The mystic magi journey: discovering a new way of seeing

The word, ‘mystery’, Paul mentions four times in the text assigned for the Day of Epiphany.[1]He calls receiving God’s grace “the mystery of Christ.”

A mystery is not something that ought to scare us. Like how we feel when reading a whodunit and murder-mystery novels so popular. We have lived in a culture that sees mystery as something bad, something to avoid, something that is opposed to a life of faith. If something is mysterious, it can’t be of God.

That, what appears on the surface, at first sight, is division, discord, disharmony, a profound and inherent disconnection in our lives and in the world.

A negative view of mystery also implies that to know God means there is nothing more to know. To claim some cerebral notions of God—we call this doctrine—and to conform our knowing with others means there is no longer anything to learn. Change, growth, diverse thinking—the consequence of something that is difficult to understand—these have been an undesired mystery.

The journey of the magi suggests we need to take another look at “the mystery of Christ.” The prophet Isaiah, from another text assigned for the Day of Epiphany,[2]encourages us all to “lift up your eyes and look around … then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.” There is apparently a great benefit in seeing anew.

Isaiah speaks as if this ‘seeing’ is more than a mere observation of what is immediately in front of you. This spiritual seeing is about perceiving a deeper reality. Some would say it is seeing with the eye of the heart, or the mind’s eye. Sight, here, is not just a biological function of the eyes, but involves deeper more subtle capacities within us.

From the perspective of faith, mystery means, “endless knowability.”[3]Mystery is not something we cannot ever know; or, conversely, some riddle that we must solve once-and-for-all. Rather, mystery is a journey of learning more, growing, a continual expansion of our awareness, knowledge and perception.

The reason Matthew includes the story of the magi in his rendition of the birth of Jesus is to describe what is true for anyone on the journey of life and faith. 

For one thing, we never arrive at the fullness of truth on this journey we are on. That was the credo of the old science, that somehow once we figure something out, it never needs to be revisited or rethought. This approach affected the way of the church; that is, once you are confirmed or become adult or affirm your faith or join the membership … well, you’ve arrived. You are saved. And you don’t need to do anything more. Or change, or grow in faith, or explore different dimensions of the faithful life.

To say, “I don’t know”, in response to a question meant there is something wrong with you and your faith or your understanding. To confess “I don’t know” according to the credo of the old science was an admission of weakness, that something was not just right, or complete, with your faith. And this was shameful.

And yet, Paul challenges such arrogance (ironically since he was an arrogant guy himself) by focusing our attention on the “boundlessriches in Christ” whose intent is “to make everyonesee … the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” [emphasis mine]

The magi of old studied the stars to gain understanding of God’s creation which included the boundless reaches of the universe. They sought the incarnation of God’s grace in Christ, and so followed the star. But when they arrived at the site of the nativity in Bethlehem—the apparent destination—was their journey over? Truly?

Far from it. Not only did they have to deal with Herod and his wiles, they continued by a different road. On earth, what is the destination of your faith? The destination of our yearning, searching, and endless knowing doesn’t mean the journey is over and done. And we have nowhere else to go. We continue on, seeking new expressions of God’s grace and God’s presence in Christ.

In a TV series called “See”, starring Aquaman superhero Jason Momoa, a post-apocalyptic humanity is blind. No one can see. Everyone is completely visually impaired (with few exceptions). The producers and actors do an excellent job of conveying to the viewer how individuals and communities arrange their lives to move and live without sight.

In a powerful scene, a ragtag group led by Jason Momoa is forging down a forest path, his sword cutting the air in front of them. It all seems to be a tranquil setting when suddenly he shoots out his arm to stop them from moving one step farther.

“What wrong?” another asks.

He shakes his head lifting his unseeing eyes ahead. “It doesn’t feel right. It is not safe.” Being physically blind has developed other, intuitive, senses – smell, the feel of the air, sound—to paint a picture of the truth in front of him.

As it turns out, they were walking into a narrow canyon ideal for an ambush. The ambushers, of course, were also blind. But as soon as they heard the subtle sounds of someone walking far below them—the scrape of a foot on stone, the crunch of dried leaves or the snapping of twig, they would aim their cross bows in the direction of the sound and shoot with deadly accuracy. Jason Momoa’s group was saved by a knowing that was deeper and richer than mere physical sight.

