God of disorder

In the last couple of weeks of October walking around our neighborhood, Jessica and I noticed how many people had already put up Christmas lights on their front yard trees and on their houses. I don’t think I can remember a year that folks were already decorating for Christmas to this degree when Halloween hadn’t yet happened.

I suspect many of us are eager to get on with it. In this pandemic when so many of our cherished, social routines have been dismantled, we just want 2020 to be over. Maybe the sooner Christmas can come and go, the better. It could be like pressing hard on the gas pedal even when you know there isn’t much gas left in the tank; a give-it-all-you’ve-got just to get to the finish line of 2020. I wonder if hanging up Christmas lights now is also about trying hard to resist staying in the moment of this disordered time. 

It’s like frantically paddling in a rapid, thinking that the harder and faster we paddle the sooner we can get through the rough patch intact. Doesn’t matter how you paddle or what skill you bring to bear on the situation, just park your brain and book it.

But sometimes the best thing to do is the counter-intuitive thing – to loosen our grip, relax our compulsion and breathe into the moment, even if that moment is mired in the chaos of rapidly changing times. 

When I celebrated my birthday last week I didn’t know how I could enjoy the day and week which was packed full with zoom meetings, appointments and visits. And especially when we weren’t setting aside time to go out to eat at a new restaurant, catch a movie in the theatre or attend a concert at the NAC like we normally would pre-covid.

Even though I didn’t celebrate in the usual way, I was surprised by the joy I felt in simply seeing the faces of people I knew on the computer screen who were sharing an imperfect yet cherished moment together. I was truly grateful.

I agree with Bishop Pryse who told some of us on one of these zoom calls that physical distancing doesn’t mean we have to be socially distant nor ‘soul’ distant. To get there, though, we need to appreciate, in a new, perhaps previously unrecognized way, the gift hidden within the disorder.

The Gospel text for All Saints’ Sunday this year are the Beatitudes from Matthew 5 (1-12). These sayings from Jesus at the beginning of a long sermon he gives don’t get as much air time as the Ten Commandments from the Hebrew bible. It is no wonder the Commandments are more popular because they point to ‘order’, or an ordering of life. Lutherans have traditionally lifted up the value of ‘good order’ to justify the roles of ordained leaders and the general functioning of the church and society.

The Beatitudes, on the other hand, even though these are words from Jesus, almost encourage disorder, with their weeping, longing, poverty and the endurance of persecution.[1]The words that follow each “Blessed are …” statement describe states of being in a disordered life or circumstance. We are not naturally drawn to these situations.

And yet, these Beatitudes may come to us today as a gift in these times of pandemic fatigue and physical restrictions. The Beatitudes suggest that God is also in the disorder. Perhaps if we placed more emphasis on the Beatitudes of Jesus we could begin to believe in the valuable lessons and experiences that come out of times of dismantling and disruption.

Generally speaking, disorder is the second stage of a three-part journey. Life moves dynamically from order, to disorder, to re-order – again and again. The Christian dynamic is true: Life, death, resurrection – again and again. It happens. It is true – in nature, in the changing seasons, in the economy, in all human institutions, relationships and lives. Order, disorder, reorder.

There is hope in the disorder. If you read on in chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel, as Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reinterprets the Law. Six times in a row he says: “The Law says … but I say”[2]Jesus takes what he has been given, and makes something new out of it.

In this time of disorder, God is reinterpreting our lives. God is cleansing our intentions, exposing our weaknesses, making us honest and pressing the reset button on our lives. After all, Christianity has used the language of being born again. The first birth is not enough. We not only have to be born, but re-made. “The remaking of the soul … has to be done again and again.”[3]

There’s never a going back to the way things were. Never was. Grief over a loss of a loved one is the hard school of learning that truth. The past is not rejected nor obliterated from the landscape of our lives; we don’t forget our loved ones who have died. It’s more that we grow, like a plant, out of the past into the new thing that emerges in our lives. It is a growth that includes and transcends the past. 

