Attempting faith

I crossed the creek on the old tree trunk,

letting its broad back bridge the gap

between my fear and its fall.

I trod in the lake,

letting its icy wash awaken

the dream of walking on water.

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The stones would shout

If these walls could speak, they would sing
of the sun’s light seeping into sandstone,
warming the night
when Love comes calling;

They would cry blood, gasp
at the impact of hatred focused through a fist,
politics rifled to precision strikes,
alleged to keep the peace;

They would chant the prayers of sophisticates
and the simple psalms of children,
the chants of theologians, devotions
of pilgrims, and the braying of an ass.

If the world fell silent, yet
these stones would shout, Glory:
how the mighty crumble; Glory:
their facades are fallen; Glory:
when the Christ comes calling: Glory.


From the Liturgy of the Palms: Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:40)
First published at the Episcopal Cafe

 

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Anointing

They say that scent is

the closest sense to memory;

I wouldn’t know, but Jesus,

enveloped in the memory of myrrh –

his mother Mary eked it out,

birth by birth –

his mortality laid out end to end,

Jesus remembered swaddling love.

One can only imagine Judas

had other memories

that smelled less sweet;

I wouldn’t know.

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Refreshment Sunday: Going over Jordan

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, otherwise known as Laetare, Rejoicing, or Refreshment Sunday. Readings in Year C include the Israelites’ first Passover in the Promised Land, and the parable of the Prodigal Son.


Did you know that the earth is moving? The continents, as you know, were formed many millennia ago as the land masses stretched and split apart and drifted, sinking the sea beds and raising mountain ranges. They are not yet done, as they continue to move by about an inch each year. One day, our maps will be out of date. Continents will have turned, drifting and shifting. The solid ground itself is on the move.

As much as solid ground shifts, water courses are perhaps even more dynamic, as they seek out the tender spots of the earth, and wear down the defences of rock, changing the landscape around them. Even by season, they swell and shrink. Visiting the site of Jesus’ baptism beside the Jordan River, the water might be slow and muddy, or swift enough to keep pilgrims out and their feet dry. On either side of the river, people gather to pray and to be baptized, often forgetting that this very place was where the waters were rolled back for the prophets and the people of God. The pilgrims trust instead that the waters will flow on, and pass over them, washing away their sin, and renewing a right covenant between them and their Saviour; our Saviour: the descendant of Joshua, whose name means salvation.

In the backstory to today’s little snippet of the Book of Joshua, after forty years wandering in the wilderness, and after the death of Moses, the prophet of their Passover and Exodus from Egypt, the people of the Exodus finally cross over into the Promised Land. But they do not come from the west, as if straight from Egypt, but they have swung through the desert to approach the land from the east, crossing the Jordan River just in the area where John would later baptize Jesus, and coming to rest on the plains below Jericho.

This is probably no accident. In the early stories, when Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, they were sent away to the east, as evidenced by the detail that it was at the eastern edge of the Garden that God set up a guard of cherubim with flaming swords to guard the tree of life; and when Cain committed the first murder, he was sent further east, away from the presence of the Lord.

Now, the people of God are returning from the same direction, albeit having come by a roundabout route.

We miss so much sometimes when we read these little snippets of story. Joshua and the people enter the Jordan River from the East, and as they do so, the waters stand up as they did at the Red Sea, so that the people cross over on dry land. Later, Elijah will cross the Jordan at this same point, and be taken up by chariots of fire as his feet reach the eastern shore. Both he and Elisha, returning the same way, cross the river on dry ground, having touched it with their mantles to make the waters stand up on either side of them in salute. For Joshua and the Israelites, the priests carrying the ark of the covenant stood between the walls of water, and the whole nation crossed over on dry land. God is not above repeating God’s miracles.

After the people had crossed over, and as they were encamped on the plains of Jericho on the West Bank of the Jordan, the people were circumcised, to remember the covenant that they had made with God. They had to be circumcised, the scripture notes, because in forty years of wandering the people who were circumcised when they left Egypt had died, and the practice had not been kept up in the wilderness. Now, they rested while they healed, and as they rested and celebrated their return to the covenant and to the land of milk and honey, then it was that God addressed Joshua, saying, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.”

And the people celebrated the Passover as they had for forty-one years now, but with new food in a new land. The story is not without serious problems. Who grew the food that the Israelites ate at that first Passover in the Promised Land? It was not only the river that was displaced by their arrival. Today, to undertake an archeological exploration of the story is to enter a literal minefield.