God has given us capacities beyond what we have known. There are unfathomable depths to our being in this universe and an immeasurable limit to our understanding. In describing a life of faith, Paul writes that we have confidence walking our journey of faith, “not by sight.”[4]There is more to it than a visual, observable certainty.

When someone asks you a question about your faith, and you find yourself saying, “I don’t know”, you need not say it as an admission of weakness. You can say, “I don’t know” with confidence because you are still on a journey of learning and discovery. Scientists today who study the stars will suggest with confidence that the universe is always expanding. New stars and solar systems are being discovered. We are endlessly knowing. The journey isn’t over. It never is.

And, what is more, scientists today will readily admit that there is indeed something at work in the universe that goes beyond the mere, yet important, crunching of numbers. Something they cannot put their analytical fingers on, yet something people of faith have been claiming since the beginning of time:

That our lives have purpose and meaning beyond the collision and interaction of molecules. That everything that happens in our lives is somehow intertwined, that there exists an almost imperceptible connection between ourselves, our past and our future, a connection that is leading somewhere, a connection that brings healing and wholeness to our lives.

A connection leading us somewhere eternally good.


[1]Ephesians 3:1-12

[2]Isaiah 60:1-6

[3]Richard Rohr, “Mystery is Endless Knowability” Paradox(Daily Meditations, www.cac.org, Tuesday, August 23, 2016)

[4]2 Corinthians 5:7

Love: The Body speaks

I jumped out of bed Labour Day Monday ready for action: I had my traditional ‘to do’ list around the house, tasks reserved only for that most auspicious of holidays: Labour Day. Neatly positioned at the beginning of a new school year, Labour Day promises the beginning of a new season of programs, commitments, work, setting goals, ideals and visions of our aspiring.

I only did certain jobs on this day of the year. You know, like Spring cleaning, these were things that needed to be done once in a while, but aren’t really activities that are particularly pleasurable, to say the least. So, I put it off to Labour Day. I need that annual calendar day to help me stay disciplined. And that is good.

One of those jobs was cleaning the HRV – the Heat Recovery Ventilator. This is the contraption attached to the furnace that recycles the air in your house. On the sticker inside the ventilator, it suggests that the filter should be cleaned once every three months. Yeah, right. Who has time for that?

So, on Labour Day every year, I dutifully remove the heavy box containing the filter, and hose it down. I wash the spongy fabric and hang to dry. I meticulously wipe out the interior of the ventilator with a damp cloth. I vacuum out all the cobwebs, dead wasps, flies and dust mites. I use pipe cleaners to clean the plastic, transparent drain tubes. And when everything is done I put it all back together. Usually it takes me a couple of hours. And then it’s on to the next item on my Labour Day ‘to do’ list. You get the idea.

I knew I had a full day’s agenda of those odds and sods sort of jobs.  Jess and I had just pulled the stove away from the wall to clean the floor underneath (yuck!) when all-of-a-sudden the doorbell rang.

With beads of sweat trickling from my forehead stinking of sweat in dirty clothes, I looked up with ‘surprise’ at who was smiling and waving through the front door pane: my parents-in-law! They were inviting us out for lunch at the local truck stop.

With herculean effort to switch gears and rush into ‘receive-and-respond-to-guest’ mode, I quietly complained to Jess in the bathroom as we quickly washed up that I didn’t appreciate this interruption to the day’s agenda of hard work. Likely all the work wouldn’t get done. And how long were they going to stay at our place after lunch? Throughout the lunch hour I fought the impulse to be resentful and angry at this unplanned, unwelcomed intrusion to the important Labour Day work.

Nevertheless, have to say I enjoyed lunch out. It was a treat. And the conversation helped take my mind off other pressing matters. After only about an hour, we came home, and my parents were off to complete errands. I was surprised by how just one hour of gift, of grace, of unscheduled act of love actually gave me the energy to finish all my Labour Day tasks in a shorter amount of time than I had originally anticipated.

Love has a way of doing that. Love does not steer clear of the structures, agendas, immediacies of our lives. Love does not exist on some surreal, other-worldly plane, dis-associated from ordinary life. Love is not a fantasy trip. Love operates right in the middle of the messy, honest reality of our lives.