In this time of disorder, we can have hope that we are on the way, however slowly this happens, to a new dawn and new beginning. And it will start with love, and loving others in the disordered places of our world.

[1]Richard Rohr, What Do We Do With The Bible? (New Mexico: CAC Publishing, 2018), p.37

[2]Matthew 5:21-48; see Rohr, ibid., p.49.

[3]Richard Rohr, ‘Order, Disorder, Reorder: Part Two’ Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, Sunday, August 16, 2020)

Love in the balance

“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free”

–Jesus (John 8:31)

Are you ‘covid-careless’; or, ‘covid-paranoid’? – two expressions I’ve heard used quite often.

Do you lean towards hyper-vigilance, and self-preservation-ism? Are you overly paranoid? Do these pandemic times stoke your battle cry (which has always been there, just underneath the surface) for hunkering down and keeping that big, bad world out there, out there? It certainly helps if your life circumstances allow you to cocoon.

Or, does that needle lean towards a denial or avoidance of the problem? Do you believe things are normal and criticize the ‘cancel culture’ of limiting economic and social interaction these days? Do you defy the mask-wearing practice, calling this a large-scale hoax?

Before pointing fingers of judgement upon others, we are well first to recognize our own tendency, and locate ourselves on that spectrum between those polar opposites. Confessing our own bias, we are making our bid to change for the better. We recognize our need to grow from our fear to be more faithful and trusting, grow from our self-centredness to love another.

Are we willing to change and grow?

I’d like you to imagine with me a tightrope, a long one, fastened at both ends. At each end, identify for yourself opposite responses to a problem you face. For example, above, I gave the difference between being covid-paranoid and covid-careless. The key, I believe, in our maturity in faith is to recognize where we are on that line, and move towards the opposite pole.

Many scriptures are actually constructed to contain both the problem and its resolution. But not everyone will see it the same way, depending on your perspective. Some will see first the problem; for them, they need to work hard towards a resolution. Others will first see a sunny disposition; for them, they need to work towards acceptance of hard truth. Neither is bad; just a different starting point.

You can see this tensive balance in the famous Reformation Psalm, 46. Here are the words that Martin Luther used to compose the well-known hymn, A Mighty Fortress is our God. While the words of Psalm do not literally equate God with a ‘mighty fortress’, Martin Luther made that interpretative leap, and his powerful image has stuck with us for the past five hundred years.

But the “city of God” is not ‘the city is God’. The city belongs to God. God is present in the city. But a bricks-and-mortar fortress of impregnability and impressive show, God is not. At least not according to the Psalm.

God is our refuge and strength and a very present help in trouble. But, it is fair to ask, how is God our refuge? A vengeful warrior on the battlefield? A fortress building? How do we see God? How is God revealed to us? We can’t be too hard on Martin Luther for his loosey-goosy interpretation in the words of his hymn. Because he gets it right almost everywhere else where it comes to our relationship with God.

We can stay with the Psalm in order to find a way of knowing God amidst the trials of life. Because towards the end of the Psalm, another image of God is resolved: Not as military buttress and fighting machine against evil. But someone who makes peace: He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear …

On the one end of the spectrum we see the fulcrum of might and earthly power in all its dazzling display of strength against the opposition. On the other end of the spectrum we begin to tread into unknown spiritual territory for many of us: Be still, and know that God is.

Again, the question is: in which direction, to which end of the spectrum, do you lean? And, having confessed this in all honesty, the spiritual path, the path of growth and maturity in faith, calls you to see the good on the other end of the spectrum. And go in that direction. Rather than merely judge others on the other side, we move towards them!

If we imagine a tightrope, a long one, I wonder about where along this tightrope, this spectrum, you can bounce higher? It’s in the middle isn’t it? But if you stay very close to either extreme end of the tightrope, you’re not going to bounce very high at all. You might never fall off, but you won’t really ever live, either. Because the purpose of walking on that line of tension in the first place, is to follow Christ, and follow that path to growth and the joy of living in God’s love.

