The house built by fear

Reading from the bible can be scary. Sometimes a faithful reading of the bible will not bring calm and assurance. Just the opposite!

Today’s scripture can evoke fear.[1]When Jesus talks about Herod’s glorious temple crumbling to the ground and being betrayed by family members, our eyes widen in apprehension and we shift uncomfortably in our seats. Fearful of the future. What will it bring? Is God’s future good or something to fear. We do know, the way there won’t be easy.

From the Gospel, Jesus exposes two false ways in which people of faith try to deal with our fear. By that, I mean, strategies that we have employed for thousands of years in order to combat our fear. While these methods may be effective in allaying our fear, they also serve to block the way we connect with God.

The first such strategy Jesus exposes is our attachment to, and almost exclusive dependence on, what we build. Even, as we say, to the glory of God. These buildings. Glorious, adorned with carvings, intricate stained glass, spires making confident bids to the sky, and arches perfectly rounded and balanced. Architectural master pieces. To say the least.

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The pulpit alone, in Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica, is a wonder to behold. It is a sermon in itself – its spiraling, narrow staircase winding itself up into a small yet regally appointed platform high above the nave.

King Herod, for Christians reading the bible, was a paranoid despot. He killed innocent children was ruthless in defending and protecting his hold on power. Because he was afraid, afraid of losing it.

For historians and archeologists, however, he was a builder par excellence.

King Herod started building his temple in Jerusalem two decades before Jesus was born. During the time of the build he more than doubled the size of the temple mount. The temple proper was completed in eighteen months. But work on the outer courts and decorations continued throughout Jesus’ lifetime and still some thirty years after his death and resurrection. During this impressive season of building the temple, people gathered under the large colonnades and porches to hear speeches and witness healings.[2]

It was a gathering place, a central focal point for people’s identity in faith and source of authority and guidance for life. It was where you went to listen to and engage religious debate. It was where you went to deliberate truth. It was where you made animals sacrifices. Here, you found the rules and regulations and laws for a good life.

Less than a decade after everything was completed on the Herodian temple, it was pretty much destroyed by the Romans in the late first century. Jesus’ words in the Gospel text for today, calling for a day “when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down”, speak to events that were happening in the lives of Jesus’ followers during this time of the destruction of Jerusalem and its glorious, magnificent temple.

In reading this text carefully, however, I realized this is not just about buildings. Jesus isn’t just criticizing those who put all their religious stock in bricks and mortar. Jesus is exposing yet another related strategy for dealing with our fear. Not just in the glory of the buildings, but in the way we speak to one another and relate to one another. Not just in glory. But also in power.

It was, after all, the authorities who made the rules, sold the animals for sacrifice and mediated the people’s connection with God.

At root, the religious authorities persuaded the people that their relationship with God could only be mediated by the authority’s permission. If you didn’t follow the rules and authorities, you were not justified or in right relationship with God. The whole culture, the spiritual climate, surrounding the temple served to choke out freedom of a personal and direct intimacy with God.[4]

The Russian novelist Dostoevsky wrote the dismaying story with the title, “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov. The old cardinal of the church hears that the real Jesus has come suddenly to his town. The cardinal is alarmed that Jesus healed a blind man who had been coming to his church. Then, he hears that the real Jesus who has come to his town raised a young girl from the dead.

When the cardinal confronts Jesus he asks him: “Why, then, have you come to interfere with us?” He wants to rid the town of Jesus, because in his mind what Jesus did long ago is done far better by the church today. In other words, the cardinal has to admit to himself, the church does not need Jesus.[3]The cardinal really couldn’t give up the power he had. Not give it up for anyone. Even Jesus. The cardinal was afraid of losing his job — what it would mean for him and the church …

Seeking glory and defending power seem to be effective ways of dealing with our fear.  We attach ourselves to symbols and expressions of glory in our culture – the tallest buildings, the fastest cars, celebrities, newsworthy leaders and victories on the battle fields of life. This brings comfort, though momentary and fleeting. Because we can never be satisfied operating in this consumer and acquisition-fueled culture. There’s never enough, or it’s not good enough. Ever.

