about who this God is we are supposed to relate to.

Let’s say, we want God. Well, detach from what we want. That is the key. Let go of our false conceptions about God. For example, an underlying assumption we will make about God is a transactional, mechanized God. Such assumptions were criticized by reformers like Martin Luther in the 16thcentury but also those before him like Meister Eckhart in the 14thcentury. This image they condemned, was God the “reward machine”.[2]It goes something like this:

God is the great rewarder-in-the-sky. And, if you put enough quarters in the slot, God will send down the candy-bar. In Martin Luther’s world, the criticism focused on the sale of indulgences—the more money you paid to the church, the more spiritual benefits you accrued.

These false beliefs about God then generated attitudes and actions that placed the onus all on us and our capacities and resources as individuals. That it was up to us to garner favour with God and so we would earn, and deserve, our salvation and even prosperity on earth.

I believe this is what is behind the rich, young man’s presumption and approach to Jesus. Certainly, he of all people deserves God’s favour.

And Jesus’ response is, essentially: If that’s what you want, you need to let go of it. And, it’s going to hurt before it gets better again.

Whether it’s a bad habit or false understanding of God or anything else that puts you in the driver’s seat of your life, God is looking you in the eye and challenges you to let go of that pretense. Whatever it is you want, first let go of it, and feel the pain of it. Detach yourself from your attachments if you truly want to be healed. It ain’t easy.

And the image is apt: Putting a camel through the eye of a needle is meant to communicate impossibility. And we say that in our own way every day. “Bah, I can’t change; people can’t change.” “We don’t change.” “People stay the same.” And so, we continue to get mired in unhealthy and self-destructive life-journeys. Transformation is inconceivable, we believe.

Maybe, before anything, our image of God needs transformation. If God is not a reward machine high in the sky, who and what is God all about?

It’s hard to believe with all the rain we’ve had in the past month that earlier this summer the lawns were brown, and the ground was bone dry. We’ve seen a lot of rain, lately. I’ve noticed local creeks are flowing again, and the grass on our yard is thicker and a dark, rich green.

I was reminded this week when I read that waterdrops in the atmosphere are created when water vapour condenses. That part I knew. But what popped out at me was the following sentence: water vapour condenses on tiny particles of dust. At the very centre of every raindrop is a particle.[3]

Our relationship with God is not between entities, to begin with. We don’t relate to being, a God among various God-beings out there in a religious marketplace.

We relate to God as the ground of our very being. Our connection to God already exists. Before we do, say, or think anything. Whether we know it or not. God is already connected to us, in our innermost being.

Saint Paul writes: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16); and, “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love (Eph 3:16-17).

We don’t add God to our lives, like filling a shopping cart in the grocery store. We don’t need to relate to a transactional God-the-rewarder-in-the-sky with our consumer mindset. The Reformation should have put that mechanistic view of our relationship with the Lord to rest. We still need the Reformation!

We don’t add God to our lives. We add our lives to God. Who is already there, at the very centre of our lives.

Imagine rain, falling. The raindrops have a way to go before reaching the ground. It may feel like a free-fall. Unnerving, dis-orienting, it is to let go of our deepest attachments. We experience like Jesus did a painful, momentary ‘forsaken-ness’ (Psalm 22:1). I wonder if the rich, young man had the courage to sell all he had to give it to the poor.

I would love to meet him, especially if had gone through with it. I have many questions to ask him. I suspect, however, that if he did it, if he did what Jesus called him to do — that in the letting go he opened his heart, confronted his greatest fear and experienced a free fall … right into the love of God at the very centre of his life. What a joyous surprise, to find the presence that will always be there, and has always been there!

It may seem impossible to do—this letting go—but in Christ all things are possible. And we discover in the journey: there really isn’t anything to lose that is of any enduring, lasting value.

[1]Today’s so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ implies that when you have it right with God, you will be blessed with material riches; the converse is true, too: according to the prosperity gospel, when you sin, God will withdraw blessing and you will be impoverished.

[2]Bernard McGinn, Praying with the Masters Today, Volume 2 (Meditatio Talks Series CD B, Track 5), 2018.

[3]Richard Rohr, “The God Particle” Daily Meditation 10 Oct 2018 (cac.org /Center for Action and Contemplation)

A New Way to Pray: Tracking the Trajectory of the Reformation

What follows are the lecture notes for Week Three in the course I am giving at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality (www.osts.ca) this Fall. Reformation Sunday is on the last Sunday in October, October 28, 2018. It is a time for Lutherans and all Christians to reflect on the legacy of Reformation, commemorate its contributions, and to pray for unity among all who try to follow in the Way of Christ Jesus today.