The love of God resolves the either/or tensions in our lives. Whether you tend toward being covid-paranoid or covid-careless. Whether you see a glorious, all powerful God waving a victory flag on the battlefield of life, or a bleeding, tortured and dying man on a cross bearing the world’s evil.

If you are more covid-paranoid, maybe for you the challenge is to move your attention away from self-preoccupation toward another, and to practice safe ways to connect nonetheless with others. Thus loosening the grip of fear over your life.

If you are more covid-careless, maybe for you the challenge is to consider your own potential contribution to the problem. Maybe you need to consider others’ health and well-being, especially those who are vulnerable. Communal health is just as important as your own. Thus putting a few more limits on yourself and sacrificing your own pride a bit.

In both cases, the starting point is your own bias. And, the practice of love is at stake. Love hangs in the balance. And love is an expression both of God’s freedom and ours.

The love of God is non-possessive; we don’t own the other and we don’t control the other’s behaviour. This is a difficult practice, because we don’t want to start with ourselves. We’d rather first point at someone else’s problem or fault.

Let’s say as a parent we continue to make choices in place of our children as they grow into adulthood; that is, we understandably want to spare them from suffering the consequences of a choice they might have to regret.

Yet it is a lack of love on our part to do so, since by forbidding them to risk aren’t we essentially trying to shield ourselves from possible suffering? Aren’t we being selfish? Aren’t we really trying to protect ourselves from the anguish we will feel each time our children do something different from what to us seemed best for them?

Alternatively, when we allow our children to make decisions, and therefore to take risks, we will worry, yes. We suffer the freedom we have given them. It’s being a parent.

We are God’s children. And God loves us. And God will free us. “The truth will make you free,” Jesus said.[1] Therefore, God will suffer with us, as we are given the freedom to act. God sheds tears alongside us when we suffer the consequences of our misdeeds. God rejoices alongside us when we make meaningful movement forward in our lives. Yes, this is risky. But that is love.

The Psalmist has good advice: “Be still.” When we are still before God, and we slow down our compulsive, impulsive ways of thinking and behaving, love sinks into and germinates in our open hearts. In our stillness, we learn to pay attention to others. In the love of Christ, we move freely to love others as we are so loved.

[1] John 8:31

The playful, hidden God

Truly, you are a God who hides” -Isaiah 45:15

Last week I told the story of the seeker of Christ who discovered that she didn’t have to travel to some remote, far-away place to meet Jesus. Because she encountered Christ on her very doorstep. Much closer than she ever expected.

In the poetry of Isaiah, the salvation of the exiled and captive Israel in far-away Babylon would come in the person of King Cyrus of Persia. Salvation came disguised in a foreign king. “Truly,” Isaiah prays, “you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.”[1]

Indeed, we Christians believe in the God who hides: Deus absconditus (the hidden God). God is disguised in a tiny baby, hiding in a manger. God’s majesty and glory is veiled upon a cross. Salvation indeed comes to us disguised, coming from the least expected places. We may not see it right away.

Why is God like this? Why does God make it so difficult for us to see God? Is God trying to be funny? Why this subterfuge? Some of us who may take ourselves a bit too seriously at times may recoil at the notion of a playful God, seeing this disguising God more as twisted manipulation and a waste of valuable energy.

In my first parish I received some good counsel from my colleague Ted about encouraging youth who were scheduled to acolyte on Sunday mornings. In that parish, being an acolyte entailed quite an elaborate ritual – putting on an alb (a white gown), bowing in front of the altar at the start of the service, and using a long, tapered stick to light first the Epistle candle (the candle on the altar farthest from the pulpit) and then the Gospel candle (the one closest to the pulpit) – and doing all this without tripping on the hem of the gown when going up the steps and starting the church on fire!

There was some stress involved in this performance. And more and more youth were being emboldened to object to such ‘chancel prancing’ nonsense. “Why do this weird, awkward, strange thing?” they asked. “After all, the point of lighting candles hundreds of years ago was so worship leaders could see and read the texts. Today, we can simply throw a light switch.”