We call it other things, which leave us empty:

Whenever we project our wants onto something or someone we don’t have. We delude ourselves in believing we will experience love when we yield to this mirage of desire. This is the ego’s impulse. But if we are honest, getting what we want only sets the ground for wanting more and more. This strategy for life is a prescription for perpetual unhappiness bereft of true joy, because pursuing this frantic desiring is predicated on the assumption that it is never good enough. We are always wanting what we don’t have. Wanting and desiring do not fulfill love.

Neither does the law. We skim the surface of love when we try to please God by merely following the rigor of the law. This is the ego’s attempt to prove one’s self-worth by measuring it up against some ideal. But if we are honest, this effort at loving God and others is really self-centred and only exposes our failure to live up to that ideal. This strategy for life can lead to a stifling legalism, judgmental attitudes towards others and self-hate. Our success at following all the rules is not love. Paying attention to another person is. “Love is the fulfilling of the law,” Paul writes.[1]

Love is free. It is not bound by our ability to control outcomes. Love happens when we are not in charge. Love is a gift, given and received freely. There is no guarantee, from our human perspective, that all our good efforts and good works will make things right. Author and teacher Belden Lane writes: “We love and are loved by God in the act of relinquishing every guarantee of love.”[2] In truth, when we stop our striving if only for a moment, when we release our need to be in control, then we are in the position to experience God’s grace and love. Through others. In ourselves. And from the least expected of places and people. Indeed, as C.S. Lewis expressed, we are surprised by joy.[3]

The ego doesn’t like this because the ego wants to get in the way.  But, love is expressed to another without preconceived expectations of what the other person needs. Love is expressed without giving what we imagine to be best in the situation for them. True love is not striving for what particular results we want to engineer in a relationship. True love, as Belden Lane describes so well, is “a love finally purged of the ego’s calculating desires, a love without strings.”[4] We simply be with the other, and listen to them. And go from there.

Love starts here. It is hard work to love. It is a labour of love – for self, others, creation and God. And it is a work in progress – a journey – that can last a life-time and beyond.

Paul continues in the Epistle text for today, that we are to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”[5] Here, it is helpful to substitute the word, ‘ego’ for flesh. Christianity is an incarnational religion. God is, for Christians, a human being in Christ. The divine entered humanity. God knows the human body intimately. We do our faith a dis-service when we neglect, shame or deny our physical bodies as well as the human dignity of others. Our flesh is not bad. Your physical body is, according to Paul, “a temple of the Holy Spirit.”[6]

We exercise the love of God by paying attention and listening to our own bodies and paying attention and listening to the suffering of humanity all around us. “The glory of God,” Saint Irenaeus said in the 2nd century, “is the human being fully alive.” We celebrate human beauty and strength, yes, but also not ignore its pains.

I sat alone in the Bilbao hotel room looking at my body. On the surface, everything looked fine. Even great. In eight days I had walked one hundred and thirty kilometres through the Basque hills along the coast of the Bay of Biscay in northern Spain. I had even lost several pounds and buffed up a bit.

My feet were fine. So many pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago develop serious problems with blisters and tendonitis. Not I. Now, I did give regular attention to my feet: I made periodic breaks during my hiking, taking my shoes and socks off and gently, lovingly, applying moisturizing cream around my toes, under the ball of my foot and around the heels. They say foot care is paramount to the successful completion of any Camino pilgrimage. I was the poster boy for that piece of advice.

Yet, these superficial indicators did not reveal the truth of the matter. You see, even before I had left Canada to fly to Barcelona, I was coughing.

Besides the cough, I was feeling fine when I headed out of Irun at the start of the Camino del Norte, near the French-Spanish border. But eight days later, a few kilometres outside of Guernica, my right knee blew out. And, in that moment, I realized that I was in trouble. The systematic repetition of hefting my 200-pound body weight and additional 20 pound pack, leading with my right knee finally screamed protest. At first, my pilgrim friends suggested what I was thinking: A few rest days in Bilbao would renew me enough to continue my pilgrimage across northern Spain.

But after three days of rest in Bilbao, I was feeling worse. Not only did I continue to cough, all my muscles were aching not just my knee. I didn’t even feel like travelling to visit with my extended family in Germany.