Jesus suggests we must learn a new language. A new way of being, with God and with one another. A way, marked not by successes in the eyes of the world—there were lots of tourists in those houses of worship we visited in Montreal. The world approves. But will we walk a different way – a way marked by love, faithfulness in suffering, and generous giving in the face of poverty, suffering and our fear?

Throughout the Gospels, the religious authorities asked Jesus for a sign of his authority. And, he never satisfied them with his answer. His answers usually appear to disturb their sense of right and wrong.

The truth, when it comes, seems to turn upside down our initial ways of thinking and doing. Here, Jesus says, “For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”[5]

These opponents were neither stupid nor un-educated. In fact they were the most articulate and brilliant of the age. So, there is something altogether different going on here. A different way of being with God. A way not encumbered by discursive thought and debate. A way not intimidated by rules and regulations and conditional statements of belonging. A way not defined by glory-seeking persuasion nor forceful coercion.

The confirmation class the other night reflected on the meaning of the Trinity—God the Father who creates all, God the Son who is with us, God the Spirit who gives us strength. On this poster they cut out images from magazines to place in one of three designated areas on the poster. These images evoked for them the meaning and feeling of what God is up to in the world today, through the various persons of the Trinity.

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In reflecting on the experience of doing this exercise afterwards, we pastors admitted this was rather an abstract exercise. We weren’t just memorizing definitions of the Trinity from the Catechism, difficult enough as that is! But in engaging the confirmands on another level, we began to see more than we thought possible.

We discover that we don’t find God by building glory or defending power — ways we use to avoid confronting our fears of the future. Rather, the good news is that God has already found us. In this world. In our lives. And in a multitude of ways.

Making this link, this connection, is much simpler than all the methods we have devised to combat our fear. We don’t need the tallest and most beautiful buildings to assert God in this world. We don’t need to merit, or qualify for, our relationship with God by building skyscrapers or getting straight A’s in school.  We don’t need degrees and a long pedigree to justify ourselves in faith. We don’t need to arm ourselves with book knowledge in order to defend against some opponent whether a family member or stranger.

All we need is an open heart and a desire to love and trust. Following Jesus is about going directly to intimacy with God in our deepest selves. And God is there, right there, all along.

We can respond, then, not out of fear. But out of the love of Christ for all and in all. Forever.

 

[1]Luke 21:5-19

[2]Acts 3:11; 5:12

[3]Cited in Eberhard Busch, 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.310-312

[4]Ray Leonardini, Finding God Within (New York: Lantern Books, 2018), p.93-96

[5]Luke 21:15

Resurrection in community

In the artwork of first centuries, for example, we see a striking difference between western and eastern portrayals of the resurrection of Christ. From western art we see pictures focusing almost exclusively on the risen Christ. Jesus emerges from the tomb alone as if to say, “Look at me! I made it!” Light glows from behind him. Whatever else there is in the painting, it is background material. Resurrection is primarily and exclusively about Jesus. And we declare “Jesus rose from the dead” as an individual.[3]

A good example is The Resurrection by Italian artist Andrea di Bonaiuto found in the Spanish Chapel, Florence, Italy.

Contrast this western artwork with the East. From eastern Christians, we see greater emphasis on the resurrection community. Resurrection is depicted more as a corporate event in the overcoming of death, evil and sin. Without denying the work of Christ in all of this, the implications are emphasized. So, it’s not so much about Jesus-the-individual conquering the grave as it is about all of creation rising from death to new life.

A good example is the painting outside the Church of St George in Romania.

The Eastern interpretation makes sense of challenging scriptures as one from the Gospel of Matthew; at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection: The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After Jesus’ resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.[4]  The life, death and resurrection of Jesus has implications for the whole people of God. Including us.

