Into crucible of fever and fire

The popularity of the “Bell Let’s Talk” social media event every year (in Canada) has increased our awareness of mental health. Especially this year, in the throes of a worldwide pandemic, we may very well have a contemporary equivalent to the kind of “demons” that afflicted Galilean communities in Jesus’ day. We all struggle with, as we say, our own demons.

When adversity strikes, when prolonged periods of desolation, unknowing, doubt and uncertainty weigh heavy on us like a suffocating blanket we cannot seem to throw off.

Indeed, these are the times Jesus enters the lives of people – when they are in crisis. The context of the healing stories that reveal the divinity of Christ are times of suffering of some kind in the lives of the people Jesus encounters. Why does Jesus, born of God, care to go first, like a magnet, into these messy and dark places of our lives?

After telling the first healing story of Simon’s mother-in-law, the Gospel writer Mark makes a statement-of-fact-like claim when he concludes that the demons, “they knew” Jesus.[1]They recognized him, as they already declared in the healing story prior to this one.[2]

The flipside is true, too. To know another is for the other to know you. The demons knew Jesus. But for this to be true, Jesus had to know them. God, in Christ, knows intimately the darkness, the pain and the suffering of our lives.

The first steps in faith during a crisis is to welcome Jesus in. Jesus entered the house of Simon and Andrew before any healing could happen. They had to let Jesus into the space of this crisis where Simon’s mother-in-law suffered from a fever. We welcome Jesus into the messy, dark, suffering region of our souls. Not to deny Jesus entrance into that which may be embarrassing, shameful or guilt-ridden. Not to pretend, deny or hide Jesus from these places in our life.

But precisely because Jesus knows our demons, the road to healing will not close the door of our burdened hearts to God but opens them wide in trusting vulnerability.

Nathan Drum was all set to become a successful, big-city lawyer when he joined the military and fought in the Second World War overseas. In William Krueger’s award-winning fiction book entitled, Ordinary Grace, Nathan returned home a changed man. 

His experience in war affected him so much so that he came back and did a 180. He enrolled in Seminary and became a pastor serving a three-point parish in rural Minnesota.

Some of his friends and family wondered what happened that would have changed him, thinking that it must have been a specific incident in the war itself that must have done something to him.

His friend, Emil, offered a different perspective when they considered another friend of theirs, a veteran of the Korean War who came back to heavy drinking and physically abusing his family.

Emil, a veteran himself, says, “Sometimes, Nathan, I think that it wasn’t so much the war as what we took into the war. Whatever cracks were already there the war forced apart, and what we might otherwise have kept inside came spilling out.

“You may have gone to war thinking you were going to be a hotshot lawyer afterward, but I believe that deep inside you there was always the seed of a minister.”[3]

Into the crisis, that is personal for you, Jesus will enter boldly and without hesitation. Christ will enter in, to expose and shed loving light on our heavy hearts and whatever pain we bear.

Jesus will also expose the seed of the truth in ourselves. Not only is the darkness revealed, but the light in us as well. Those ‘seeds’ are deep within us, and we may have for a long time kept these inside, hidden from view. But on this journey Jesus will open to us our capacity for love, for compassion, for mercy and forgiveness. That is the way. The way of Jesus.

The journey there may be painful and will call from us endurance and resiliency. By leaning on the support of others who offer their loving presence and help, we will know we are not alone on this journey. And that, in the end, what ultimately emerges will be the beautiful flowering of who we are and for what purpose we are made.

Some will denounce the lockdown as harmful to us. Some will decry the pandemic restrictions as an unfortunate reality, something we should avoid, deny and as quickly as possible get past and get back to normal. For some of us, we will need professional help to deal with our crisis of mental health, or of a financial situation, or the loss of any kind brought on by the worldwide crisis.

But for most of us whose lives have nonetheless been changed by the pandemic, I believe this crisis can be an opportunity to re-engage the inner and transcendent dimensions of our lives and the journey of faith. Before we can do anything effective out there, we have to come to terms with what’s in here. 

In all truth, faith is born in adversity. Faith in Christ cannot be experienced apart from the crucible of fever and fire. Christ will be present into the crisis. And Jesus will touch our hearts, aflame with pain, touch our hearts to heal them and activate therein the fire of love, patience, forgiveness and compassion – for oneself and then for the other.