My body hath spoken. And I was going to listen to it. When I saw my doctor in Ottawa a few days later, she ordered an x-ray and ultrasound which confirmed the diagnosis of pneumonia. I had, literally, ‘walking’ pneumonia on the Camino. All the medical staff, my family and friends complemented me in being able to ‘listen to my body’. And even though I didn’t realize and know how sick I really was at the time, I didn’t push it for the sake of some higher, abstract goals or principles. I came home to heal. My body was telling me something I needed listening to: Stop. Stop the frantic desiring. Stop the restless striving. Just stop. And be still, for a while.

They say the body never lies. We can deceive ourselves in our heads, play all kinds of mind games with ourselves, providing ceaseless self-justifications and employing conniving self-defense mechanisms that would confound any therapist. But what the body presents – the physical manifestation of who we are – is the truth indicator. What the body proclaims is truer than what anyone says.

Any journey towards health and love begins by paying attention to what your body is saying. And go from there. We may slow down. We may pray. We may embark on a journey to search out meaning in our lives, to explore the multi-layered regions of our hearts and souls. We may seek medical help, and rely on the gifts of medical science. We may even make major changes in our lives. In other words, we learn the truth about ourselves. Beginning with what the body says.

Someone asked me what I learned about myself during the sabbatical. You could say, I had the chance to just be myself. I experienced my humanity without the usual trappings of roles, titles and responsibilities. I met with and explored myself as a human being. I am human. Not just a talking head. I don’t just live out of my head. I live out of my body, too.

And, to be honest, I didn’t always like everything I saw, there, in my human nature. Yet, I will confess that in that mess of my humanity I re-discovered Jesus. It wasn’t so much in the usual places but in those other pilgrims I met, the help I received along the way, and in my own, ordinary self – stripped away from all the usual distractions, comforts and busy-ness of life – that grounded me in a love that endures.

Out of this awareness has grown a deep thankfulness for all the gifts of life. Gifts over which I don’t have ultimate control in having received: The gift of physical health and ability; The gift of this sabbatical – about which I express heartfelt thanks to the congregation; The gift of colleagues who take up the torch so to speak — thank you to Pastors Diane and Ted and musician, David: The gift of capable lay leaders who show remarkable abilities administratively and creatively when given a chance – Beth, Julia and Megan, especially; The gift of lay preachers who in their diverse expression reflect something beautiful about God and God’s ways – Jessica, Beth, Christa and Jann; The gift of a spouse and children who model the love of God by ‘letting me go’ for a while.

In Christianity, the word, ‘body’, takes on a broader meaning: The Body of Christ is the church, the community, the network of relationships. I am ever so grateful and encouraged. I learned another thing out of this sabbatical experience: There is love in the Body of Christ, to be sure.

 

[1] Romans 13:10

[2] Belden C. Lane, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality”, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, p.201.

[3] C.S. Lewis, “Surprised By Joy”, New York: Harper Collins, 1966

[4] Belden C. Lane, ibid.

[5] Romans 13:14

[6] 1 Corinthians 6:19

Windows of love – a funeral sermon

Our lives are like windows. Over the course of living, we evolve through at least three stages, like being three different kinds of windows.

Usually, the first half of our life is about being a stained glass window. We spend so much energy trying to get people to notice how exceptional we are. We want people to notice our beauty and see the intricacy, the colour, the ‘picture’ we want to show — how the glass is perfectly constructed, wonderfully arranged. Those closest to us — in family, friendships and work — admire and gaze upon the image we wish to project.

Then, life happens. Whether we like it or not, we can’t hold it all together. We can’t keep our loved ones from also seeing our cracks. So, we become like a cracked, dirty window pane. What people see and what we show are our wounds, our brokenness, our pain. When others see us they may want to ignore our dirt and pretend it is not there. They might instinctively try to ‘fix’ us. Or, they might get upset with us and even reject us.

Finally, we can become a clear window — transparent. We have nothing, really, to hide. We are who we are. In all our humanity we are not ashamed to reflect the truth in us — good and bad.

For people of faith, a large part of our identity is the gracious presence of God in us. The spirit of God, we say, “in Christ Jesus”. The divine presence who created us to be who we are shines through us and illumines the world.

Leonard Cohen’s Anthem verse again comes to mind: “There is a crack in everything ; there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” And that’s how it gets out, I would add.