Ted listened patiently to all their valid points. He did, nevertheless, suggest something important. “When you are an acolyte and do it this way,” he said, “it is awkward and strange, for sure. But let it remind you, whenever you do it, that following God often feels awkward and strange. Like a weird kind of playfulness. You experience something that is at the same time uncomfortable and playful.” 

I haven’t forgotten that advice. It helps me make sense out of difficult situations in life, even about what we are doing for worship during this pandemic. We do things that make us uncomfortable, like wearing masks; sitting, standing and walking physically apart; not singing, hugging nor drinking coffee together. And still, we are drawn to experience something of the divine. 

There’s something to this playful nonsense that still brings us close to God. It’s like love. Expressing love can sometimes appear nonsensical. People will do crazy things for love. There’s this playful riskiness associated with love.

God is love, and maybe that is why God appears at first hidden to us. Maybe, it has something to do with being vulnerable. Maybe, God plays this way “so that we might irresistibly be drawn to a grace far closer than we ever imagined” …. [Because] at those moments when we are most fraught with vulnerability, we may also find ourselves most open to unexpected grace.[2]

Martin Luther wrote in Table Talks of his experience as a young student in Magdeburg, singing in the streets with a friend, hoping for small gifts of money or food. A huge man suddenly came running out from a nearby house, waving sausages in the air and yelling at them in noisy jest, “What are you boys up to with such a racket?”

The man grinned as he spoke, yet the boys weren’t sure how to respond. They wanted the sausages, but in fearful confusion they bolted and ran. Luther asked if that wasn’t typical of our response to God and God’s grace. Like the man frantically waving sausages, God holds out Jesus Christ to us, not seeking to frighten but to draw us to himself.

Yet, we are afraid. We can’t imagine such forgiveness. We run the other way, certain that God is angry with us, tragically misinterpreting God’s play. We can be like Teresa of Avila who talked back to God when she came on hard times; she prayed: “God, if this is how you treat your friends, I know why you have so many enemies!”[3]

Nonetheless, the goal of this prayer – this relating with God – is intimacy, vulnerability. It is risky to play this way; and yet this path leads us into a deeper relationship with God who is always very close to us.

I love that story of a father playing hide-and-seek with his young daughter. The father knows that his daughter is stretching the rules when she pretends that she has run away to hide. But, he lets her do it. When the father closes his eyes and counts loudly and slowly to ten, the daughter makes noise running away but then comes sneaking back to stand right beside her father, centimeters away, hoping the father can’t hear. 

As soon as he opens his eyes, she takes the greatest delight in reaching out to touch home base. She is cheating of course, but the father lets her get away with it. Why? 

In his words, “I longed so much for those few moments when we stood close together, pretending not to hear or be heard, caught up in a game that for an instant dissolved the distance between parent and child, that set us free to touch and seek and find each other … It was a simple, almost negligible act of grace, my not letting on that I knew she was there. Yet I suspect that in that one act my child may have mirrored God for me better than in any other way I have known … God is for me a seven-year-old daughter, slipping back across the grass, holding her breath in check, wanting once again to surprise me with a presence closer than I ever expected.”[4]

In the craziness of these times, when it is far from easy to feel, let alone see, God’s presence, may we be surprised by God’s grace. God is closer to us than we ever thought.

[1]Isaiah 45:1-15; First reading for Pentecost 20A, RCL

[2]Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (Oxford University Press, 1988), p.180, 182.

[3]Lane, ibid., p.182-183.

[4]Lane, ibid.,p.181.

Be a blessing

But remember the Lord your God,  For it is God who gives you power to get wealth, So that God may confirm the covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as God is doing today. (Deuteronomy 8:18)

It is popular to express thanksgiving with the words, “I am so blessed”. In fact my social media feeds are populated with this sentiment which expresses a gratitude for graces both large and small.

The gathering of dearly loved family to celebrate a birthday or anniversary … “I am so blessed.”