Both our tradition and the bible challenge our western bias. Instead of focusing only on the individual, we can learn how to be, and embrace being, in community.

Being and remaining in community is not easy. Relationships are messy. We would rather avoid having a crucial conversation.[2]We would rather not commit to a community because it’s easier to just leave when it gets tough. Especially when we can fall back to our individual, autonomous, private lives and independence. We would rather escape the boiling cauldron of community life.

We need to come clean with our natural bias towards individuality. That we value it. Really value it.

Let’s look briefly at today’s scripture. The story we read from Acts, chapter eleven, is actually a repeat of the same story in the previous chapter ten in Acts. The story line remains consistent: Peter has a vision from God and then meets three emissaries from Cornelius. And the message in both is the same:

Peter is called by God to expand his vision and mission of the Gospel to include Gentiles. Peter is challenged to overcome his stereotypes and distinctions between the Jews and Gentiles, and see God’s mission in more universal terms. No issue was more important to the early church than whether their newfound faith was intended only for Jews, or whether it was to include Gentiles while allowing them to remain Gentiles.[5]

The same story, told twice, in successive chapters. In fact, some of the words in chapter eleven are taken verbatim from chapter ten. Why did the author repeat the same story? Obviously this story was very important to the early church that it was re-told. Maybe a way to understand why, is to note what is different between the two. What’s the difference?

What changes in chapter eleven is the confrontation with ‘the apostles and the believers’ in Jerusalem.[6]Peter has been called before them, has heard their criticism, and now responds to it by telling them the story first conveyed in chapter ten. The difference is the context; and that context is Peter being called to task for his eating profane foods with those uncircumcised Gentiles.

We learn from the early church that believers were not reluctant to voice their differences. Peter did not escape. He didn’t go hide in the anonymity of a large shopping mall, airport or Caribbean vacation. He didn’t jump in his fishing boat and disappear on Lake Galilee.

Peter entered Jerusalem and squarely faced his critics. Too often, we try to be ‘nice’ at church. We try not to be confrontational. We try to sidestep controversy. We closet our differences. We paint smiles on our Sunday-morning faces. Even as we know deep down there may be an elephant in our collective room, and even as we suspect in our hearts irreconcilable issues. And, if we can’t handle this posturing, we leave. Get out of dodge. Back to being individuals in our private lives.

This text reminds us that controversy and difference needs to be voiced, not avoided. Conflict needs to be transformed, not ignored and swept under the rug. Living in Christ does not mean putting our heads in the sand. It means looking each other in the eye. It means accepting the other is unique, different from you.

What does this mean for us? First, when we say that we participate in the resurrection of Christ, we begin to see with fresh eyes the whole world not as risk or threat but as gift, invitation and trust. There’s what we call a ‘mutuality’ that informs our relationships—the way we relate with one another and especially those whom we may dislike or are fearful of.

In other words, mutuality can be described this way: what I see in you I see in me; what I see in me I see in you; seeing myself both in those I love and those I dislike.

Jean Vanier, the creator of the L’Arche Communities around the world, died a couple of weeks ago. He was the founder of homes for the disabled after he realized that all people, especially those with severe disabilities, have something important to offer to the world. In his writing entitled, “Ten Rules for life to become more human”, he said:

“The big thing about being human is to meet people. We need to meet people who are different and discover that the other person is beautiful.”[7]

To make this discovery for ourselves, especially in people we dislike, we need to practice paying attention for the gift in others.

The disciples are commanded by Jesus to love one another.[8]The life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus means the focus will shift to the community. The spotlight of faith is now not on some heavenly, other-worldly reality. It is on the Body of Christ. The focus now is not so much the individual, historic Jesus. Jesus now lives in the Body of Christ—the church, the community, wherever the Spirit of the living God blows in all creation, in every time and every place. This is the expansive vision of being a follower of Christ today, in real time.

