Lent begins again: Why?

We begin a journey of some forty days, which mirrors Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). We continue to observe the season of Lent, year after year, as we approach the most holy of Christian days — Easter, the resurrection of our Lord.

But why do we do this? Why do we continue to do this, it seems, against the flow of society and the dominant culture today? As a child, I remember when it was more popular to ‘give up’ something for Lent; people actually did give something up, like dessert or TV. Some still do, I know.

And yet, it seems from the perspective of our economy and lifestyle today, that planning for March break, and sun-shine, escapist getaways get more attention and energy than any spiritual discipline might.

So, let’s begin our Lenten journey with a close look at why we need to go on this trip in the first place. Speaking of journeys, then, here’s a fascinating one from the history books:

“Early in the twentieth century, the English adventurer Ernest Shackleton set out to explore the Antarctic …. The land part of the expedition would start at the frigid Weddell Sea, below New Zealand …

“‘The crossing of the south polar continent will be the biggest polar journey ever attempted,’ Shackleton told a reporter for the New York Times on December 29, 1913.’

“On December 5, 1914, Shackleton and a crew of twenty-seven men set out for the Weddell Sea on the Endurance, a 350-ton ship that had been constructed with funds from private donors, the British government and the Royal Geographical Society. By then, World War 1 was raging in Europe, and money was growing more scarce. Donations from English schoolchildren paid for the dog teams.

“But the crew of the Endurance would never reach the continent of Antarctica.

“Just a few days out of South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic, the ship encountered mile after mile of pack ice, and was soon trapped as winter moved in early and with fury. Ice closed in around the ship ‘like an almond in a piece of toffee,’ a crew member wrote.

“Shackleton and his crew were stranded in the Antarctic for ten months as the Endurance drifted slowly north, until the pressure of the ice floes finally crushed the ship. On November 21, 1915, the crew watched as she sank in the frigid waters of the Weddell Sea.

“Stranded on the ice, the crew of the Endurance boarded their three lifeboats and landed on Elephant Island. There Shackleton left behind all but five of his men and embarked on a hazardous journey across 800 miles of rough seas to find help. Which, eventually, they did.

“What makes the story of the Endurance so remarkable, however, is not the expedition. It’s that throughout the whole ordeal no one died. There were no stories of people eating others and no mutiny [to speak of …. Some have argued that ] “This was not luck. This was because Shackleton hired good fits. He found the right men for the job ….

“Shackleton’s ad for crew members was different [from the norm]. His did not say WHAT he was looking for. His did not say: ‘Men needed for expedition. Minimum five year’s experience. Must know how to hoist mainsail. Come work for a fantastic captain.’ Rather, Shackleton was looking for those with something more. He was looking for a crew that belonged on such an expedition. His actual ad ran like this:

“‘Men wanted for Hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.’

“The only people who applied for the job were those who read the ad and thought it sounded great. They loved insurmountable odds. The only people who applied for the job were survivors. Shackleton hired only people who believed what he believed. Their ability to survive was guaranteed.” (1)

Year after year, the Gospel text from Matthew 6 is read on Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the Lenten journey. It is a journey, a pilgrimage, you might say. For those willing to embark on the sometimes harrowing yet intentional path, Jesus points to the authentic quality and honesty of community life.

Being the church in the world is not to give a false impression, to show how exceptional we are in the religious marketplace. Being the church to the world is to be authentic and true to what we believe and who we are, whether or not we measure up to some cultural standards of behaviour.

Maybe that explains why Lent is no longer popular in our day. Society has already been for a while losing ourselves in distractions. In 1985 Neil Postman claimed that we were “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” (2) Over a decade earlier, Ernest Becker wrote a book I read in seminary, entitled, “The Denial of Death” (3) which is a theological reflection on how we live in ‘modern’ North America.

Indeed, we in the West continue on a course of distracting ourselves to death — with stimulating toys, technological advance and even more addictive ways to keep the truth at bay. This strategy, with often tragic consequences, only serves to drive a deeper wedge and division from our true selves.

The symbolic destination of the Lenten journey is the Cross, on Good Friday. And so, right off the start, we know this can’t be an easy journey, when we have to face and bear our own cross. But this is what life is about, is it not? Whenever hardship comes our way in whatever form it does — illness, loss, tragedy, disappointment, conflict and confrontation, failure, guilt, pain. We don’t have to seek it out; Suffering comes to us all. This is a reality we are called to accept.