An ‘all clear’ diagnosis from a nagging health problem … “I am so blessed.”

The gift of money or financial support during tough times … “I am so blessed.”

The regular commitment from a friend to phone you when you’re having a bad day … “I am so blessed.”

Even as we count our blessings – and maybe these appear rather basic and simple in a year that has brought us so much upheaval and disruption – the message of the Gospel can challenge us, shock us.

The text from Deuteronomy mentions the ‘covenant’. The covenant between God and people was first established with Abraham. When Abraham received the promise of blessings from God, he was to do something with that. Yes, Abraham was ‘so blessed’, he can pray. His descendants would number the stars in the sky, so promised God. [1]But that blessing was meant to be given to others. God said to Abraham, “I will bless you so that you will be a blessing; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[2]

We know what being shocked feels like. The pandemic has shocked our systems. And for people in various situations, the way the world has changed has asked from each of us something different. The pandemic has shocked our lives. So much so we are in survival mode and our top priority becomes self-preservation. 

Yet it is precisely at those times when we are knee-jerked into circling the wagons and narrowing our focus into self-centred strategies for living – for whatever reasons – we need to consider again how it is we live our faith. And who we are, really.

Because the truth is – and social scientists and psychologists have all corroborated these in findings – that “our most enduring happiness does not come from what we gain [for ourselves] but rather from what we give away, offering who we are and what we have to bless others.”[3]

The blessings we receive as individuals have a wider destination. The blessings given to us are meant for others, in some way. We, as individuals, are not the final repository of a blessing. If we feel ‘so blessed’, then we need to do something for others with that blessing. What we receive has a broader purpose, a destination far beyond our private interests alone. We may not even be able to comprehend right now the fruit of those seeds we plant.

The ancient story is told[4]of the seeker of Christ who yearns to travel far to encounter and experience the presence of Jesus. She believes she can do so by going to the Holy Land and retracing the steps of man Jesus, Son of God, who walked the earth over two thousand years ago.

But she realizes that the journey to Jerusalem will be expensive. She would need to ask for financial help and save money for many years before she could afford to go. Then, nearing the end of her life she finally has enough money to go on her ‘bucket list’ trip. 

As she exits her house to leave for her journey to Jerusalem she meets the cleaning service for her apartment. Normally he keeps his head down, carrying his supplies into the building. But this time, he looks up and calls out, noticing her suitcase: “Where are you going today?”

“On a journey,” she replies, “to meet someone special.”

“I have a wife and children who I haven’t seen for years. They live overseas. And my son is sick. Whoever you are meeting, ma’am,” the cleaner continues, “is very lucky to have you.”

The seeker stops in her tracks. She takes a deep breath, nods and turns around back into her house. She doesn’t go on her trip. She has abandoned her quest for the remote. Because she has just met Christ right outside her door. 

The next day when the cleaner comes into the building she stops him in the foyer and tells him. “I know someone who works for refugee sponsorship. I will give all I have saved for this trip towards applying for your family to see you face-to-face again.” The man listens to this news, with tears in his eyes.

“We must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:35)

I pray that we can be a blessing to one another, and to the world that God so loved. 

[1]Genesis 15:5

[2]Genesis 12:1-3

[3]Ken Shigematsu, Survival Guide for the Soul (Michigan: Zondervan, 2018), p.136-137.

[4]Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning (New York: Bantam Books, 2002),  p.119,266; I’ve adapted it, so our modern ears can more readily access its meaning.

When God’s love keeps distance

14Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven;
15behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted. (Psalm 80)

Despite the fervent prayer and hopeful faith demonstrated in this psalm, God did not answer the Psalmist’s prayer. God did not restore the tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel to their glory.

In a plea for help, this psalm[1]tells the story of a vine (Israel) whom God saved from Egypt and placed it in the land of promise (the vineyard). Yet, the vineyard has come on hard times, being raided and devasted by thieves.