When we share the Peace of God—a tradition in our preparation for receiving Communion—we can practice paying attention to the diverse ways in which we communicate that Peace of Christ and participate in vastness of Christ’s presence. We practice how it is to love. An analogy, you might say. Because we are all different.

And just because some may wish not to share the Peace in the same way as you do—shaking hands, or giving/receiving a hug—doesn’t mean they don’t want to participate.

Our intention comes from the heart. The desire to participate emerges from inside of us. I suggest the first thing we pay attention to is eye contact. When we turn to the person beside us look them in the eye. These eyes of ours are windows into the soul. They reveal this good intention in our heart to communicate the love and peace of Christ. This is when you can say, “the Peace of Christ be with you.”

The second thing is, pay attention to what you do with your hands. When you open them outward and upward you are giving a cue that you are open for a hug. Mind what the other is doing with their hands after making eye contact. Are they also opening their arms? If not, they are giving you a cue not to hug. What else can you do?

Your hands can come palms together in a prayerful pose—the namaste. While keeping eye contact and bringing your hands together over your heart, you may bow slightly, saying, “Peace be with you.” You can also give a fist-pump/shoulder-pump if you do not wish to shake hands. Obviously if both of you are reaching to each other in a motion to shake hands, your cues are mutual.

Two assumptions to review: First, please do not assume everyone will do it the same way as you. That’s Community 101 and it applies to lots of things. Pay attention to body language. There’s more to this liturgical act than saying the words. Second, just because you receive different cues from the other doesn’t mean they don’t wish to participate in conveying the love and peace of  Christ to you. We just have to work harder at discovering and respecting their way.

There are various ways we can communicate to another that we participate in the life-giving activity of God in the world that God so loved. And continues to love, through us.

 

[2]Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High (Toronto: McGraw Hill, 2012), p.11-14

[3]Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Resurrection (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org), 21 April 2019.

[4]Matthew 27:52-53

[5]Stephen D. Jones in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 2 (Louisville: WJK Press, 2009)  p.451-455.

[6]Acts 11:1-3

[7]Jean Vanier cited in Canada Lutheran Vol 34 No3 (April-May 2019), p.8

[8]John 13:31-35, the Gospel reading for Easter 5C, Revised Common Lectionary.

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.

Dare we imagine

For my friend’s wedding over twenty years ago, I was asked to play Pachelbel’s Canon in D on my violin for the processional. We were to rehearse on the Friday evening. As I was running late, I drove over 120 km/hour on the Queensway from the west end all the way to Orleans. When I ran into the church, violin case in toe, the bride was waiting. I had made it just in time to set up and start the procession.

The notes lifted off the strings and the bridal party started down the aisle. But I was getting strange looks from them when all of a sudden the bride waved her hands and said: “Could we start over? Martin, did you tune your instrument?”

At that moment I actually heard the music I was playing – completely off key, sharp by at least three tones. “Ah, no,” I mumbled, even though the problem wasn’t that I hadn’t tuned my instrument. The problem was in my head.

You see, when I sat down to play, my mind was still travelling 120 km/h on the Queensway. My body may have been resting at that moment when I played the first note. But everything inside of me was still going. And going fast. No wonder I was playing sharp.

I learned from that experience, that before I play my guitar or violin, or sing any song, I must pause. I stop. And in my mind, before playing the first note, I hear what I want to play and how I want to play it. I need to imagine it first, before doing anything.

The truth is, you cannot even do something until you first have an image of it inside you. Albert Einstein, early 20th century inventor and scientist, once said, “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge …”[1]

Late 20thcentury author, surgeon, and inventor — Leonard Shlain – made the case that images come before our capacity to verbalize or name what we see.[2]We have to see it in our mind’s eye, first. Our imagination dictates our reality to a large extent.