We are called not to deny that our message is for people who are honest about their brokenness, who in their vulnerability do not want to pretend their weaknesses away. Our suffering can be a great teacher, an opportunity for growth and wholeness.

Suffering, in the words of Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall, “belongs to an order of creation insofar as struggle … is necessary to evoke the human potential for nobility, for love, for wisdom, and for depth of authenticity of being. A pain-free life would be a life-less life.” (4)

Lent is not a path to ultimate self-annihilation. Ultimately, Lent is not a downer. Because suffering can point to a new beginning. Followers of Jesus are not a people who suffer the pains of life without faith and hope. We can face what life brings, with a conviction that together, we can do more than merely survive.

On this journey we can experience that the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. In accompanying each other through the difficult times, we can experience something greater than ourselves. Together we will realize more than we could ever have imagined on our own; transformation, resurection, a new beginning. Together, because God in Jesus goes with us. We are not alone on this journey.

God blesses this journey.

1 – Simon Sinek, “Start With Why” (New York: Penguin, 2009), p.90-93
2 – Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985)
3 – Ernest Becker, “The Denial of Death” (New York: Free Press, 1973)
2 – Douglas John Hall, “God and Human Suffering: An exercise in the Theology of the Cross” (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), p.62-63

Burn, fire, burn


I bought this t-shirt in Italy last month — featuring Andy Warhol’s artistic depiction of an erupting Mount Vesuvius.

There really isn’t anywhere you can go in and around Naples, Italy, without being in eyeshot of Mount Vesuvius. Whether you are boating off the Mediterranean coast around the islands of Ischia and Procida, landing or taking off from the international airport there, or driving one of the many autostradas intertwining a metropolis of almost four million people, the unique double-mound character of this famous mountain is never out of sight, from any direction.

Of course it is still considered one of the most, if not the most, active volcano in Europe. Since the catastrophic, violent eruption that levelled Pompeii in the first century, it has erupted about three dozen times, significantly once in the 17th century and most recently in 1944.

Geologists and volcano experts today expect another eruption from Vesuvius, and believe they will have about a 4-week warning period before the first signs lead to the eruption.

So, you can imagine the horror we felt when we saw smoke pouring from the peak of Mount Vesuvius. Just a couple days after climbing the famed Mount and learning all this history, we were driving into Naples from the north. After holding a sudden, collective breath, we exclaimed together: “It’s going to blow!”

Some of us with phones quickly called our friends. Of course I kept driving, but in Naples it seemed everyone smoked, talked on the phone and held their child in their lap while driving at 130 kms/h. You will be happy to know I kept both my hands on the wheel while my passengers did some quick research to find out that a grass fire on the south side of Mount Vesuvius was sending smoke over the top which made it look, from our point of view, like the warning signs of an immanent eruption.

Indeed we are terrified of fire when it is out of our control. I’m not talking here about the pristine and contained burn of a campfire at the end of a day of leisure play on a lake or in the backyard. People who have seen and witnessed the raging inferno of a forest fire — earlier this year in Fort McMurray, for example — can speak of the palpable terror of a consuming fire.

In the text from Hebrews for today (12:18-29), the writer describes God as a “consuming fire.” Indeed, the writer describes the religious awe from Exodus in the Old Testament as a terrifying experience: “Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.'”

What does fire mean, in the context of faith? When we experience and confront hellfire in our lives — describe it however you will, reflecting on the greatest challenges in your life now — what does the consuming fire mean? 

In the DC Comics recent film, “Suicide Squad”, our super heroes each have a special gift they use for the cause of good. One of them has the gift of fire. El Diablo is his name, and he describes his ability as the “gift of the devil.” Indeed, we make a direct association, through culture, between fire and sin, fire and evil. In Dante’s epic 14th century poem, Inferno, there are references to fire to be sure. But considering all the degrees of hell described therein, fire is not the singularly predominant symbol of hell.

In the last century, Scots preacher George MacDonald in one of his sermons poses a more nuanced reflection on the purpose of fire: “Can it be any comfort to us to be told that God loves us so that God will burn us clean?” How many of us want to be tortured? MacDonald goes on, “We do not want to be clean and we cannot bear to be tortured.” So, the natural, human tendency kicks in — better the devil we know than the devil we do not know. And we take the easy road: we remain stuck in our unhealthy life styles and viewpoints that are far from the honest truth of it all.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that for many of us, fire means punishment.