Scholars generally think that Psalm 80 was written during the Assyrian attacks on the northern kingdom of Israel.[2]Aware of this history, we may find the psalm disturbing, to say the least. Because Assyria took them captive around 722 BCE and sent them into various parts of the Assyrian Kingdom. The hope of the psalmist remained devastatingly unfulfilled.

Why did God not act to save Israel at the time? How could God be so un-caring to ignore the pleas of the people? 

Jesus tells a different story, which can also leave us scratching our heads about God’s apparent lack of concern. In the Gospel from Matthew today[3], Jesus tells the story about a landowner of a vineyard whose son is murdered by the tenants of the vineyard. 

Are our prayers of hope for restoration misguided? We come up with all kinds of explanations, for sure. From the perspective of history, and some distance, we may say that eventually the promises are fulfilled and the people are saved. However, in the lives of those directly affected by the Assyrian conquest and immediate aftermath such statements of belief provide little traction. “Just hang in there for 700 years; then, everything will be ok.”

But the nature of God’s love is such that God maintains sufficient distance to free us to determine our own response, whether that response yields fruitfulness or mistakes. The vineyard of God’s reign is about relationships that are non-possessive; that is, we care for one another while leaving each other free – thus mirroring the nature of God’s love. Caring, but not possessing. 

We may think of this kind of detachment as a lack of warmth and caring. Yet at certain times of our lives – especially through some suffering and loss, when changing circumstances lead to job or relationship loss, ill health or a major transition in life – God’s loving distance recognizes and allows that going through grief /loss /suffering is more necessary than going around it.

We never want to be in this in-between state: leaving what was and not sure about was is becoming. In this space we undergo a unique kind of waiting before the new thing is entered. Some have suggested it will take the rest of our lives to recognize what is truly happening to our world and our lives at this time of the COVID 19 pandemic. We are thrown unwittingly into a place that we would rather not go. 

Now we have no choice but to surrender and learn whatever good lessons are to be learned. On this journey in the in-between time and space, we must not force ourselves through until we learn what it has to teach us. We have to watch our tendency to be attached to outcome, not open to outcome.[4]

I agree with those who say that nothing less than a pandemic could begin to re-educate a cold, divided world. We needed a new ‘doorway’ and we are being pushed through it.[5]

Having faith means trusting God by accepting the new reality we are encountering at this time. Having faith means appealing to God’s help even and especially when God seems absent. It is in the messy moment of suffering and love, where God will make sense to us, somehow, and through which we will grow in God’s love for all.

How do we start? We begin by recognizing the importance of other abilities and capacities we have to access reality and truth. Our mind and its capacity for rational, analytical thought is not enough to appreciate and comprehend the fullness of what God is doing in present circumstances. Sometimes we need to rely on other faculties that allow us to receive the truth and grace of God.  

My mom told me the story she heard about a deaf man who attended worship services every week. He came late, usually as the first hymn was concluding. But he stayed to the very end of each service. His eyes were glued to the activity around font, pulpit and altar, week after week.

After several weeks of noticing the deaf man in attendance, someone in the congregation who knew sign language stopped him at the door as they were leaving. “Why do you come to worship when you can’t hear any words that are being said?” she asked, genuinely curious.

Without hesitation, the deaf man responded: “I come to see the sign of the final blessing, to watch the pastor make the sign of the cross, and to feel the positive energy coming from that sign into my heart. That’s all. That’s what I need now.”

What are the signs of God’s goodness and love, small though they may be, in your life? May the risen Christ live through our wounded lives to bring into the world the new, good thing God is doing.

[1]Psalm 80:7-15, Pentecost 18A (RCL)

[2]Stephanie Mar Smith in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 4(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.128

[3]Matthew 21:36-45, Pentecost 18A (Revised Common Lectionary)

[4]Alan D. Wolfelt, “Walking in the Wilderness Together” in Frontline (Summer 2020).

[5]Richard Rohr, “A Liminal Time” in The Mendicant Vol 10, No 2 (New Mexico: Center for Action & Contemplation, Spring/Summer 2020)