So the stories repeat, their cycle circles, the river runs on. Even now, our calendar returns us every year close by this place, just outside of Jerusalem, poised for the royal entrance of Jesus on a donkey, and the tragic ending of the cross, and the surprising twist of resurrection. We are a little more than halfway there, through a season of wilderness wanderings, Lent full of fasting and repentance, study and self-examination. We are just to the east of the action, poised to plunge in.

This Sunday, a little over halfway through Lent, is known as Laetare, or more commonly Refreshment Sunday. It comes from the instruction of the psalm to be happy, to shout with joy; it echoes the rejoicing of the father in the parable. If we had them, I would wear rose vestments today; a lightening of the Lenten purples, representing a pause in the austerity of Lent. Laetare invites us to relax the fast and remember, in the midst of our self-examination, study, and repentance, God’s provision and abundant grace. It recognizes that, even though our covenant does not require circumcision, the renewal of our covenant with God can be painful in its own way, uncovering wounds and woundings by our confession and efforts at reconciliation. It acknowledges the weariness of the journey through the wilderness, the cold shadow of the cross before the resurrection rises. On Refreshment Sunday, we are invited to remember and rejoice in the kindness of God, who provides manna where nothing will grow, who supplies the Passover lamb, and prepares a feast of fatted calf on the right occasion; who protects us from becoming overwhelmed by the waters of our baptismal covenant and its promises.

The stories of Joshua and the people are far from over. In fact, their battles are just beginning. The story of the family of the prodigal son is about to enter a whole new phase that we will not witness. Each of the characters will find himself challenged to find his place in the new family dynamic, and to rediscover how love might work day by day, and not only through drama and grand gestures. Lent is not over, and the disciplines of reconciliation and redemption will continue to demand our attention as we journey towards Jerusalem. And yet here is a moment to rest in the promises of God already realized:

“I have rolled away your disgrace. I have set you on solid ground.”

The name of Gilgal might once have been based on another part of the story, in which Joshua commanded the twelve tribes each to pull a stone from the dry riverbed and set it up as a memorial to the miracle with which God had welcomed them to the Jordan valley. The name Gilgal might once have referred to that ancient stone circle. But names, like histories, are dynamic, and for Joshua and the people, resting after the renewal of their commitment to God, and after crossing the river on dry ground, Gilgal took on new meaning, bringing to mind the promise that God had made to them, the faithfulness of God to the Exodus.

For us as Christians, when God says, “I have rolled away your disgrace,” it cannot help but bring to mind the rolling away of the stone from the tomb that is to come in a few short weeks, the hope beyond Good Friday:

“I have rolled away the disgrace of sin and death. I have brought you out of the deep waters of baptism, and set you on solid ground. I have set a table before you, even in the midst of trouble.”

And so in the midst of Lent, and a world that moves ever so slowly and all too swiftly, may we rejoice and rest for a moment in the never-changing mercy of our God.

Amen.

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A prayer for the anxious preacher

Faint stigmata of fingernails in palm-flesh,

the careful unclenching of the jaw

do not show, but You know,

Anointed with anxiety in the Garden.

If I lay end to end the moments I have spent,

keys in hand, chanting, “okay,

okay,” they may convey me like clouds

to the pulpit to belt out Your praise;

but You, O Key of David, know a rougher road

in minor mode; a finer gate, and so,

what shall I pray?

That this moment, too, shall pass;

that with your help I’ll fail us both

to betray.

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Book Review: Made to Move, by Wendy LeBolt

Have you ever heard of a Kinesthetic Christian? Neither had I, until Wendy LeBolt sent me a copy of her book to review. Made to Move: Knowing and Loving God Through Our Bodies is LeBolt’s guide to loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength – without making half of them metaphorical. An expert in cardiovascular physiology and exercise science, she really wants the reader to put her heart’s amazing pumping abilities, and the strength of his limbs as well as their will, to work at loving God.

The result is a 7-week program that seeks to reconnect body, soul, strength, and spirit with the life of loving God – with prayer. It isn’t an exercise program, although it is clearly the author’s hope that some extra physical activity and ease will come from it. Despite the title, it uses more than the movement of the body, prescribing exercises in listening, breathing, fasting, and forgiving, as well as the heart-healthy and strengthening activities one might expect from the title. In fact, the range of activities and engagements is quite remarkable.