Attending the Festival of Homiletics in Washington D.C. this week is a real treat, as I have had a little time in the busy schedule hopefully to visit the National Gallery of Art.

There, until mid-summer is an exhibition of paintings about Francis of Assisi. Francis of Assisi from the 13thcentury is an important figure in Christian history. He is, of course, known for his spirituality about nature and all of creation. Francis is also credited for putting Christmas on the annual Christian calendar. Christmas is the celebration of God’s incarnation into humanity.

I was impressed to learn that “Francis of Assisi has the longest, single entry in the bibliography in the Library of Congress, also in Washington D.C. He is the most written-about human being in history. Every day there is another biography, monograph, that they enter into their files, from another language, another culture, even other religions.

When the Pope some years ago wanted to gather leaders of all the world religions to have a respectful, inter-faith dialogue, the only city in the world that they could agree to meet in was Assisi, Italy. Because the memory of this man doesn’t carry much negative baggage at all. “[3]He was one of those rare human beings whose humility and stance towards others garnered respect and love. Truly, a saint.

In one popular painting of him, he is standing with arms open and the birds flocking around him. But instead of looking up – which you might expect – he is looking down at the earth.

In the season of Pentecost we are entering now, we read from Book of Acts that the Spirit of God “came from heaven” upon those gathered in Jerusalem.[4]The Spirit of God came down upon the earth. The Spirit of God descended to the place where humans were gathered.

Often we assume that to be spiritual, or to be holy, we have to gaze upwards towards heaven – somewhere away from the here and the now. We may therefore over emphasize our destination in the heavenly realms while paying little heed to the earthly journey.

In the optioned first reading for today[5], we encounter a dramatic vision of what happens in the valley of dry bones.[6]The prophet Ezekiel conveys to us a message using fantastic imagery, not unlike later apocalyptic visions from Daniel and the Book of Revelation in the Bible. I hope our imaginations are stirred by this reading, where skeletal human remains join together and begin to walk again.

Christians have traditionally understood this vision primarily to point to the resurrection of the dead, in light of Christ’s resurrection. This rising, then, would happen at the end of time, after our physical death.

Such an interpretation does not do full justice to the text, whose context is the community of exiles in Babylon, some six centuries before Christ. These exiles – the people of God – felt dead, like the dry bones. They had lost everything when Babylon conquered Jerusalem – their temple, their homes, their land.

The prophet Ezekiel with the exiles, conveys the word of God to the hopeless. The vision of new life in the dry bones is a promise of new life for the exiles. They are given hope, in a hopeless world.

Holy people in art are often depicted looking up to God. While this is certainly an appropriate stance to have in life, let us not miss the point of the Pentecost message, which is not fundamentally heavenward. The primary movement and message of Pentecost is downward. To the ground. God’s Holy Spirit blows upon the earth, in the earth, and in humanity.

God’s Spirit comes to us, wherever we are in life on earth. To whatever circumstance of our lives. Whether we are imprisoned in the exile of our own making or constrained by forces beyond our control. It is into the ordinary, the mundane even sordid realities of life to which God now comes.

Our lives on earth matter to God. How we live and what we do with what we have matters to God. How we live and what we don’t have matters to God. How we live with others matters to God.

While in the passing season of Easter our gaze may have looked upward to the glory of Jesus, our gaze and focus during Pentecost levels out upon the earth. We now watch for the presence of God among us. We go where the Spirit blows to do God’s will and mission.

We pause to imagine, like African American slaves did centuries ago on this continent, that ‘dem bones’ will rise again out of captivity. Dem bones will sing a new song. Dem bones will embrace freedom in the loving grace of God.

Dare we imagine.