This is the transparent window of love. Despite the good, the bad and the ugly in our lives, we cannot deny God’s claim of love and presence within each of our hearts. Saint Paul wrote that we are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10-12). This faith, then, can give us courage to be transparent, and communicate God’s love outward.

Whenever I visited Dorothy in her residence over the past few years, and prayed the familiar prayers of confession and thanksgiving ending with the Lord’s Prayer, she did something I haven’t often heard. Even in her steadily declining cognitive ability, she ended each of the prayers not just with one “Amen”, but three: “Amen. Amen. Amen” she said with escalating intensity.

And this practice was consistent over time. It was instinctual for her, to assert the affirming words of prayer in this way. As if she were emphasizing that her connection with God — which is what prayer is all about — was more important than whatever was cracked in her life. “Amen. Amen. Amen” is an assertion of faith: Let it be!

Faith to see in oneself, and in others, the face of God. Faith to embrace the love of God even though, on the surface of things, you might feel undeserving or not very loving. Faith to see the crack as a way for God’s light to shine through your life.

A little known fact about Dorothy’s life of faith: Back in the late 1950s when St John Lutheran Church downtown was expanding its mission, the common desire was expressed to plant a church in Nepean. So Dorothy, along with several other members of St John, committed to this new effort to grow the church.

During a planning meeting the tiny group were deciding what to call this new congregation. Apparently, Dorothy was the first person to suggest “Faith” as the name of the congregation. And it stuck. Thanks to Dorothy, and God’s shining light within her and through her, we have now been identified as “Faith” Lutheran Church for over fifty years.

The community of faith is not a collection of perfect people. It is really an assembly of imperfect people trying to do the will of God. I read recently of a tradition faithfully employed by the native Navajo people of the south-western United States: When the crafters of the community knit their rugs, there is always and intentionally one clear imperfection woven into the pattern of the traditional rug. Not only is this done to remind one another of who they are as a unique community.

But whatever the irregular patterning or tiny hole in the rugs, they believe it is precisely there where the Spirit moves in and out of the rug! It is through the hole where the Spirit enters and moves and where the light shines through. Without the crack of imperfection, the presence of God would in truth be missed. It is the acknowledgement of the imperfection that creates the space for what will be good. (1)

As we remember Dorothy, let her life bear witness to the truth we all share in Christ Jesus. May our lives, like her’s, become transparent windows of love.


(1) Richard Rohr, “On the Threshold of Transformation” (Loyola Press, 2010), p.170

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

Talking about toast

“I want butter on my toast, but not too much.””You’ve spread it on too thinly. I want a whole wad of it.”

“You’re being wasteful. You’ll use up the tub in a couple of days.”

“If you didn’t burn the toast to a crisp all the time …”

“I don’t like my toast slightly warm.”

” … the butter would melt into the bread.”

“Toast is toast. A slice of bread is a slice of bread. There’s a difference.”

“Lighten up. Just slather it on.”

Of course, the words alone in this dialogue do not tell the whole story. There are other ways that we communicate, that animate the message. They say seventy percent of communication is non-verbal. What does the tone of our voice communicate? What are our eyes looking at when we speak? And, most significantly, what are our bodies doing? What is our body language?

I was attuned more to this truth in Italy during our family vacation. Every culture presents uniquely in the manner of body language during a conversation, to the point of caricature and over-generalization. Of course, not every English person speaks with a stiff upper lip; not every Italian gestures wildly with their hands; not every Canadian looks downward and apologizes. The exercise, nevertheless, of paying attention to a cultural tendency is helpful in bringing awareness to the way we communicate.

We played a little humorous game, somewhat irreverent, whenever we drove by or saw in a distance a couple of Italians speaking to each other — their bodies close, hands waving on either side of their partner’s ears as if guiding a plane on the tarmac to its docking at the gate, eyes piercing the other with intensity, even spittle flying from their mouths. We couldn’t hear what they were talking about. But we made up a dialogue about something the opposite in nature to their serious, even combative, style. We would try to convince ourselves that they were talking about toast.

Communication is essential to any relationship. And it’s not just the words we speak. It’s our behaviour. What we do. How we act. What our bodies are telling ourselves, and the other who is in our presence.