IMG_4110

Videos online, a leader’s guide, a guide to playing through the program with children, all enhance the use of the book, which offers varying levels of engagement, for example offering different levels of activity and plenty of modifications, so that most users will find a way to participate most, if not all of the time. As someone who has use of four of the five traditional senses, I appreciate the care LeBolt has taken to include different bodies’ abilities at various points in the program.

Throughout the book, LeBolt keeps the reader connected to scripture and prayer, grounding each of the themes and its exercises in biblical readings, and ending each section with a prayer. This endeavor, she indicates, is not about tending the temples of our bodies for their own sake. It is part and parcel of the work of loving God with all that we’ve got.

Perhaps the best explanation of what LeBolt means by kinesthetic Christianity comes in a section devoted to Thomas, often called the doubter, who refuses to believe that his fellow disciples have seen the risen Christ until he sees – and touches – Jesus for himself. LeBolt rechristens Thomas “the patriarch of kinesthetic Christians!” She explains,

When the risen Christ is revealed to us, the full power of the Resurrection is released in us. Our Lord doesn’t just lay claim to our spiritual nature, but to our physical nature as well: heart, soul, mind, and strength! It’s no wonder Jesus says to love God with each of these. (See Matthew 22:37) We need our entire selves to love God fully. Kinesthetic Christians need more than hearsay; we need to get physical. We need to go, do, and see for ourselves.

I was drawn, though, to the simple conclusion she draws from the story of Peter stepping out on to the waters of the Sea of Galilee, impetuous and floundering:

Love is more than an emotion; it sets us in motion.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going for a prayer walk.


Made to Move: Knowing and Loving God Through Our Bodies, by Wendy LeBolt, is available from Upper Room Books in print and electronic formats, and your usual book retailers.

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People want answers

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent, 2019. Readings include God calling Moses from the burning bush, revealing the divine name I AM. Paul uses the subsequent wanderings in the wilderness as a cautionary tale for the Corinthians, and tells them, in a frequently misused verse, that they will not be tested beyond their strength. Jesus puts to rest the notion that disaster only befalls the deserving, and tells a poignant parable.


I once met a man in the hospital. I don’t remember exactly what had put him there, but it was something sudden, irrevocable, and life-altering. He told me that it was God’s answer to prayer. He was, in his own estimation, a hopeless drunk, and he had prayed to God to stop him from his drinking, and the next thing he knew, to hear him tell it, he woke up in the hospital, helpless and weak as a kitten, having been detoxed by the doctors while he slept so that they could better treat his immediate and acute presenting problem.

I had my doubts. But it was not my place, as the visiting chaplain intern, to tell him that I doubted that God had deliberately reached down from heaven to touch the neurons in his brain, or the sponges of his lungs, or whatever it was that had landed him in the emergency room. It was not my place to tell him that I doubted that God had, as precisely as a surgeon, tweaked them just so as to bring on this medical catastrophe, so bad and no worse, calibrated to bring him to his senses but not yet to meet his maker; it was not my place to say that I thought it more likely a simple cause and effect of his chronic abuse of is own body.

It was not my place to ask him, What about the other disasters that filled the rooms around him, from whose teary and weary bedsides I had come to his? It was not my place to ask him, Then what about my mother’s stroke? Did God cause that, and to what end? To ask such questions was clearly not my place.

My part in this drama, my line was to ask him how it was that he found God in that moment of crisis, when so many would feel themselves abandoned. I was genuinely curious to know where he saw God at work in his life, and what help he might need, after the emergency, to sustain the relationship he longed to have with the God he knew had saved him, and with his sobriety. Because whether or not God had put this man in the hospital, the Spirit of God had certainly raced to his room quicker than the on-call chaplain, and was already hard at work pumping absolution through his IV and dosing him up with repentance, and sustaining him with mashed up mouthfuls of the hope of resurrection.

This man, had he heard the parable of the fruitless fig tree in that moment, might have recognized the voice of the gardener as God who said, “ Let me dig him around a little, and cover him in manure for a bit (only God used a different word for manure), and see if he comes out right.” One more year. One more chance. One more time.

There are times when I wonder how often the landowner and the gardener had this conversation; whether it was the same every year, by season; whether every spring anew the gardener pleaded the tree’s case, protecting it and promising on its behalf to do better; whether the tree grew its whole life on borrowed time.