Either we want it to mean punishment, or we imagine other people do. So, we avoid the all-consuming fire of God’s presence in our lives. We don’t believe we can stand it. In the words of a famous movie line delivered in “A Few Good Men” by Jack Nicholson: “We can’t handle the truth!” And so, in our hearts at least, we run away from God.

But the bible (in Hebrews, Revelation, Exodus, and the Gospels at least) reveals that fire is not God’s punishment; fire is not meant to be torture. 

Fire is purification.

Fire is used to refine metals. The smelter melts and pours off the gold or silver, then skims off the dross until she can see her own face reflected in the molten metal — not a bad metaphor for God’s judgement. The question is, what gets purified? And the answer has to go further than merely ‘sin’. Because sin is so embedded in our lives, and will always be as long as we walk this earth. We have to go deeper. The purification of God goes to that place deep in our hearts that causes sin, that generates those unhealthy behaviours and thoughts:

Our false selves. All the excuses, the lies, the fictions, all the rationalizations, self-justifications, all the official versions and self-diagnoses we attempt to sell to others, all the self-adaptations and defensiveness to escape criticism, all the motivations that are fuelled more by selfish ambition and fear than an honest concern for the other. All these will be consumed in the fire of God’s love.

Ironically, what I often call ‘religiosity’ is also a target for God’s fire. When we are honest about our true motivations for coming to church: Is it to look good, to make a good impression, to merely reflect the group’s ideals taking on manners of speech, dress, belief, common sense, even political opinions that make us fit and feel good about ourselves? The mournful fragmentation of the Christian Church into a plethora of denominations today is an unfortunate testimony to this truth, I believe. Yet, God’s fiery love will clean us from that sort of religiousness as well.

And when all that happens, this is the joyous promise: When God’s presence breaks into our awareness, when we feel ourselves being utterly known, embraced, and accepted as we are. The embraced and accepted self is not the false self that reflects only our perfected self image; it is the real self that God created. In that moment, the false self becomes ashes. In the end, I believe that the harshest judgement of God’s consuming fire (read: mercy, love and grace) is friendlier than our own most lavish self-praise.

But do we want to go there? Do we want to change? Or, are we afraid of what we will find when we take off the masks of our false selves?

Perhaps we cannot do this. Perhaps we are too weak to confront the consuming fire on our own willpower. Perhaps our fear is too great, and we are trapped in cycles of self-delusion. Like the point of view in our sighting of smoke on Mount Vesuvius: It looked like an immanent eruption but in truth it wasn’t. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know. In that case, it was better the devil you knew! We choose how we want to look at things. What is our response?

I see a connection with the parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:2-14) where you might recall the king threw out a guest who wore no wedding robe even though the guest had clearly not anticipated attending a wedding when leaving home that day. However, a little know fact: it was up to the host to supply suitable robes to invited guests in that time and culture. The truth of the matter was that this man refused the offer, likely insisting he was OK as he was. Invited, yes. Fit to be present, not yet.

The invitation to the marriage feast is given to us. The joy and freedom is promised. Perhaps the consuming fire of God is an unavoidable mercy. And the only thing we can count on, is that this mercy will be offered to us over and over again throughout our lives regardless of how we respond to the events, people and circumstances of our lives. And so, all we can do is take the next step on the pilgrimage with our God, the all-consuming fire.

For that alone, then, thanks be to God.

Much of this sermon is adapted from Gray Temple’s fine piece in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds, “Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year C Volume 3 (Louisville Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p.376-380

The return journey of Transfiguration

When I first watched Danny Macaskill’s video, “The Ridge”, I assumed the incredible journey on his mountain bike would culminate at the pinnacle. When he lifts his bicycle over his head through the streaming rays of glorious sunshine on top of the Scottish highland, I anticipated the credits to role. His journey done. The glory achieved. Mission accomplished.

But we were only half done! After relishing the moment, he puts his wheels on the uneven, rocky, dangerous path and accelerates downward on the return journey — jumping across gaping crevices, twisting across boulder tops and flipping over barbed wire fences. The pilgrimage began at the water’s edge below. And there, it will end.

The journey of Transfiguration, described by Luke in the lectionary for today, does not end on the mountaintop (Luke 9:28-43). After the majesty, mystery and glory of the spectacular vision on the top of the mountain, Jesus and the disciples “come down from the mountain” (v.37) into an anxious scene where Jesus heals a man shrieking, convulsing and foaming at the mouth in the grips of demon possession. Not exactly a moment of pristine glory. 