Lucas Cranach was a Renaissance painter and printmaker in woodcut and engraving. He was a friend of Martin Luther and his wife Katharine von Bora. In one of his paintings (1547) focusing on the Cross of Christ, Cranach depicts Martin Luther preaching to the congregation. I remember this particular painting vividly as it hung above the bookshelf in my house growing up.

image.png

It shows Martin Luther standing in a pulpit perched high on the wall of the chancel at the front of the medieval church. One of Martin Luther’s hands rests on the bible. And he points with his other hand to a cross with Jesus hanging bloodied bruised planted in the floor space between Luther and the crowd gathered in the church. Jesus hanging on the cross forms the center of this work of art.

Today this painting comprises one of the plates surrounding the altar in the Wittenberg church where Luther preached. As such, we often recognize and associate this painting with the ‘Reformation altar’.

Its prominence in Lutheran history suggests how poignantly this painting describes Luther’s theological bias: The Cross stands at the center. And Christ crucified informs everything in the church and even our reading of the bible.

Before we can embrace deeper understanding of Martin Luther’s theological claim that we find salvation by God’s grace—which finds us— through faith, we must first encounter the centrality of the Cross in Luther’s thinking and prayer.

In the seminary that I attended[1], we used the term, “Theology of the Cross”. Martin Luther first coined the phrase in his Heidelberg Disputation written in 1518. A theology of the cross is a way of understanding and imagining God. Fundamentally, in addressing God, we need to ask the questions: What is my image of God? Where is God primarily revealed? How is God best known?

Luther provided an answer: God was, and is, being revealed to us in all truth most clearly and unequivocally in suffering. In the vulnerability and pain of death on the cross, Jesus revealed—and continues to—the God who suffers alongside us wherever there is pain and suffering in the world. It is no wonder, then, that the longest sections in each of the four Gospels in the New Testament are dedicated to the various passion narratives[2]of Jesus.

Therefore, the Cross is theologically vital not just to Luther but to the Apostle Paul (the central figure of the Acts of the Apostles and some of the earliest Christian writings and Epistles) who central theme is: “God’s power is shown in human weakness.”[3]

The Theology of the Cross is contrasted to a Theology of Glory. Especially today among spiritually materialistic cultures in the West, what has been coined ‘a prosperity gospel’ has grown in popularity. This theology of glory presumes God validates faith, and is only validated by, success, measures of progress and triumphal conquering over any weakness or adversary.

A prosperity gospel fueled by unbridled optimism avoids places of defeat, failure, vulnerability and weakness as having anything to do with divine identity or purpose. A theology of glory undermines real people and a God who is known in the darkest times and places of life. It compromises and even derides a common humanity and the losses we all endure.

Prayer, as I have said, is the act of letting go. If prayer begins with God, and our address of God, we must presume before all else who this God is, and how this God is revealed—in scripture, in tradition and in our own experience.

One of the first creeds that circulated among the earliest Christians is from a hymn imbedded in Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2:5-11. The poetry first describes the descent of God. This is the primary movement of God, and of faith: downward. The Almighty chose to enter the lower and lowest regions of human birth, life and death. Only after this primary downward movement can the rising out of the depths happen.

Theologians over the centuries have used the term kenosis, from this text in Philippians, to capture the primary movement of faith. It starts with Christ’s self-emptying and letting go of God’s pure, divine nature. In God’s humility, Jesus compromised a perfect divinity in order to take on the fullness of a human existence.

Our God is a God who lets go, releases, self-empties what has become part of the God-self. This calls for a descent of the soul which in the words of St John of the Cross entails, indeed, a ‘dark night’ of the soul. Prayer is not easy, in so much as it may very well be simple.

Prayer, in the words of Laurence Freeman, “… always involves us in the paradoxes of growth, the cycle of losing so that we can find and then of having to let go of what we have found.”[4]

Prayer is a continual process of detaching and dislodging from places of comfort, stability and strength. Prayer is a deconstructive process. It is disruptive. In prayer we begin first to detach our self from all that we are attached to, all that has defined our identity and lives, all our constructs—mental and material—that constitute the construction and containment of our ego. All of this, in prayer, is placed on the precipice of loss.