[1]Cited in Leonard Shlain, “Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light” (New York: HarperCollins, 2007)

[2]Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditation” 14 May 2018 (Center for Action and Contemplation), http://www.cac.org

[3]Richard Rohr, “The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis”, Session One/CD1 (Boulder Colorado: Sounds True, 2010)

[4]Acts 2:2 NRSV

[5]Day of Pentecost, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary

[6]Ezekiel 37:1-14

Prayer for Reformation Sunday

We give you thanks, loving God, for  your unconditional love and grace to us and all people. Help us be moved to your heart, Christ Jesus, as our motivation, our desire, our passion for the decisions we make in our congregations. By your Holy Spirit, keep us steadfast in your Word, and continue to bless us in mission for and with others, so all may have dignity and all may live in hope. Amen

You shall see the light

Jesus commanded that we shall love our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40). This commandment motivates me to participate this afternoon in the clerics’ cycling challenge (www.clericchallenge.com), initiated by Imam Mohamad Jebara.

  
Practically, then, what Jesus’ commandment means is that if you love someone, you want to know something about her or him. You want to know who she is, what he values, and how they orient their life. If you love someone, you take the time to talk to him, get to know her, and in so doing, you share yourself as well. 

  
Love shows itself in attention to another, in accepting another on their own terms — yes, and in a willingness to learn something new, to think about things in a new way, and to grow together in friendship and harmony. 

  
When I say Christians are called to love their Jewish or Muslim neighbours, for example, I mean we are called to develop relationships of mutual affection, understanding, and appreciation (Kristin Johnston Largen, “Interreligious Learning and Teaching” Fortress Press, 2014, p.59). Then, we love our neighbour as ourselves, thus fulfilling Jesus’ commandment.

  
I had the pleasure of viewing some artwork this past week at the Rothwell Gallery on Montreal Road in Ottawa. The Gallery is presenting until October 24th the work of the late Leonard Gerbrandt (1942-2010) who travelled the world and created beautiful impressionistic watercolours and prints especially about the structures of various land and waterscapes. I was given a personal tour by Ute, his spouse, of the hundred pieces or so displayed in the gallery.

  
When we began the tour, she asked me to guess what colour appears and is prevalent in the vast majority of his art. With a twinkle in her eye, she confessed that this particular colour also happened to be his favourite. And so I went to work. At first, I suggested it was the earth tone greens, even maybe the rust, terracotta and orange/reds. No. No. And no.

As we reflected on one specific piece of art I marvelled how Leonard mixed the blues to distinguish sky and sea. Ute smiled, then said, it was blue indeed. I quickly travelled through the gallery looking anew at the paintings. And you know what? It was true! Now, I could see it — blue indeed found its way into almost all his paintings. Why didn’t I see that at first?

Blue, after all, is my favourite colour too (No political association, though!). And then I pondered further why I couldn’t see what had always been my favourite colour. Had I been distracted by the flashiness of other ‘colours’? Did I take ‘my colour’ for granted? What were ‘the blocks’ inside of me preventing me from seeing what was most important to me? Pride? Anger? Fear? Shame? Greed? Why couldn’t I appreciate fully the beauty that was staring me in the face, for me?

Of course, colours would not exist without the presence of light. In fact, it is how the light is represented in a work of art that brings out the textures and hues created by the paint brush. I also believe that art, like music, serves to reflect back to us an inner state — and that is why art and music can be so powerful conveyors of meaning and truth about ourselves and the world at any given moment in time.

The living Jesus is with us, and in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. The love of God propels the Spirit to move us in the the way of Jesus. And yet, we block our sight. We can’t see the light. What are those blocks that keep us from living out of our nature that is being renewed day by day? What keeps us from loving our neighbour? Is it fear of the unknown? Is it a shame that is deeply imbedded? Is it the fire of anger, the pain of regret, the poison of hatred, the paralysis of mistrust?

“Out of his anguish he shall see light” (Isaiah 53:11)

This phrase comes from a larger so-called suffering servant poem from the prophet Isaiah. Christians have read Jesus Christ into the role of the servant even though the text was originally heard among the people of Israel hundreds of years before Christ. The ‘servant’ could refer to the people as a whole suffering in Babylonian exile, or to a specific individual (i.e. Persian King Cyrus /Isaiah 45) who liberated the Israelites and led them home to Jerusalem.