In other words, communication is real. It is not just reserved to the realm of ideas and theory and abstraction. Communication involves our whole lives, our whole selves. We are not by ourselves in the ideas we express and the words we use. 

When we speak about God, and our relationship with God, we dare not relegate our relationship with God to the realm of words alone — whether those words are printed on a page, or spoken during worship in a detached manner as if those words hold power on their own without context or embodiment.

Our God is real. Our God wants relationship with us. And, in the Isaiah text today, we read that invitation: “Come, let us argue it out!” says the Lord (1:18). God is having an argument with the people of Judah and Jerusalem during the reigns of kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah.

It is not a dialogue that is calm and reserved. It is not a cool, collected, disassociated manual of instruction. It is not a legal text. It is throwing down the gauntlet! Come on! You are messing up! But I make an offer. Let’s have it out! says the Lord! You have something to say? Then say it! The Lord can take it. Let’s negotiate. Let’s hear each other out. Let’s be real.

I wonder about our image of God when we shy away from such boldness. Is it because we imagine a God who is passive? Who only does our bidding, or should? Or a God whose job it is only to direct us, judge us and basically order us around?

But what about a God who is more vulnerable than that? There is no more direct and clear message of this vulnerable God than Jesus hanging crucified and dying on the Cross. So, what about a God who seeks our attention by being vulnerable? Who wants us to engage with God in an honest, self-disclosing way? Because the message of Scripture suggests time and time again: 

Not only is God’s company available and deeply important to us, but our company might very well be important to God. Could it be that God seeks our companionship? Could it be that God desires to have us as friends, and that the God who so patiently works with us in every moment rejoices upon occasion to have our undivided attention — even when our attentions are directed to the many particular concerns of our lives? (1) 

God is, indeed, the “great companion” (2). God is present with us, interested in us, and trustworthy. God’s love is receptive and responsive. In other words, we do not pray to an impassive, unmoved mover.

God is in relationship with us. God invites us, when we have a bone to pick about life, about whatever is happening in the world, to “Come, let us argue it out.”

It’s not that God always wants a fight. I will define a “fight” in this context as a bold yet non-combative, mutually-respecting exchange of unique perspectives. What this kind of arguing or fighting reveals is passion, real feelings, and the truth about ourselves. 

And this is a sign of any healthy relationship whether we talk about relationships in marriage, or work, church, community or play. Honesty. Truth. And in the exchange of honest discourse, we bring all that we are, not just our words. Our hearts. Our minds. Our bodies. 

We may not change God’s mind about whatever. But that is not the point. God wants to hear what we have to say. God wants to feel our passion, hear our cries, sense the beating of our strained hearts. God wants to understand us. This is what Jesus was all about. 

God sent Jesus in our flesh so that God could begin to truly understand what it means to be human. And in that humanity, in seeking us, God can bring an outpouring of love, grace and mercy — time and time again.

So, any subject is on the table. Thanks be to God! Anything is on the table, in all honesty. Including talking about toast.
Amen.

1 – Nancy Campbell & Marti Steussy, “Process Theology and Contemplative Prayer: Seeking the Presence of God”, p.87

2 – Clark Williamson, “Learning How to Pray,” in Adventures of the Spirit: A Guide to Worship from the Perspective of Process Theology with Ronald Allen (Lanham: University Press of America, 1997), p.162

No life insurance

It’s like the spirited game parents play with their young children.

I remember years ago when the kids were still in diapers tossing our little ones up into the air, and then catching them on their way down. What makes this game so delightful is to watch the expression on the face of the child. If you slow-motioned the activity and zoomed in on the facial reactions of the child at each stage of the ‘throw and catch’ game, you would see a contrast of emotions:

From the catch to the upward toss, a smile and squeal of joy; from the falling motion to moment of catch, a growing sense of alarm as the eyes widen in concern and fear begins to creep into the picture. But, then, again the catch. And the grin returns. And the game resumes.

Can you imagine being the widow in the Gospel story (Luke 7:11-17) who has just lost her only son? Having lost her husband is one thing. You think it cannot get any worse. Yet, as is often the case in life, it does. Now her son. She feels the sharp edge of grief once again. Perhaps more deeply for the child she gave birth to, and raised with all her mother’s love.