All is not lost, however. Because in action and contemplation prayer’s aim and understanding is the prayer of God and for the sake of the God of the Cross. “Prayer calls the active person to a life of interiority and soul discovery … by detaching from all the fruits of action and doing everything purely for the love of God.”[5]In letting go, we discover our true self in God which includes and transcends all that we have been and are becoming.

By kenosis we resolve the Lutheran paradox. Some complain that the grace of God is cheap, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer last century who sacrificed his life for a greater cause of justice in the Nazi regime. He wrote a book entitled, “The Cost of Discipleship”. Bonhoeffer argued that the theology of the cross ought not lead the Christian to rest on their laurels and not do anything. Just because we are saved by grace and since Christ lost everything for everyone once and for all doesn’t mean there isn’t a point doing anything. There is a cost of discipleship.

In prayer, we move into response because prayer is not for our sake. When we pray, it is not my prayer or our prayer. Praying is like walking along a path on the banks of a fast-flowing river and frequently stepping into the water. The current is strong. It is moving in one direction. We immerse ourselves into presence, the presence of Christ. We fall into the river of prayer that continues, the prayer of the living, resurrected Jesus, whose destination is union with God.

It is in Christ’s name we pray, and for the sake of our God who chose to be revealed in the humility and defeat of the Cross, in the most desperate human condition possible: death. We step maybe timidly yet faithfully into the water, fast flowing towards the great hope of new love and life in God. 

Questions for reflection and discussion:

  1. When you pray, after considering your image of God, what is God doing? What is God’s purpose—a purpose that is consistent with that image of God? Construct your prayer by strengthening the connection between image and function. If God is revealed in human suffering, where does that suffering lead? If God is compassionate, why? If God is patient, for what purpose? If God forgives and heals, to what end? Practice making this relationship between image and function as clear as possible before you make any petition to God. And write down some examples of the connection you make between image and function of God, to share with others next time (See copies of “Prayers of the Day” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship for good examples of how short prayers can be constructed).
  2. What is one non-negotiable spiritual practice and/or belief you would hold onto, if everything else had to be take away? (Ask yourself this, after visiting a place of worship other than your own)
  3. If time was short, what is most important to you in the end? Have you had this crucial conversation with those closest to you? If not, why not?

[1]Martin Luther University College (formerly, Waterloo Lutheran Seminary)

[2]The last several chapters of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John describe in detail the last days of Jesus leading to his arrest, torture and death on the cross. These passion narratives form nearly half the total lengths of the Gospels.

[3]1 Corinthians 1-2

[4]Laurence Freeman, Christian Meditation Newsletter, June 2005.

[5]Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, 17 August 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some pointers:

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

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

 

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

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

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

[4] Mark 14:36

[5] Acts 24:14.

[6] John 14:6

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

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

[9] Psalms 20:4

[10] James Martin SJ, ibid., p.329.

The human face of a vulnerable God

Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote a play entitled: ‘The Living Dead”. The climactic scene is set in the attic of a house in France during World War II, where a half dozen captured members of the Resistance are being kept. The prisoners anxiously await the morning, when they will be executed.

An unexpected thing happens, however. The attic door opens, and the Nazi soldiers throw in the leader of the Resistance. The Nazis don’t know who he is. As far as they are concerned, they simply caught a man out after curfew.

The prisoners’ anxiety turns to courage. They tell their leader, “Don’t worry. We will hold our tongues.” The leader responds, “I thank you, for myself, for the Resistance, for France. Your courage and your sacrifice will not be forgotten.”

Suddenly, one of the prisoners says, “Oh, shut up. Nothing you have to say could possible mean anything to us. I am not blaming you … the fact is that you are a living man and I am a dead woman after tomorrow morning. The living and the dead have nothing to say to each other …and that fact puts an impenetrable barrier between us.”[1]

The Leader of the Resistance is an example of who God is NOT. Until Jesus, there indeed stood an impenetrable barrier between the divine and the rest of us. This is precisely why God became human. If God couldn’t bridge that divine-human divide, how could we love God? How could God love us?

When we look at the world today, we may just the same want to get angry at our human leaders if they lack authenticity. Scenes of African poverty, the chaos of Middle Eastern refugee camps, the evil of human trafficking, the growing divide between rich and poor, the scandals and fake posturing in politics – these all make us angry.