Though the story ends well for all concerned, the Gospel writer reminds us that the journey of change and transformation and healing must include a descent, a going down, a letting go, a releasing. You may call it a reality check in life, or in the case of the video, literally — the rubber hitting the road.

These mountaintop experiences of our lives, according to the Gospel, find meaning and validity in the valleys of our lives. Jesus’ majesty is legitimized in his mission to the people living in the valley. These mountaintop experiences are mere stopping points on the journey, not the destination. While we live on earth, the journey must embrace both mountain and valley, must recognize the meaning and value in both. Our spiritual charade is exposed if we pretend faith is validated only in those ecstatic mountaintop moments.

In your life, which mountains have you ascended? These can be times when you experience joy, love, peace and hope; they can be times when you experience a deep sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

And into which valleys did you descend? These can be times when you experience failure, setback, disappointment, loss; they can be times when you felt profound fear, shame, anger, guilt and anxiety. 

Joyce Rupp reflects on legends common to many lands “about a person who has an enticing dream of where treasure is located. Of course, the valuable cache in the dream hides far beyond where the person lives. If the dreamer does not leave home to seek the treasure, the dream is repeated until the person finally sets out for the extensive journey. In each legend, the seeker travels long, arduous years, filled with both dangerous and enthralling adventure, never being sure if that which is sought will be found.

“The story ends with the traveler coming to the place where the treasure is supposedly hidden. Instead of finding it there, the seeker meets a stranger at that site who tells about a dream he or she had in which the long-sought treasure is located back at the place where the dreamer originally started out. Of course, the person who has been seeking all those years now hurries as quickly as possible to get home. Arriving back at the place of the dream, sure enough, there is the treasure. What the person sought on the arduous journey had been there all along.

“This legend teaches that life’s journey, with its flow of ups and downs, has to be made. Although it leads full circle back to the home of one’s own heart, the journey itself contains the necessary teachings for growth and change.” (1)

When we return to the starting point of our own existence, we will find our true nature. Again, the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration is helpful. Because the message from the biblical record is that Jesus’ true essence was revealed on the mountaintop. He is the divine Son of God.

Yet, the Transfiguration of our Lord didn’t negate his humanity. From that point forward, he would still go down into the valley, heal the sick, preach good news to the poor and die a human man on the Cross of Calvary. The Transfiguration only uncovered his true nature in that moment of time.

In the same way, we are transformed and changed — yes. But our Christian growth does not dismiss, discard, and deny all that we are and have been — good and bad. As Martin Luther argued, we are simultaneously saints and sinners. Our transformation is not a movement from sinner to saint, as if we can only be Christian if we don’t sin anymore, as if no more sin infects our lives, as if we can somehow abolish altogether our sinful baggage on the journey. The greatest saints on earth still sinned to their dying day.

Rather, our transformation reveals to us and those around us who we truly are, in Christ Jesus: We are beloved children of God. In this life, we will always be saints and sinner. Yet, we will know and experience more and more the transforming power of God’s love for us, in us, and through us. This is our true nature. And our greatest treasure. Thanks be to God!

Where in your life do you see the love of Jesus, working in and through you despite the sin in your life?



(1) Joyce Rupp, “Open the Door – A Journey to the True Self” Sorin Books, Notre Dame Indiana, 2009, digital copy in Week 2, p.8

Dream-state

“Who are you?” the scrutinizing Levites ask John the Baptist (John 1:19-28). “Who is this man?” Because if John the Baptist is indeed preparing the way for the Messiah, he must be — according to tradition — the prophet Elijah.

There seems to be confusion in the ranks about his identity. If he is who he claims to be, then either their beliefs need to be changed, or else John the Baptist is a liar. ‘Who he is’, is a question of great importance.

I admire John the Baptist’s self-confidence. He does not seem to care who they think he is, much less their confusion. Note his rather curt responses to their questions: “I am not the Messiah”, “I am not”, “No” — He is not inclined to make kind, polite conversation. Neither does he care to make things better for them by clarifying.

And when he does say anything positive about his identity — he uses esoteric images from the ancient scripts: He is “a voice crying out in the wilderness”, meant to “make straight the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40). This is not a clear, rational response to their very pointed questions that demand a ‘straight’ answer. What is apparent and important to John the Baptist, is that he knows who he is.