[1]Mark 1:34, NRSV

[2]In Mark 1:24, the demon assailing the man in the synagogue cries out to Jesus, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

[3]William Kent Krueger, Ordinary Grace: A Novel (New York: Atria Paperback/ Simon & Schuster, 2014), p.67-68.

To be free and forgive

Letting go is a popular message these days. Especially in the grief process, we are told that we need to let go. And let God. 

Trust, freedom and forgiveness are all implied in the ‘letting go’ mantra. All of these are benefits of letting go, values to which we aspire.

Yet, when letting go stays just a concept in our heads, we will likely not experience its benefits. Letting go is not a mind game.  We don’t just convince ourselves, like when someone persuades us to believe something we hadn’t before considered. Letting go isn’t therefore something that happens immediately, at the snap of a finger. It is something that is practiced over time. A long time. And it isn’t easy.

A friend went to see a wise person one day and asked how they could be saved. And the wise one told them to go to the cemetery and insult the dead. So, the friend did so, hurling insults and stones at the graves. When the friend got back, the wise person asked if the dead people had responded. And the friend said they had said nothing.

So, the wise one told the friend to go and praise the dead. When the friend reported back, the wise one asked how the dead had taken the friend’s praises. The friend replied that they had said nothing.

So, the wise one said: “You know all those insults you hurled at them and they said nothing; you also if you want to be saved – be like the ‘dead’. Take no notice either of the insults of people or their praises. Behave like the dead and you will be saved.[1]

When Simon and his brother Andrew, James and his brother John left their families and jobs and ‘immediately’ followed Jesus, it doesn’t mean these disciples no longer had relationships with those they left behind. It doesn’t mean they were cut off from their families, even though Mark’s style of writing may make it feel like that.[2] It’s just that the nature of those relationships changed, once Jesus came into the picture.

How did they change? What’s happening under the surface?

Letting go. Not a mental thing, but a practiced thing. It’s something we do, trusting in the one who is calling us to step out of the boat so to speak.

When we trust God, it is first an experience of freedom. Each of us has to learn this for ourselves. This is what, I believe, the disciples in the Gospel had to learn in order to follow Jesus faithfully – by practising to leave everything behind. Not because those things they left behind were bad or good in and of themselves. 

But because they needed to be free from family and their jobs. They needed to know what it is like not to be emotionally, psychologically, identified and bound by those things. In other words, the disciples would learn that who they were in Christ was not defined exclusively by what their families thought or how their jobs had conditioned them.

Because if we pursue freedom from a reactionary position, out of our own fear or anger, we just end up passing our own pain and suffering onto another person whether we know it or not. We don’t improve the situation; we just make it worse when we ignore and overlook that inner component of our life’s work.

Maybe how the disciples followed Jesus is an analogy of how we will grow in our relationships with loved ones when we follow Christ. Maybe following Christ is about having a proper emotional distance from both praise and judgement, like the friend learns in my opening story.

Mature spirituality is about letting go. Effective prayer is a practice of this letting go of all that holds us, and experiencing the benefits of letting go. It is a felt sense. Joseph Campbell wrote, “We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Then, we can love freely and fully in each moment given to us.

Some say forgiveness is central to Jesus’ whole message. Jesus tells us to hand the past over to the mercy and action of God. We do not need to keep replaying the past, atoning for it, or agonizing about it.

The mind, after all, can only do two things: replay the past and plan or worry about the future. “The mind is always bored in the present. So, it must be trained to stop running backward and forward.”[3]

This is the role of prayer: practising the presence – the real presence – of Jesus with us now, so forgiveness and love can describe our journey with others and with Jesus, in this life.

[1] Adapted from Peter France, Hermits: The Insights of Solitude (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), p.31

[2] Mark 1:14-20

[3] Richard Rohr, “Incarnation and Indwelling” in Daily Meditations (, 20 November 2017)

Bringing it home

The first time I played the game “Capture the Flag”, I fell in love with playing outdoors. The team game was held in a large forest, the boundaries of which contained several acres of dense woodland. Not only did my teammates and I need to be attuned to our positioning – as in most team sports played on a court, field or rink; the more we could balance our attack with distraction and lure our opposition away from the prize the better we played as a team. 

But that depended on getting to know the unique landscape of the field of play, which would be different each time we played “Capture the Flag”. The physical layout of the land – boulders, bushes, tree trunks, ditches – played a huge role in how we executed our strategy. Where we played – the specific location of the game – influenced how the game was played and the eventual outcome.