Indeed, in life we sometimes feel like shouting at God: “Shut up!” And working through that anger is good, I believe, because we will realize that many of our gods are not God: The god of domination. The god of violence. The god of consumerism. The gods of competition and combat. The gods of politics and superiority. Which lead us in the opposite direction when it comes to the God of the cross, and God’s relationship with us and the world.

We arrive soon at the climax of Jesus’ earthly, very human story. And this man who reflects the face of God says something very different from the gods of this world.

German Reformed theologian, Juergen Moltmann, tweeted this week: “We discover his glory in his humbleness, his greatness in his poverty, his power in his self-surrender, from the wretched manger in Bethlehem to the desolate cross on Golgotha.”[2]

In today’s Gospel reading[3], Jesus says, “…My soul is troubled.” Jesus can say this. He is fully human and authentically relatable to us, as a human being. “Jesus had the full spectrum of emotion and experience. He was sad and had compassion for those who suffered. He wept with a broken heart including upon the death of his friend Lazarus. He got mad at injustice and hypocrisy (“you brood of vipers!”) and got frustrated at his disciples who were continually arguing and not getting his point. Jesus changed his way of thinking as with the surprising confrontation with a Syrophoenician woman. Jesus learned and developed. Jesus was human!”[4]

God does not bypass the humanity and death we too must endure. God is now capable, because God became fully human, of removing the inseparable barriers between God and the world. Our Leader is one of us!

“…My soul is troubled,” says Jesus. Thank God for these words! These are the kind of things Jesus said that reveals the truth of the Christian God. Jesus says this in response to the inquiry of Gentiles during the Passover Festival in Jerusalem, just days before Jesus dies on the cross. Everything has been accomplished in his ministry and mission, even now to all the nations represented by the seeking Greeks.

Nothing is left now for Jesus to do other than his final surrender to death. Jesus is now ready to succumb to the evil gods of the world which will condemn and crucify the upstart prophet from Galilee.

When Pilate, the regional governor of Palestine, later confronts Jesus during his trial, Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world. If it were, his followers would be fighting to protect, defend and save Jesus.[5] Obviously, the method of God is not violence however justified. The way of God, is vulnerability and surrender. Not combat, not force-on-force, not physical strength, not invincibility nor violent justice.

Yes, we hear the human Jesus in that honest, vulnerable statement: “My soul is troubled.” In these words, Jesus crosses the divide between divine and human. He identifies with all our troubled souls however afflicted. He knows what is coming.

In Jesus, God was given a face and a heart. God became someone we could love. We don’t and we can’t fall in love with abstractions. So, God became a person “that we could hear, see with our eyes, look at, and touch with our hands”.[6] The brilliant Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995) said the only thing that really converts people is “an encounter with the face of the other.”[7]

This is why to this day Christians have sought God among the faces of the poor, the destitute, the refugee, the homeless – and have tried to do their part in alleviating the plight of the disadvantaged and vulnerable. Because that is where God is discovered.

“Just giving people commandments on tablets of stone doesn’t change the heart. It may steel the will, but it doesn’t soften the heart like an I-Thou encounter can. We are mirrored into life, not by concepts, but by faces delighting in us, giving us the beloved self-image we can’t give to ourselves. Love is the gaze that does us in! How blessed are those who get it early and receive it deeply.”[8]

The prophet Jeremiah says it best: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”[9]

The good news is that the vulnerable God we worship and follow suffers with us. This vulnerable God in Christ Jesus lived in poverty and died in shame and torment. This God embraced our humanity. And has earned the right to ask us to hold on a little longer until morning comes … until resurrection.[10]

[1] Cited by Michael Battle in David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.141-142.

[2] @moltmannjuergen, March 15, 2018

[3] John 12:20-33, Lent 5B.

[4] Brother Luke Ditewig, “Brother Give us a Word”, daily meditations from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE), 20 January 2018.

[5] John 18:36

[6] 1 John 1:1

[7] Cited in Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditations”, 15 January 2018.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jeremiah 31:33-34

[10] Michael Battle, ibid., p.144.

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).

The hide-and-seek God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Genesis 3:9

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

[5] Isaiah 64:1-2

[6] Isaiah 45:15, KJV

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

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

[9] Isaiah 64:8; Jeremiah 18

God-talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[1] Matthew 5:1-12, NRSV

[2] Psalm 1:1, NRSV

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

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

[5] ibid., p.239

[6] Matthew 11:3

[7] Matthew 16:22

[8] Matthew 5:11-12