This exegesis is important and we need to tread carefully in working with sacred texts that we share with our Jewish neighbours. We Christians know the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross for our liberation, indeed for the whole world. Jesus fits the suffering servant-narrative from Isaiah. Let’s work with this.

The anguish Jesus experiences in his suffering and death reflects a God who is fundamentally relational. And God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit relates to us in our very own humanity. Thanks to Jesus who showed us the way not just in his divinity but especially in his very own humanity. ‘Anguish’ after all, is a human emotion grounded in love. That is, “to anguish over the loss of a loved one” (online dictionary definition).

Not only does Jesus know our suffering in a shared humanity, he feels for us because of God’s intense love for us. The author of Hebrews is therefore able to describe Jesus as the ultimate high priest, who “is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to [this] weakness” (5:2). In short, Jesus helps us “see the light” because of God’s deep anguish-filled love for us. God grieves losing us to our sin, and will not stop short in going the distance — even sacrificing his own life — so that we too will see things as they truly are, in the brilliance of God.

In prayer, 14th century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich reflected the divine stance: “I am light and grace which is all blessed love.” May our words and deeds reflect the light of Christ to our neighbours, in all grace and love.

  

Pentecost: A tangled mess

The tangled mess that is this long, electric cord takes me time whenever I cut the grass. I stand there pulling the ends through loops and ties, slowly unravelling the serpent-like wire until it stretches straight. Each time I cut the grass. Sometimes I am impatient and frustrated. But I do it time and time again. How can I resolve this problem of a tangled cord?
Sometimes our lives may feel tangled. In truth, our youth and those teenage years often may feel quite tangled, as you sort out sometimes messy contradictions and conflicts in your life — figuring out your sexuality, clarifying your vocation, discerning what you want to do “when you grow up”, finding your place in this world, and navigating the often bumpy road of relationships and friendships.
Dear confirmands, you are entering a most complicated, challenging and exciting period of your life. And through it all, your life may sometimes feel, frankly, a tangled mess. How to even begin un-tangling it?
Today, the colours in the church are passionate, powerful, fiery red, because it is Pentecost Sunday — the birthday of the church. It is the day we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples gathered in Jerusalem, in dramatic fashion I might add: Tongues of fire alighting upon peoples’ heads, and a sound like the “rush of a violent wind” crashing around them (Acts 2:2-3). Then, when the disciples address the diverse crowd in their native languages, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel describing what is happening in these “last days” — when God will show “signs on the earth below: blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day” (v.19-20). Indeed, we are seeing red!
Living amidst all this drama could feel kinda tangled, messy, chaotic. But, I thought being a Christian was supposed to be all neat and tidy, ordered and predictable, comfortable and nice. The coming of the Holy Spirit into our lives suggests something altogether different! Birthdays are supposed to recall who we are, our identity. How do we even begin un-tangling meaning and purpose of our existence as a church, from this crazy picture?
I purposely did not iron my red chasuble for today’s service to remind myself that following Jesus sometimes feels ‘dis-ordered’. And, I purposely left alone two small holes in this old, Pentecost garment to remind myself of something Saint Paul gets at in the second reading for Pentecost Sunday: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness”; and, that the whole creation, including you and me “groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:22-27). 
What I often ‘see’ in my life are a lot of holes — many weaknesses. What I often see in other peoples’ lives are their weaknesses. What I often see is me trying so hard to keep my life untangled, compared to others. What I see is all my toiling and fretting and striving to make things right and straight. But, hope that is seen is not hope. If I pretend how good everything is — or ought to be — all of the time, that’s not hope. That’s just me toiling in vain pretending I will be saved by my own efforts.