In the readings we hear today, Jesus and Paul tell different stories of disaster, seeking God’s meaning in them. Paul tells a cautionary tale of the people in the wilderness, going astray and awry and being struck down, destroyed by serpents, and by the destroyer. Even Paul does not accuse God of killing the wilderness people, instead coming to the conclusion that it was their own evil and idolatry that destroyed them, and their own apostasy that led to their downfall. God, Paul asserts even in the midst of dire warnings, remains faithful. Jesus is clearer: the disasters, natural and unnatural, that befell the people of Galilee and of Siloam, murdered by the empire and destroyed by accident, were no judgement upon them. The physical consequences of Pilate’s actions and the laws of physics did not differentiate between the upright and the scoundrel, the deserving and the undeserving sinner. God did not pick winners and losers, still less appoint Pontius Pilate as an instrument of God’s righteous judgement.

And if we had visited the hospital wards in the days after that construction disaster in Siloam, my guess is that we would have heard some who wondered why God had abandoned them, and others who wondered what God was telling them; some who asked what they had done to deserve such punishment, and other generous souls who would have gladly traded places with one who had died, and some who cried out with simple gratitude that they had escaped with their lives, with one more chance.

It would not be our place in that moment of pain to correct them, nor to question their theology. It would certainly not be our place to say, “God does not give you more than you can handle” to those whose hands are overflowing with grief, or twisted with pain, or wrung out with sorrow; and anyway, the word that Paul uses here is “tested,” not punished, injured, or overwhelmed. Paul says that we will not be tested, or tempted or tried, more than Christ was tested in the wilderness, when Jesus told the devil not to put the Lord our God to the test.

So what is our role, as the church, as Christians, in community with one another and as an example to the world, when we are faced with the questions that naturally arise after a disaster, be it personal or communal, asking where is God when trouble happens, and what it means when God is or is not seen to intervene? What is our line?

In his Preface to Evil and the Justice of God, even N.T. Wright admits that “our primary task is not so much to give answers to impossible philosophical questions as to bring signs of God’s new world to birth” (Wright, 11). Samuel Wells comes closer, perhaps, to giving an answer we can use. It is difficult to reduce his collection of essays, Be Not Afraid: facing fear with faith, to a single quotation, but at the end of an essay titled “What’s wrong with God?” he offers this:

If we want to be bearers of God’s Holy spirit, and we want to make Jesus present to people like that fragile woman with cancer and that young man who’d just lost his father, we need to let ourselves be shaped by the astonishing, liberating, and exhilarating news of these three simple words. Here. Now. Us. (Wells, 162)

If you want to know what Wells means, and the stories that he refers to, you’ll have to read him for yourselves (see below). But thinking of the stories that Paul and Jesus tell, and my various encounters in the hospital rooms and the world, here is what those three simple words tell me:

Here. God is near. No matter how unlikely it seems in the moment, in the wilderness – and Jesus had those moments too, in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross – God, it turns out, is faithful, and has not wandered far from us. The old hymn sings, Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Wherever there is love and kindness, God is there. When we enter into the world of someone else’s pain, as we are able, it is our task to notice, sometimes, but not always, to name where God is already present and at God’s work of healing, reconciliation, loving kindness.

Now. God is present. Whatever the past holds over us in terms of shame, regret, or grief; whatever challenges, worries, or goals the future holds, God is present. When I met with that man in the hospital, it’s fortunate that his astonishing take on his situation struck me momentarily mute, because it gave me time to notice that God was already at work in the present moment, which was perhaps the most hopeful of all moments in that man’s life. God’s presence in that moment was enough to shelter him from his past and his future, and give him space to find some healing and hope, even in the midst of a medical emergency.

Us. This is the scary part. What if the help, the hope that God sends in the present moment, in the here and now, is us? What if we are the messengers of the gospel whom God has chosen to bring good news to the oppressed, the bereft, the imprisoned, and those in pain and suffering? What if we are to bring with us the loving kindness of God in Christ?

Maybe like Moses we might protest, “Who am I, that I should go?” Perhaps like him we will argue that we do not know how to speak God’s good news, how to stand before the forces that stand against God’s children, God’s will for the world. But we know God’s answer: “I will be with you. I AM with you.”

And who are we to say that’s not enough?


N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (InterVarsity Press, 2006)

Samuel Wells, Be Not Afraid: facing fear with faith (BrazosPress, 2011)

Photo: the empires lie in ruins. In Jerash, Jordan

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