Who are you? Who are we? A glaring symptom of our confusion today, our disconnection from who we are, and our supreme fear and lack of confidence in our own identity — as people of God, as individuals and members of the Body of Christ — is the heaping layers of distraction with which we surround ourselves. Especially at this time of year!

It’s like we are walking around in a dream-state. Our dreaming disconnects us from who we truly are, and what is really important. On the first Sunday in Advent, we heard Jesus’ instruction to “Keep awake!” (Mark 13:37). On this third Sunday in Advent we sing the hymn: “Awake! Awake, and Greet the new Morn” (EvLW 242). It seems a prevalent theme in our Advent liturgy is to “wake up!”

Listen to the way Richard Rohr describes our way of life:

“It’s safe to say that there is confusion about what is needed for life and what is really important for life …. We have created a pseudo-happiness, largely based in having instead of being. We are so overstimulated that the ordinary no longer delights in us. [In our culture] … middle-class people have more comforts and securities than did kings and queens in the times when royalty flourished. We have become human doings more than human beings. And the word ‘rest’ as Jesus uses it [‘Come to me … to find rest for your souls’ (Matthew 11:28)] is largely foreign to us.”

What the Gospel says, is that simplicity “is the only place that happiness is ever to be found … Such a message is about as traditional, old-fashioned and conservative a gospel as we can possible preach, and it will always be true” (Richard Rohr, “Preparing for Christmas; Daily Meditations for Advent”, Franciscan Media, Cincinnati Ohio, 2008, p.27-28).

How do we wake up from this false, dream-state of distraction and over-stimulation? How do we wake up to our true selves? And how can we embrace a more simpler life of ‘being’?

These are the real questions I believe we need to be asking during Advent, and as we approach the Christmas season.

It’s not easy. It might take some discipline. Because we may be “Like people who have lived by the train tracks for years, we no longer hear the sound of the train. After years in church, we get used to the noise of Advent, to the message of the coming Christ, so much so that we no longer notice it. Or if we do, it has ceased to jolt us awake and has become instead a low, dull rumble …

Like the house hunter who noticed the train tracks on moving day, but later sleeps through the whistles and the engines that rush by, we can miss the thing in the season of Advent that might have been the most obvious and important at one time …” — the presence and love of Jesus coming into our lives again. (Lillian Daniel, “Feasting on the Word; Advent Companion”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.66).

And this is God’s dream, coming to us. As Christians, we carry the mantle of God’s dreamers. This is our heritage — the dreams of the prophets and those who spoke God’s restorative vision to a people in exile, a people depressed, discouraged, downcast. And, who were given a vision — a dream — of a straight path through the wilderness of their lives.

To this day and age. If God could inspire Jacob in the desert with a dream of a ladder reaching down from heaven (Genesis 28:10-17), God can dream in us. If God could give guidance to Joseph wondering what to do with Mary (Matthew 1:18-25), then God can dream in us.

Twenty-five centuries after the psalmist expressed the words: “We were like those who dream…” (Psalm 126:1), Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream”. And with those words ignited a vision in the 20th century for justice towards an uncertain future. A generation later, (the first African-American) President Barak Obama, tantalized a nation, and the world, with his eloquent words of hope. Today, Malala Yousafzai inspires us to support education for women, in a dark and conflict-ridden world.

God’s dreams of a just and peaceful kingdom are born in the visions of the people of God, and in the heart of each child of God. In the end, it is not ‘my’ dream, maybe not even ‘our’ dream alone; it starts with God’s dream — when the wolf shall live with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6;65:25), and swords will be beaten into ploughshares (Isaiah 2:4).

The problem with dreaming is not the dream itself, necessarily, but whose dream it is. The problem with walking in a dream-state at this time of year, distracted by all the ueber- stimulation of our culture, is when it is our dream — my dream, alone, when I got caught up in my stuff so much that I don’t see the other; when I don’t see the other as God would.

Who are we? We are who we are meant to be when we bear witness in our very lives to the vision and dream of God. We are who we are created to be, when we let the light of God’s love that burns in our hearts, radiate out to a world shrouded in cold darkness.

And then, paraphrasing the famous words of Elliot Wolfson, God’s dream “dreams the dreamer as much as the dreamer dreams the dream.”

May God’s dream, dream in us.