You might have heard illustrations of some old cathedrals in Europe especially built with holes in the ceiling. They were built purposely so, in order to provide an ‘imperfect’ entry point for the Spirit of God to descend into the lives of the Body of Christ on earth — the church. The entry point of the Spirit of God is precisely through the imperfections, the tangled messes, of our lives — not through our vainglorious, self-righteous, pull-myself-up-by-the-bootstraps efforts. Remember, the Spirit of God helps us in our weaknesses. At ground zero. When on our knees we fall and confess, “I need help and I cannot do it on my own.”
We don’t find God by doing it right. God finds us by our doing it wrong. That’s not to say we ought to go out and try to sin. It is to say that when we find ourselves — as we all will — in moments of our greatest weakness, that’s when Grace happens, when we provide entry points through the ‘holes’ of our ego, our bravado, our pretences of ‘being right when everyone else is wrong’.
You would think that after fifteen years of home ownership and being the person who cuts the lawn in our household; and after ten years of cutting the lawn with an electric, corded, lawn-mower, I would have already figured this out and just purchased one of those roller-thingies for the cord. The strange thing is, I haven’t and after I am finished cutting, I still just crumple the cord and throw it into the garage on top of the mower.
Maybe that says something about the reality and truth of our lives. No matter how much we may grow, and mature — I would hope — over life, we are still stuck in some ways, and will still get into messes from time to time. Youth is just the beginning!
The scriptures for Pentecost are very clear that the disciples of Jesus did not ‘invoke’ the Spirit or earn God’s coming by saying and doing the right things. The Spirit came to them, freely, surprisingly and despite their weaknesses. And what is more, Saint Paul further specifies how that Spirit comes — when we do not know how to pray as we ought (v.26). Not a very impressive picture of humanity. And yet, God still has faith in us, and comes to us!
On the cross, as Jesus hung dying, he said, “It is accomplished” (John 19:30). The victory is won. In Jesus’ human suffering and death, he says this. Not on Easter Sunday, when we celebrate his resurrection. But the victory is won in the moment of God’s fullest identification with human humility, shame, vulnerability, weaknesses — at the moment of what signifies and is in reality our greatest defeat: death. There, “It is accomplished.”
Jesus, God, identifies with us in our tangled messes. In some ways — although this may not be comforting — being a teenager is the best time of our lives to know God, precisely because it is a time in our lives when we have permission to be most honest about the struggles of our identity and purpose in life. 
Even when you feel most distant from God. Even when you feel your faith is not ‘all there’, and you wonder if you have any faith in God at all. Even when you make a mistake, which you will. Being confirmed today is not a perfect ‘affirmation’ of baptism and faith you are making. And it never will!
These are the ‘holes’ so important that we acknowledge — not deny! — and we see as the entry points of the Spirit of the living God into our hearts. It is exactly at those moments of greatest vulnerability and honest weakness that Jesus walks closest to us: That was the purpose of the Cross, the accomplishment of the Cross. That in human suffering and entanglement, God’s grace and power abound. It is God who saves us. Not our work at being ‘good’ or ‘perfect’.
Traditionally during the liturgy of Pentecost, and specifically right after the reading of the Holy Gospel, the “Paschal” light is extinguished. You will recall that this candle was first lighted at the Great Vigil of Easter fifty days ago. And for each of the subsequent Sundays of Easter it has remained lighted — a sign of Christ’s living, resurrected and eternal presence.
Now it is extinguished. Would anyone suggest, why? Isn’t Jesus still alive? Where is he now? With the coming of the Holy Spirit into the church, and with Jesus ascended into heaven, the presence of God and Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit alights in our own hearts. Through the ‘holes’ of our ego, in the imperfection of our lives, the flame of God’s Spirit washes over us in patience and in gentleness. The Spirit purifies and clarifies our hearts upon which God’s stamp still rests from our baptism. The Spirit encourages and reminds us of who we are and whose we are, forever, and no matter what.