In today’s Gospel reading, Nathanael and Jesus met for the first time. Jesus’ first words to Nathanael were, basically, “I know you and you are a good person.”[1]What jumps out at me was Nathanael’s response. His choice of words; or, as some biblical scholars have decided to translate his response from the Greek, as in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) from which we read today.

If a stranger came up to you and said, “Hey, I know you are a good person and there is no deceit in you,” how would you respond? Perhaps our kneejerk, and slightly cynical, response might be: “How would you know that? We’ve never even met.” No, I like how the NRSV interprets the Greek, not starting with ‘how’. Instead, “Where did you come to know me?” Where.

Jesus will know him by another way – by where they would have had a deep, spiritual connection. 

Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree.” We don’t know for sure what Nathanael was doing under that fig tree when Jesus ‘saw’ him. Our best guess is that he was connecting with God in prayer.

Christ is revealed to Nathanael as God’s Son when Jesus appealed to a specific, geographical location where Nathanael experienced God’s presence. Now this convinces Nathanael, and he doesn’t skip a beat in responding: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God.”  The Gospels are full of this bias for geography and location. A specific, physical space is so important to the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. 

Even in this text there is almost an exaggerated, overdone, mention of various locations. In just eight verses we are made aware of not just ‘under the fig tree’ but Galilee. The story can’t begin without setting this location of the action and characters. Then we hear of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. And then, we deal with this emphasis on Nazareth: positive because that is where Jesus comes from and negative because in the local lore, nothing good can come out of that place. 

The specific place of our prayer is critical, foundational, to connecting with God.

I mentioned how much I enjoyed playing “Capture the Flag” outside. In fact, that is what my brother and I played while my mother prayed. When I was a child, my brother and I often followed my mother to the cemetery beside the church where I was confirmed – St Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Conestogo, Ontario (near St. Jacobs and north Waterloo). 

We lived across the street from the cemetery lined with sprawling spruce trees. On the other side of those spruce trees was a valley gently sloping down to a creek. And this was a great location for hide-and-seek/capture-the-flag kinds of games.

Under one of the spruce trees at the edge of the cemetery atop the hill, my mother would sit quietly to pray. This was her place, her space, to meet with God. And she went there regularly during the spring, summer and fall months of the year.

The last time I visited this place was a couple of years ago at my father’s burial in that cemetery; here are a couple of pictures of my brother and I reminiscing of the importance of this place in our family history:

Here was my introduction to praying in a personal space. Our mentors will often suggest praying, and exercising for that matter, at the same time of day in the same place if at all possible. There is wisdom in grounding oneself in that discipline.

Today, when sheltering in place is the call to protect ourselves and each other from the pandemic threat, our homes and common living space have become our primary places of prayer. Where would you go to pray, today? Over the years while visiting people I’ve seen several so-called ‘home altars’.

There would be, in the corner of the living room, family room, basement or hallway, a chair beside a window or a small side table; on and around it would be symbols, candles, cloths and images that would serve to aid one in prayer. A holy, focal point. This was the place in the house where one went to meet with God. A home altar doesn’t need to be fussy, opulent, busy and crowded with these things: a simple, single candle and a cross would suffice.

Nathanael was convinced, in the end, by God validating his holy experience in place.Where he was drawn to pray nearby. That God would meet Nathanael there, and value this intimate and ordinary common-place spot moved his heart to believe. 

The Gospel story ends, in the last verse, with a reference to one of the most vivid holy encounters between God and human described in the scriptures – Jacob’s ladder. Here, in a town called Luz, Jacob once had a dream about a ladder upon which angels ascended and descended, connecting heaven and the earth in the place where he slept.[2]“You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” This promise is meant for us all.[3]

Because God is interested in a personal relationship with you, wouldn’t God know you in your personal space, wherever that may be? Perhaps during this COVID time we are all called to bring it home, again: to create that place in our personal space. 

Here, we may not know nor understand the mystery of God. Here, we do not know as much as we are known. And then, like Nathanael, all we can do is kneel, kiss the ground and acknowledge the holy presence of God, in Christ Jesus.[4]

[1]John 1:47-48.

[2]Genesis 28:10-19

[3]The second-person form of ‘you’, here, is plural. The evangelist here is speaking to a wider audience. John wants his readers to see themselves as the heirs of the promise Jesus gave to Nathanael. See Leslie J. Hopp, “John 1:43-51” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Vol.1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.264-265.

[4]Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2020), p.14-15.