Not only a personal grief, but the prospect of living in extreme need. Being a widow in 1st century Palestine was usually a ticket to poverty and low social status. A woman’s economic worth was almost always tied up in the men of her household — her husband or eldest son. This was much more than personal, emotional grief. This was a complete life-style change, from top to bottom, in a heart beat.

After meeting Jesus, however, things change so rapidly. From a season of mourning and grief, to the astonishment and wonder of joy: Her son is no longer dead, but alive! No longer is she alone, vulnerable, a burden on society, worthless in the economy and social structures of the day. Now, she has her son back. She has family. And that means the world to her!

Although something has changed. This new thing is also scary. All who witnessed the miracle were filled with fear (v.16). What does this second chance at life mean? Things will be different now. No longer like the good old days.

The rapid and extreme change of emotions could make her feel like a yo-yo. Maybe life sometimes feels like that for you. From moments of exquisite satisfaction, pleasure and joy, to the dark caverns of grief, depression, loss, suffering, fear and pain. Life. Death. Life. Death. Life. Death. Life. 

In my first parish, which was in rural southern Ontario, burials were conducted (except during winter months) immediately following the funeral service in the cemetery right beside the church building. The recessional with casket proceeded to the grave side where the words of committal, prayers and scripture readings were offered. 

But then, the family stood by as the grave-diggers and funeral attendants lowered the casket, suspended up until that point on winches and ropes, down into the hole. In some cases, I had to assist by moving the casket into place as it slowly lowered. Once resting on the ground inside the hole, a family member used a spade to throw the first shovel-full of earth onto the casket — a symbol of the family participating in burying their loved one.

Today, especially in urban centres where funeral services are highly managed by market-driven professionals, most often the family leaves the grave-side before the casket is lowered and actually buried. I wonder about how the smallest of acts reflects our attitudes towards death and loss. 

Perhaps we can’t ‘go there’ emotionally so soon after losing a loved one and have to insulate ourselves in order to cope. The funeral rite therefore serves more as an anesthetic against the harsh reality of death and loss. I wonder: Does the experience and ritual of funerals only end up buffering the hard, emotional impact of loss?

Perhaps we are not used to ‘losing’, letting go, failing, surrendering, being powerless, vulnerable, at ground zero. We have little in life to practice this letting go before the final experience of losing a loved one. And perhaps healthy religion, as Richard Rohr claims, is about showing us what to do with our pain.

Is this too difficult an expectation of our faith? Because in making religion only about ‘feel good’ ‘warm fuzzies’ we might maintain our denial of life’s realities and only distract ourselves from truth. And that’s not what Christian faith is about — distracting us and keeping us from the rhythms of life, death, life, death, life.

Because in avoiding death, we also ironically, avoid life. And Jesus is about life. When we say this Gospel story is first and foremost about a miracle, we may be missing the point. It’s understandable that we do, because it is sensational. It captivates our imagination.

Focusing only on the miracle may just play into our fear and avoidance of death. As if to say Jesus performing this miracle was done for the boy’s sake. The enemy, death, was conquered! Therefore we can go on denying death. As if the boy will never eventually die an earthly death. As if to say Jesus performed this miracle solely to convince us to ‘believe’ in him — because no one else could do so (even though there were magicians/soothsayers and other miracle workers who performed incredible acts in Jesus’ day).

But the miracle, per se, is not the point of the story. Jesus raised the son from death not merely to show his divine power but to express his love and concern for the widow. He had compassion on her (v.13). And he couldn’t stand the thought that she would have to go it alone in a culture that marginalized the widow. Jesus brought the son back to restore a relationship, for living in the world.

God tosses us into the air. God throws us into the thick of life with all its challenges, disappointments, failures, weaknesses, joys, hurts, loves, pleasures and pain, satisfactions and accomplishments. God throws us into the air to experience fully this life we have been given. Life, death, life, death, life, death …

Then, to our happy amazement, God catches us again at just the right moment. God cares about what happens to us in our lives. God is interested in every minute detail and event in our lives — even those things we would rather cover up and hide in the darkest recesses of our hearts. God’s light exposes those secrets, even. We may feel vulnerable, challenged, unsettled for a time. And we may even wonder if we won’t just crash and burn on our way down.

Have faith in the One who’s tossing you. Because it’s part of life, for one thing. But most importantly, because God loves you and will quite unexpectedly be the One to catch you, at just the right moment.